Winston Peters speech to his party conference at the weekend was the speech he should have given on the campaign trail.
It was Peters at his populist best ripping into both the Government and the Opposition.
And there was the “Winnie” element, railing against the growing use of Te Reo. This was NZ First’s traditional political heartland, running against the current Government, the media and metropolitan thinking.
The standout point was that he no longer felt the need to defend the Labour Government.
In early 2020 in two conversations with close friends that POLITIK has been briefed on, he canvassed the idea that New Zealand First could leave the coalition.
He denied that these talks took place. But his friends were adamant. They had, they said.
Be he decided to stay, arguing that speaking publicly against the Government would be counter-productive.
“It hardly helps that far out from an election to be speaking publicly in some sort of dispute in a coalition,” he told TVNZ’s “Q+A” a fortnight before last year’s election.
“The reality was we went all the way to the 6th of August where we’d passed 190 pieces of legislation where we’d demonstrated that we could cooperate and when the house rose, we went into an election period, and that’s why I can speak freely now.”
It was too late. He could not convincingly offer NZ First as any real alternative to Labour.
The best he could do was to demonstrate as election day got closer in 2020 that NZ First had tried to be “the handbrake” on some Labour policies.
Most notably was its objections to a capital gains tax, but he reminded his annual conference of his party’s successful obstruction to the Greens feebate scheme for Electric Vehicles (EVs), which was resurrected by the Ardern government two weeks ago.
“The question to Government is, how many working-class people, regardless of their ethnic background, are going to be able to afford your EV alternative?” he asked.
And he confirmed a POLITIK report that he and his colleagues believed Labour had deliberately kept the He Puapua report on Maori sovereignty from NZ First in the runup to the election.
“In 2019, a report called ‘He Puapua’ came to Government but was never shown to one NZ First Cabinet Minister,” he said.
“This report was deliberately suppressed.
“In short, this report is a recipe for Maori separatism, they knew it, and that’s why they suppressed it till after the election in the full knowledge that NZ First is for one flag, one country, one law.
“It was a gesture of ingratitude and bad faith.”
That, however, is only the tip of what looks like becoming NZ First’s iceberg.
Peters reminded his membership of Sir John Key’s attempt to change the flag “ that so many New Zealanders of European, Maori and other backgrounds had fought and died for.”
“That same sentiment from on high is present today,” he said.
“It comes from a haughty autocracy that says we know best which is why you are being told to change your country’s name to Aotearoa without any reference to you or the cost of remarketing the name of a nation known worldwide.
“It comes from a haughty autocracy that says we know best which is why you are being told to change your country’s name to Aotearoa without any reference to you or the cost of remarketing the name of a nation known worldwide.”
Peters said all life and politics was about communications and communications was about comprehension and understanding.
“So why, for example, has the NZTA become Waka Kotahi – and when was the last time a government initiative used an English name that, heaven forbid, way over 90% of the population might understand?” he said.
“The recent report by He Pou a Rangi, or the Climate Change Commission, is just one more example.
“It produced, wait for it, Ināia tonu nei: a low emissions future for Aotearoa.
“Aotearoa appears in the report 1,307 times.
“How many times do you think New Zealand appears? Over 1000, 500, 250?
“No. Just 161 times. 161!
“So why without any reference to you, the democratic masters of your nation’s future has a new ‘name change cult’ suddenly appeared with this name in so many interviews, articles and adverts.”
Peters said just as Labour had not campaigned on removing the public’s right of veto over Maori wards, so it had not given the public a say on the name issue and then gone right ahead post-election.
Perhaps the most important takeout from Peters’ speech at the conference was that it answered the ultimate question about NZ First — would they contest the next election.
They’ve taken some hits since the election with the resignation of Tracey Martin and Jenny Marcroft, and they still have a Serious Fraud Office investigation hanging over three former office holders and an ex MP.
But their biggest single asset, the party founder and leader for 28 years, Winston Peters, is back and ready to campaign.
And the people at the top of NZ First; those who have Winston’s ear, believe that the whole issue of Maori sovereignty is creeating a space for them to return to.
“We believe that in New Zealand, we are all equal,” Peters said.
“That Government is there, regardless of gender or race, to provide its people with security, freedom and equality because they have been trained to be secure, free and equal.
“That way, we will all be free to choose our future because we have been given the tools to do so.
“We are against extremism from wherever it may come, the Right or the Left.
“Our beliefs are in our name, New Zealand First.”