Dargaville, the Northland town at the head of the Kaipara Harbour on the west coast has seen better days.
Once it had a dairy company, a railway line and was the centre of what was then a labour intensive farming industry.
Now the two biggest buildings in the town centre are the Ministry of Social Development and the Warehouse; the dairy company has closed as has the rail and the farms are now larger, and though they make more money they employ fewer workers.
This is the town where back in the 50s and 60s Winston Peters went to school and where his family came to buy supplies when they were running a dairy farm up the Tangowahine Valley.
It’s this background that defines the way he thinks about New Zealand and why he is in politics.
It’s a politics based on a nostalgia for a time when New Zealand rode on farming’s back and when provincial New Zealand was the heartland in every sense of the word.
And so over the past week Peters and his bus have been touring the South Island’s provincial towns.
In Invercargill; he promised to nationalise the aluminium smelter; in Gore to compel Government departments to purchase wool carpets and everywhere he promised to return GST to the region where it was gathered.
It was pure Muldoonism, and Sir Robert would have been proud of the man he once said would be New Zealand’s first Maori Prime Minister.
To get a picture of the relationship between the two you need only look again at National’s campaign ads from the 1978 campaign. They featured a young, devilishly good looking Winton Peters interviewing Sir Robert about great issues of the day like how to bring inflation down to around 10 per cent or how to stop unions going on strike all the time.
He still sees Muldoon as someone who had an economic plan that worked.
“There were a whole lot of things that were happening under Muldoon when the second oil shock happened in 1979,” he says.
“I can name you ten things from outdoor movie theatres to removing the restrictioN on road transport competing with railways — a whole lot of policies were being changed when the second oil shock happened, and we then focussed on alternative energy development.”
.And he still believes.
Through the 1980s there was a great dividing line within the National Party between those who accepted that the 1984 foreign exchange crisis was caused by Muldoon and those who believed it was a stitch up by corporate New Zealand and its mates in the beauracracy. On the one side was Muldoon; on the other the core of National’s business supporters and its new leader Jim McClay.
If you did not accept the legitimacy of the crisis, then you did not need to accept the legitimacy of Labour’s deregulation of the economy; what are now called its neo-liberal reforms.
And Winston certainly didn’t. And, importantly, still doesn’t. He continues to believe that Muldoon was right; even over the financial and constitutional crisis immediately after the 1984 election.
“I can recall the PR spin on the run on the currency that had you journalists believing.
“If we had just stopped the dealing what run could we possibly have had.
“I saw Malaysia do that during the Asian financial crisis and they stopped the whole shebang.
“And they were the first country to make a comeback.
“So what Muldoon said at the time was not wrong.
“But it didn’t fit the neo-liberal theories.”
Peters admires Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s now retired fiery nationalist Prime Minister through the 80s and 90s.
Interestingly so does both Sitiveni Rabuka and Frank Bainimarama.
Mahathir’s anti-colonialism and strong sense of national independence resting on Malaysia’s Bumiputera policy has an obvious appeal to Fijians.
Peters admiration is less obvious but real nonetheless.
“I know Mahathir, I’ve talked to his guy Mahathir, I’ve spent hours with him and he told me what he was going to do (during the Asian financial crisis), and he did it.”
So in a way did the Lange-Douglas Government.
But Peters never supported their radical restructuring and deregulation of the economy.
He looks back to the Savage Labour Government and then Holyoake as models of what a New Zealand Government should be.
“The Holyoake Government believed in a property-owning democracy; that house ownership would give people a stake in democracy.
“I’m not talking about nostalgia, I’m talking about a country that was 10,000 miles from its major export markets, yet it did all that with the population of Manchester.
“And anyone who thinks that is Luddite or nostalgic is probably a loony tune far right neo-liberal twit.”
Like Muldoon, Winston believes in an activist Government. (So does Shane Jones.) Back in Dargaville and its now abandoned dairy factory Peters sees a role for the Government.
“I can go to Scandanavia, and I can go to Switzerland where I see factories like that one selling top of the line added value.”
But aren’t those factories heavily subsidised?
“I’ll tell you what is heavily subsidised; unemployment.
“That’s a subsidy for failure.”
So would be put up a subsidy for small town dairy factories?
“To get it started, for five years, yes, I would.
“Maybe seven years, as they did in Taiwan, Singapore or Ireland.
“That’s smart economics.
“Having towns die a thousand cuts because of neo liberal practices in Wellington is what I’m opposed to.”
The idea that the regions, particularly the north, need a shot of Government intervention in the arm is not reserved only for NZ First.
The idea is particularly appealing to Maori politicians who look on and see a young generation with no jobs who are easily seduced by P.
Tuku Morgan, the President of the Maori Party, talks about the need for the “dignity of work” in the provinces; Hone Harawira wages a war on P and Shane Jones like Morgan believes work could solve social problems and that if the work is not there then surely the Government could find it.
And it’s at this point in a discussion with Peters that you broach the immigration issue.
He believes that immigrants are another reason why there are young people on the dole in the regions.
“We are aren’t paying our young people enough.
“They won’t work for Filipino or Mumbai wages.
“We’ll cut taxes so farmers can pay their workers properly in the future.
The difference between us and the Filipinos is that if you ask a young New Zealander to fix a fence because the post has fallen over they know what to do.
“They know how to change the back end of a tractor too.
“Or change a tyre.
“But does a Filipino?”
Behind the whole Peters regional narrative is a fundamental platform of disquiet about corporate New Zealand.
Again, think Muldoon, and the famous night when out of the blue he told the annual black-tie dinner of the Bankers’ Association that he was going to impose interest rate controls.
There’s an echo of that in the way Peters would like to deal with the Reserve Bank.
“We’re not going to sit around writing theoretical policy for the Governor of the Reserve Bank any longer.
“We are going to change the law so that he must do what he is told to do.
“Not pretend to do things when he is not.”
He rails against the loan to value ratio policies which he says applied from Invercargill to Kaitaia even though the housing crisis was in Auckland.
“That shows me how crude and uninformed these highly educated people are and how potentially irrelevant to the New Zealand economy they have been.”
Instead, he would solve the housing crisis by building houses and restoring the old State Advances idea of cheap mortgage money — the policy that enabled Holyoake’s property owning democracy.
What about Labour’s Kiwibuild policy? Would that work?
“I don’t want to see these new visions from these new politicians.
“I want to see the old vision that made us a great property owning democracy revived.”
It’s hard to know what Peters really wants. Some of his closest friends believe he still wants to be Prime Minister. John Key recently told a Cabinet Minister that he doesn’t think so.
He thinks Peters would sooner sit on the cross benches and hold the balance of power and force the Prime Minister to come and bargain with him on every vote in the House.
Key says that way Peters would become the de facto Prime Minister.
One thing is probably certain and that is he will stretch any post election negotiaitons he is involved in as far as he can go.
There are stories about him continuously upping the ante with Jim Bolger during the 1996 coalition negotiations which saw Bolger trekking back and forth between the Naitonal Caucus room and Peters’ office.
But now Peters refuses to discuss his team for any negotiations.
“I’ve not thought one thing about after the election because unless we get the result that we want it is all immaterial,”
But he has apparently recruited his barrister, Brian Henry, to play a role.
Whether that imposes order remains to be seen.
But maybe we have all been getting Peters wrong for a long time now. Maybe the focus on what he might want — the “baubles of office” or which party he might form a Government with ignores what he is really all about.
You have to go back to Dargaville to understand that then and then ask yourself what would Holyoake, or Muldoon have done.