Moana Maniapoto has been talking with party leaders in the run-up to the general election on October 14 — and last week, it was Winston Peters’ turn.
After a drubbing in the 2020 election, Winston and New Zealand First are back (at least according to recent polls).
Winston, 78, first entered parliament in 1979, as a National MP in Rob Muldoon’s government. He’s been a Minister of Māori Affairs and the Treasurer in a National government. The Minister of Foreign Affairs in two Labour governments. And the deputy prime minister in both a National-led and a Labour-led government — having been the “kingmaker” both times. He formed the New Zealand First Party in 1993, after being sacked from cabinet by National PM Jim Bolger for speaking out against his own government’s economic policies, led then by Ruth Richardson, the architect of the brutal 1991 “mother of all budgets”.
There is no one in New Zealand politics more wily or experienced. Or as reliably cranky and combative. Here’s Moana on their somewhat tetchy exchange for Te Ao with Moana.
“It looks like you are that close once again to being the kingmaker,” I said. And I smiled.
Winston Peters didn’t smile back. The leader of New Zealand First fixed his steely gaze on me and, after a heavily pregnant pause — the longest in any interview I’ve ever done — he asked: “What do you mean?”
I repeated my comment.
His response: “There’s a quiet, democratic revolution going on, a kick-back from ordinary people. And the mainstream media, which I’m not saying is you, just don’t get it. I know what the polls are saying — the polls that I’ve got. And we’re on a blast on our way back. Big time.
“And all I’m saying is, to run a country you need experience, and this is not my first rodeo. But it is for the rest of them. And it’s showing up big time in this campaign.”
This was my third outing with Winston Peters.
The first time was on Aotearoa Radio, around 1990, when I hosted a daily talkback show. I’d tried to pull him up about something he’d said in public, but he strongly denied he’d ever said it. And he insisted that I’d have to apologise to my listeners for putting them wrong because I had no proof.
“Oh, I have a copy of your comment in this paper here,” I said. He hesitated. But only for a nanosecond.
“But what I meant by that was . . .” — and off he went, trying not to laugh as my jaw dropped in disbelief. What a sidestep.
The next time I interviewed him was for Te Ao with Moana in the run-up to the 2020 election when Winston was the deputy prime minister as well as minister of foreign affairs and racing. I’d decided to film that interview in the home of mutual friends, Lady Heeni Phillips-Williams and the late Sir Peter Williams, both lawyers who’d acted for Winston in the past.
Lady Heeni was supposed to be running for New Zealand First in next month’s election. But, on the day of my third interview with Winston, she pulled out of the race. And, when the Ngāti Wai man walked into the room at Eden Park, it’s fair to say he wasn’t in a great mood.
Winston Peters is a legend. He has vast institutional knowledge and a huge profile. Many people find him charming and likeable — unlike some of his followers. He plays to his audience, and part of that is being combative with the media, as John Campbell noted in his brilliant piece.
In our most recent sit-down, Winston’s key message was: “I’ve been listening. You haven’t.” Then something-something about “apartheid” and a reminder that only he, with his great experience, will help young Māori, Chinese, everyone. Despite warning Māori of an “Asian invasion” in the mid-‘90s, Winston is now suggesting that we share the same whakapapa and that the real enemy, particularly for young Māori, are those “fanciful radicals” working towards co-governance.
I genuinely wanted to understand why he was running again. What does he stand for this time?
I got my first growling from him this time for mucking up the New Zealand First slogan. I’d said it was “Take our country back.” (No, it’s “Let’s take back our country.”) Fair enough. In my defence, it’s tricky when both National and New Zealand First have “back” and “country” in their billboard slogans.
“You do realise that words matter,” he said.
“I’m going to talk to you about how words matter too,” I replied, “because some of your words that you’re tossing out there are quite inflammatory.”
“Oh, really?” Another glare from him.
“I’m not here to give you a history lesson,” he said. He did, though. Over and over again.
“There were a lot of essential qualities to a democracy and to the rule of law and those fundamental things that have been taken away from us very subtly,” said Winston. “For example, why are we having people ramming down our throats a name from French Polynesia called Aotearoa? We know, if we were in Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, it’s an insult. Te Waipounamu is the name down there and it’s not the name for the North Island. But here we go . . . This is awful. And I can go on and on.”
