This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
Winston Peters has been active in New Zealand politics longer than any other current politician. He stood for Northern Māori in 1975 and was first elected to Parliament in 1979, 44 years ago before two-thirds of the 2023 electors had ever voted. Sure, he has been out of parliament for nine of those years, but he is the longest sitting MP and one of the most experienced cabinet ministers. Unfortunately, the commentariat description of him is shallow and incomplete. There is more substance to the politician than it allows.
Wynston (sic) Raymond Peters was born in Whangarei in 1945, the middle child of a family of eleven (six of whom got to university) and grew up on a Northland farm. His father was Māori (primarily Ngāti Wai but also of Ngāti Hine and Te Waiariki). His mother was of Scottish ancestry. The dairy farm must have been pretty marginal as his father also had to work long hours as a truck driver and construction worker. In Not in Narrow Seas I described such farming as ‘subsistence’ and pointed out it was common among Māori in the first part of the twentieth century.
Peters once remarked that the welfare state – presumably referring the high quality publically provided education, health care and social support – had not reached Northland when he was growing up, which may explain why, despite his abilities, rather than going to university, he first studied at the Auckland Teachers' Training College, going out to teach. He then went on to work on blast-furnaces and tunnels in Australia.
Returning to Auckland, he studied history, politics and law, graduating LLB and BA, then going to work as a lawyer at Russell McVeagh where he represented his iwi in a land claim. (Earlier, he captained the Auckland Māori Rugby team.)
Had one been told at this stage in his life that Peters would have a political career, you might have predicted that it would have been in the Labour Party. However, during his university years, Peters joined the National Party. In his 1979 maiden speech in Parliament he explained:
‘I believe the most effective government the country can have is one that believes in free enterprise, encourages hard work, keeps control and regulation to a minimum, carefully controls State spending, and sets taxation rates that are an incentive, not a disincentive, to work.’
The typical ideology of a new National MP. More revealingly he went on:
‘By sheer hard work, beginning in the Depression, my father, with the help of his family, developed a dairy farm. Many such families exist in New Zealand – families who have worked together, who help one another, who serve the community voluntarily, who stand up for their children when they get into difficulties, and who help their members to achieve their goals.’
It was his small farming background which frames his thinking. As for ‘working-class Tories’, Peters thinks that success derives principally from hard work and personal discipline. Such Tories can be suspicious of welfare because it tends to sap initiative. While they are often sympathetic to those in difficulty, they have an antipathy to collective action.
Peters stood as National candidate in Northen Māori in 1975. He first came to national prominence when in the 1978 election campaign the National Party TV advertisements had him interviewing party-leader, Rob Muldoon. After a recount, he won the Hunua electorate in 1979 (from Malcolm Douglas, the brother of Roger). He lost the seat in 1981, and won Tauranga in 1984. He was a real scrapper in opposition and was made Minister of Māori Affairs in Jim Bolger’s 1990 cabinet when he was 45.
At this point life in his life there was a reasonable prospect of him becoming the next National Prime Minister, when the ten-years-older Bolger moved on. Within two years that possibility had turned to custard. He had been sacked from Cabinet and left National to establish New Zealand First.
The conventional wisdom is that he wasn’t a team player. Perhaps. In the ten MMP elections New Zealand First has collected an average of 159,000 votes, compared to 33,000 won by Peter Dunne’s parties and the 90,000 Jim Anderton’s parties won when they stood. (ACT’s score was 106,000; NZF beat them in seven of the ten elections.) You don’t get that support based only on charisma. (A longer account would explore the various ways NZF was handicapped compared to these other parties.)
The real story of the falling out is more complex. Peters loathes neoliberalism which was rampant in the early 1990s National Government. In his 2017 speech anointing Labour as the main party of next government, Peters said ‘[f]ar too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe. And they are not all wrong. That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its responsible – its human face. That perception has influenced our negotiations.’ Earlier he had commented, ‘[t]he truth is that after 32 years of the neoliberal experiment the character and the quality of our country has changed dramatically, and much of it for the worse.’
In turn, the neoliberals loathe Peters, even commissioning a biography Winston First, which was only the first of a number of character assassinations. Peters comes from the Muldoon wing of the National Party (as did Bolger). Again the public venom towards Muldoon – of what he was doing (in extremely difficult circumstances I should add) and his personality – has prevented a cool analysis of the underlying politics.
Peters has never been forgiven by the conventional wisdom for publicly walking out on his party. (Act members did so more sneakily.) I am not sure how widely his class origins or his Māori ones are held against him. It is too easy to dismiss him as a populis and ignore the deeper politician.
The sneering at Peters by conventional observers is the reason they so frequently fail to predict his behaviour – not that failed predictions challenge their confidence in their predictions.
Peters is not without his flaws – remind me of a politician who is perfect. I am a New Zealand nationalist but I, with many others, found his occasional outbreaks of xenophobia unacceptable. He has not been the only politician to flirt with the anti-vaxxers, dog whistling support to them while arguing that the vaccination campaign could have been more sensitively managed. One of his challenges has been that without a secure electoral seat he is forced to seek support from all sorts of weirdos when attempting to get across the threshold for party list seats. I wish too his relations with the media were not so belligerent, although their responses are partly to blame.
I wrote this column as I thought through the implications for the post-2023 government. The tensions between the neoliberals and the supporters of ‘responsible capitalism’ within the National Party are great. I am told there are senior members in the National caucus on speed-dial to Ruth Richardson; presumably some are on speed-dial to Bill English. The tensions will be intensified by the associate parties. While they may agree on opposing the left’s wokeness, they are deeply opposed on economic policy. Governments are always tense coalitions of conflicting and confusing ideologies and personal ambition. This one may be unusually so.
A later column will evaluate Peters as a minister.
*Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.