God Defend New Zealand from Winston?
The Herald on Sunday's editorial of the 6th of February heaps praise on Prime Minister John Key for so boldly announcing that he would not be a part of any government including that scourge of MMP, Winston Raymond Peters.
Winston Peters, we were warned, had done more to discredit MMP than any other individual. Apparently he's a skilled practioner of language, too. It's a pity the HoS editor wasn't. Verily, it was a piece of journalism as Yellow as Hide's abominable jacket.
But what of the claims made? They do warrant a response. The central claim is that Peters' style of politics is negative. Voters, we're told, have a stark choice: the aspirational and 'forward-looking' style of John Key; or the 'divisive' and 'inflammatory' style proffered by Peters. It's almost as though the secretive cabal of vested interests and media personalities regard the presence of Peters as an affront to the democratic process. How ironic.
We're told that Peters, in 1996, campaigned to topple the National Government of Jim Bolger – only to return Bolger and National to power. We're told that Peters 'dawdled' through post-election talks, keeping the country waiting for eight weeks. Then there's the curious claim that Peters is somehow responsible for making our political discourse 'vituperative'. And finally, we're told that in 2005 Peters promised to reject the 'baubles of office' – only to become the Minister of Foreign Affairs in a Labour-led government. This, we're supposed to believe, points to Peters being the scourge of MMP. More than any other individual, Peters is believed to have brought our electoral system into disrepute. But has he really? This is a rather big call to make.
Not surprisingly, what's missing from the Herald editoral is context. There is no sober analysis of the facts. Just vehemence and hostility – more personal than political. But then, that's exactly what we would expect from a newspaper.
First, the circumstances around the 1996 post-election negotations are well documented. The oft-repeated claim that Winston Peters ever ruled out a coalition with National in the lead up to polling day is false and any serious journalist would surely appreciate this.
What commentators tend to forget (or would prefer to forget) is that in May 1996, New Zealand First reached its then zenith in public opinion polls. A Heylen-One News poll at the time placed party support as high as 28 per cent – effectively pushing Labour into third place. The prospect of a New Zealand First-led government was a real one in 1996. Peters' deputy, Tau Henare, publicly ruled out ever sitting at a cabinet table with Jenny Shipley and Bill Birch. Not only did he break this promise but later went on to join the National Party itself. Peters himself was reported at the time as saying the price of a coalition with National could be Bolger's head. Peters' intention in 1996 was not simply to topple National, but to displace it as the main conservative party. By all accounts, he believed he could be prime minister. A resurgent Labour party dashed these hopes.
Post-election realities inevitably brought National and Labour to the negotiating table with Peters. NZ First's 17 seats gave it considerable bargaining power, but not the leverage it needed to bring down Bolger. A Labour-New Zealand First coalition, while possible, still needed the support of Jim Anderton's Alliance to get the crucial numbers. For his part, Anderton early on ruled out a coalition with Labour and refused to commit his party's support on all matters of supply and confidence. As political commentator Chris Trotter observed at the time, Anderton's obstinate position gave Peters and his MPs 'all the excuse they need for throwing their support behind National' (Independent, 25 October 1996, p. 13). Of course, Anderton's role is today forgotten by most - as one assumes the man and his 'Progressives' will soon also be.
The length of time taken to negotiate New Zealand's first MMP government has also been the subject of much criticism. But as political scientist Barry Gustafson noted at the time: “Things aren't being done in an alarmist or crisis way. This is a much more orderly and rational process than the pandemonium of the 1984 and 1990 elections, which people have conveniently forgotten. Those elections seriously damaged confidence” (The Dominion, 29 November 1996, p. 7). Few experts were prepared to criticise the parties for acting cautiously, and responsibly as they navigated their way through new and uncharted territory. Fifteen years on, MMP has proved remarkably stable - probably somewhat due to the fact that there was such an orderly transition the first time around. Indeed, the only hints of instability to the system seem to be introduced by minor parties in crisis who would in all likelihood still be returned to the House under an FPP system.
Peters takes a disproportionate amount of blame for the collapse of the National-New Zealand First government. The reality is the National Party and a conspiracy amidst its internal factions was far more culpable. Jenny Shipley's ascent to office can, in part, be attributed to the bitter resentment many in National felt towards their New Zealand First colleagues. Unlike Bolger, Shipley had no willingness to work with Peters. The fate of the coalition was sealed from the moment she took office.
Peters' acceptance of the 'baubles of office' in 2005 may have riled some of his supporters, and frustrated his opponents, but he wouldn't be the first politician to realise that changed circumstances might result in changed positions. Peters' archnemisis, the yellow-jacket wearing perkbuster Rodney Hide must surely take the prize for that in this current Parliament. And, indeed, a cursory examination of Peters' record in that office indicates that it was a positive outcome for the Nation.
Besides, if we're going to look for Parliamentarians who've brought our House into disrepute, Peters is not the most obvious target. The troughing by people like Roger Douglas, Rodney "Perk Buster" Hide and Bill English, the party-hopping of Alamein Kopu and numerous others, Clark's 'Paintergate' and Key's Tranzrail shares, National's broken promise not to raise GST, Hone Harawira's outright racism, and numerous other post-MMP examples spring instantly to mind. Yet according to the Herald, somehow Peters is the biggest threat to the credibility of our electoral system. Just how any journalist can state this, and then claim – with a straight face - to be 'dispassionate' is incredible. If we are to search for the most obnoxious and abhorrent ways in which our electoral system has been brought into disrepute, nothing compares to the broken promises and economic vandalism of Labour and National between 1984 and 1993.
The most bizarre allegation the Herald throws at Peters' is that he is a 'demagogue'. As if appealing to popular discontent is somehow anti-democratic. One of the things that sets Peters apart from others is his staunch opposition to elitism. But underlying this populism is a deeply conservative political philosophy which has pitted him against both the liberal milieu of the post-Rogernomics era. Peters is often criticised because we know what he's opposed to, but not what he's for. This is a mistake. Peters is for the opposite of everything he is against. Perhaps this is the reason Peters' opponents find him so frightening.
The Herald might well claim that Peters' style of politics is "rearward looking". And yes, Peters does appear to have a great respect for the better elements and values of our National heritage. However, not only was the original utterer of the 'rearward looking' jibe the same man employing familiar faces like Gerry Brownlee, Bill English and Roger Douglas, but his plan “to move on into the future” bears a disconcerting resemblance to the discredited policies of previous Labour and National governments. That strikes us as less "Path to Prosperity" and more "Shining Path".
In short, then; God Defend New Zealand - and if He doesn't, Winston will.
- Curwen Rolinson & Josh Van Veen