“And you have,” I said.
Then he went on about the “dual health system”. Waka Kotahi too. And potholes.
“And I could go on and on and tell you why we need to take back our country,” he said, “because that’s been taken away from us with no mandate, no manifesto, no authority, no permission whatsoever.”
“And these are your big concerns?” I asked. “Bilingual signs and stuff like that?”
Winston then reeled off a list of his “accomplishments” that included establishing kōhanga reo, funding to increase enrolments of Māori at university, the Provincial Growth Fund, the gold card, “acting for the biggest Māori land case in this country, against the then-Labour government and the Whangārei county council” (who in 1975 wanted to establish public coastal land on ancestral Ngāti Wai whenua), and the biggest increase in Māori students at university.
“Who financed kapa haka?” he asked, without waiting for an answer. “Who financed the Māori Sports Awards and so many other things? Who financed the Māori Women’s Wealth League? The Māori Women’s Welfare League was put on an independent base by a guy called Winston Peters, right? Now I can go on all afternoon about what I’ve done . . .”
And he did. I had my work cut out for me trying to get him to explain what his party’s current policies are.
“New Zealand First turned 30 this year,” I said. “It was formed as a backlash to neoliberalism. But when I go through your website, I can’t see any big whizz-bang policies. You know, like previously it was gold cards, doctor’s visits for kids . . .”
“The reality is this is a grassroots campaign where we’ve been on a mission for two years to go and talk to ordinary New Zealanders. The mainstream media has Cinderella-ised us, marginalised us and demonised us in every respect.”
By “us”, he means New Zealand First.
I tell him I haven’t seen any big, whizz-bang policies from him. “I just see a lot of rhetoric.”
“Yeah. And this distraction about toilets and bilingual signs.”
Cue an opening.
“Excuse me? In that one question, you’ve given your own judgment. If you don’t think that women and young girls going into toilets are entitled to a thing called safety, then you’ve not been listening. You’re not paying attention.”
“Do you know something? I go to so many different hui,” I said. “I’m involved in so many networks. And not once have I heard one woman say to me: ‘Oh my God, I’m terrified to go into the bathroom.’ How did this become one of your linchpin policies?”
“Because women wrote to me and said: ‘Look, I’m so concerned that my daughter’s not going to the bathroom at school because she doesn’t think she’s safe there.’”
Back to words matter.
“Why do you use words like apartheid when you know how offensive they are to Māori and how that creates conflict out in the community? It’s a little bit of a dog-whistle. Well, it’s quite a big dog-whistle.”
“That’s your judgment that it’s a dog-whistle.”
“That’s a dog-whistle.”
I got another history lesson about Winston’s achievements. And then this:
“That’s why, when I say it’s apartheid, it is apartheid.”
He expanded on that. Sort of.
“I saw the American Civil Rights Movement as a young person, and they never took their eye off the prize. They wanted to bust into the best of European institutions, and they did. And they ended up with a Black American president. And now a Black American vice-president.”
“Does that mean it’s all perfect for all Blacks in America?” I ask.
“As Elvis would say: If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.”
Okay. He lost me there.
“I’m going to defend equality because I hate this idea of affirmative action which says this: ‘You’re Māori, so you’ll need my help to be anybody.’ That inverse racism — I detest it, and I have all my life.”
I asked him who he was sending that message out to.
“To your viewers. I hope they get what I’m saying here.”
No, I replied rather confidently. A whole bunch of them would understand that ethnicity and need converge, and that Winston’s argument was too simplistic.
He gave me the look. One of disbelief. But I carried on. “Do you know,” I asked, “that all the research shows that Māori are disproportionately represented across all the worst indicators in health?”
“Bull-dust,” he said.
My mouth dropped open. That took me by surprise. I asked Winston if his policy was evidence-based. And he segued into . . . sports.
“Let me just tell you this,” he said. “I watched the All Blacks. I watched the Warriors. I watched the New Zealand women’s rugby team and soccer team. And the rugby team. Filled with successful Māori everywhere. They’re competing against the best in the world. I want to take that attitude into a thing called politics, into every part of our life. And I’m trying to do it, and we’re doing it.”
