Winston Peters 17/03/24

This note was to try to clarify my thinking about what was going on in WP’s speech to the party on Sunday 17 March. It was, of course, a speech to the NZF annual conference which makes numerous political points – some valid. But the attack on his government’s tax policies is something in addition.

The bit in the Palmerston North speech I was intrigued about is:

‘Today in the Sunday Star Times, journalist and former advisor to the Labour Government, Vernon Small, refers to the ‘present government facing a fiscal hole’ of $5.6 billion. He’s right of course, but he’s wrong when he said that last year politicians were warned of that. Only one political party in the 2023 campaigned to alert New Zealanders as to how bad things were. New Zealand First pointed out where optimistic predictions of others were false – such as the ‘House Buyers Tax’, and taxing on overseas online gambling.’

One possibility is that this section was a late insertion or redraft following reading of Vernon Small’s column in the paper (or online) that morning. Seems unlikely. The probability, but not certainty, is that Peters knew it was being released.

Small’s column has an interest even had Peters not referred to it. It struck me at the time that it was well informed and that Small, a journalist, was relying upon a reasonably informed source – even an official paper. What was the source? At the very least, the coincidence of the column with the day of Peter’s speech was serendipitous.

Be that as it may, Peters could be said to be attacking the fiscal stance of his National and Act colleagues or, at the very least, disclosing to the public an internal Cabinet debate. What was the political purpose (other than bolstering the troops and the public)? Peters must have realised it would both embarrass his coalition partners and added to the instability of the coalition.

To be clear, there is an internal Cabinet debate about the fiscal options for the 31 May Budget (although how advanced it is I do not know). However, it is usual at this stage in the process that the external task is to manage public perceptions – as Minister of Finance Nicola Willis is doing. I cannot recall an earlier New Zealand budget where the tensions have been so explicitly in public so soon (I can think of instances elsewhere).

There are two views of Peters which might help provide an answer.

One might be called ‘Winston First’, which was the title of a 1995 book, by Martin Hames commissioned by those with a neoliberal disposition. It portrayed Peters as an unprincipled self-seeking politician who cynically sought popular support for his personal ends. This was to explain why Peters left the National Cabinet in 1992 when it was in its full neoliberal glory. (Peters is not the only politician to be so explained by ideologists who cannot understand why anyone would disagree with them.) That he is a politician without principles seeking only personal gain is a widely held view by those on his left as well as his right. Peters has sometimes reinforced the perception with populist stances he has taken.

Why would Winston First have publicised the fiscal critique? Its logic might be that it would precipitate events which would result in him becoming full prime minister.

That seems unlikely. Suppose the Coalition Government collapsed. There would be an election; there is no evident alternative. (I am assuming a minority government would not last long.) Perhaps NZF’s share of the votes might rise, but a stronger possibility is that it would get blamed for the collapse. Neither National nor ACT are likely to collapse the coalition, other than in the unlikely possibility that National thinks it could win enough votes to govern only with ACT; that would only succeed if voters were convinced it was NZF’s fault. That is hardly a path to WP4PM, especially as Peters appears to be currently cutting off the possibility of an NZF coalition with the political left.

We can rule out the relevance of the eventual scenario that the left wins an early election, fails again, and NZF is triumphant in 2028. Peters would be 83, older than Biden is today.

If the speech does not make the Winston First portrait plausible, what might be an alternative? I am going to call it WPPPP: Winston Peters – principled, populist, politician. Perhaps the ‘politician’ is redundant. It is there to remind us that he is continually seeking a coalition of the voting public to support him and sometimes that coalition involves some strange bedfellows.

‘Populist’ is there because Peters naturally connects with a broader population both in style and belief, with its scepticism of the political elites. In turn, the elites do not connect with him. He does not fit their models of a Māori boy from a poor rural background; they should be a deferential conservative or angry leftys. If anything, Peters is an angry conservative.

That is where ‘principle’ comes in. Peters has some deep principles which are poorly recognised. His may be described as those of a rural working-class New Zealand Tory. This is not a well discussed political group (nor its urban equivalent) even though it is more common that is recognised for there is a chunk of the working class who vote on the right.

As best I can summarise it the view is that New Zealand is a land of opportunity. (Typically those who hold the view have ‘made it’.) But it is suspicious of state welfare because it tends to sap initiative, so while holders may be sympathetic to those in difficulty, they have an antipathy to collective action. The view is critical of the Brahmins on the left, who are considered out of touch with the common people (and often too woke), and of big Commerce on the right. It is strongly New Zealand nationalist.

Much of this philosophy was expressed by Peters in his 1979 maiden speech:

‘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.’

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.’

Peter loathes neo-liberals. It is not just a question of ACT taking up some of NZF’s potential support of the non-left who dislike National. Instructively, Peters said in his 2017 speech anointing Labour as the main party of next government,

‘Far 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.’

Earlier he had commented:

‘The 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.’

After all, in the early 1990s he walked out on National – his party of the previous two decades – because of his opposition to its neoliberal policies. There is no reason to believe Peters has changed in the last six years. A major factor in his approach to the Coalition Government is his opposition to neoliberalism; he sees NZF counterbalancing the ACT party and the neoliberals in National. (Despite ACT having more of the voter numbers than NZF, it has less power because a party on a political extreme has fewer options. Additionally, Peters is politically more experienced and probably politically smarter than the leaders of National or ACT. Counterbalancing is not a vain objective.)

It is not an exaggeration to see the fiscal debate that is going on within today’s Cabinet involves tensions between the extreme-right and centre-right. WPPPP’s conference speech was bringing them into the open in order to weaken the neoliberals.

A final point: Peters is indicating that he had an unhappy time in the Labour Coalition Government between 2017 and 2020 and he appears to be in difficulties with the current Coalition Government. The one other time he has been inside a coalition cabinet was between 1996 and 1998. (He was outside cabinet in the 2005-2008 Clark-Cullen Government.) In 1998 Peters fell out with Jenny Shipley, who is a neoliberal. Earlier he had got on well with Jim Bolger, who is a kind of rural working-class Tory (his farming family was not affluent) and who has also expressed doubts about neoliberalism.