I couldn’t figure out the link between that and Māori health inequities. Gave it another shot. I asked Winston if he believed that Māori are disproportionately represented across all health indicators, and if Māori are indeed bright enough to come up with some ideas to address those things. Winston name-checked Maui Pomare.
“He brought modern medicine to Māori . . . We just need people like Pomare,” he said.
I could think of half a dozen living, breathing, fairly feisty Māori health professionals with excellent leadership qualities who pulled the rest of us through the Covid pandemic and have helped shape the new Māori Health Authority. But it seems Winston could only think of Pomare who died in the US in 1930.
I mentioned David Seymour instead. Winston isn’t a fan.
“David Seymour discovered his Māoriness the same way Columbus discovered America. Purely by accident.”
That’s a bit of a low blow, I replied.
“It’s not a low blow. It’s a fact. Please don’t tell me that you put me in the same category as him. In terms of working for Māori all my life.”
I didn’t, but Winston was on a roll. And he suddenly remembered something. He wants to get rid of Pharmac.
“You said you’ve not seen any big policies from us. Yes, you have. I’m getting rid of Pharmac and getting a model that does work. And I’ll put $1.3 billion into pharmaceuticals of first world quality. Get ourselves to about 60 percent of where Australia is. It’s a disaster. I believe health should be an investment. It’s about human capital. And I’ve seen a disaster in this country going over many years. Every other party supports it. I don’t. That is a massive policy.”
I mean, what could go wrong there?
“National have suggested that their plan will gradually increase the age of eligibility for superannuation,” I ventured.
I got a history lesson about surtax.
“Who got rid of it? Winston Peter’s did . . . and brought in the gold card and every other thing I did.”
Given Winston’s pride around his mahi on super, it was a surprise that he didn’t express any concern and instead suggested I ask Mr Luxon to explain it.
No chance given the National Party declined our multiple requests.
But Winston has more to say: “We face the next 10 years of deficits, and the people who are gonna lose the most are not the squeezed middle. They’re the people at the bottom, many of whom are gonna be Māori. And they’re arguing about these rights when what I want for Māori are affordable, safe homes. I want them to get health treatment if they should ever need it. I want them to get on the escalators of education, and go as far as they like, as I was able to do one time because I was lucky enough. And I want them on first-world wages. That’s what I want.”
It’s what we all want, I reminded him. But apparently, I and my “woke ilk” are a handbrake. I asked him what “woke” means. Winston broke into a laugh. “Well, woke means I woke up yesterday and I know more than you!”
My turn. “Woke came from the 1900s as part of the African American movement around social justice.”
He rolled his eyes and, with no hint of irony, told me not to give him a lecture. I mentioned the fact that both ACT and New Zealand First have had issues with candidates.
“Some of your potential candidates have been associated with Voices for Freedom. They’ve got a bit of a radical agenda. As a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a very good one, do you put them right about their UN globalist conspiracy theories?”
Winston laughed again to avoid saying yes or no.
“I was a Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2007 when UNDRIP came up. That’s the UN Declaration on Indigenous People’s Rights. I said to Helen Clark: ‘This is unconstitutional and it’s undemocratic and we’re not gonna sign up for that.’ And she agreed with me.”
“Why did you make a big song and dance about it imposing obligations on New Zealand,” I asked. “When you know full well it’s just a declaration?”
His exasperated reply: “What was He Puapua?”
“A discussion document,” I said.
And then he was off on a tangent about “fanciful radicals” and how the biggest victims of co-governance are likely to be the “ordinary Māori at the bottom”.
“I’ve never forgotten where I came from. My family was born in a tent. No house, no nothing. And so, I’m not gonna forget where I came from. And the great dream and hope of progress that a Labour government and then a National government, in the 1940s and the ‘50s, gave my family. That’s what I want back in my country.”
I get that bit. But not the other bits.
“Why would Māori vote for New Zealand First,” I ask, “when you’re chucking out words like apartheid and when you’re against co-governance?”
“I’m out to defend ordinary people. Māori, European, Indians, Chinese. I don’t care what they are,” Winston said. “We’re all New Zealanders here. We have one chance of working together.”
And on that note, Winston Peters finishes with that same steely-eyed gaze he started with.
After all, it’s not his first rodeo.
You can view Moana Maniapoto’s interview with Winston Peters on Te Ao with Moana, Whakaata Māori.
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