How Winston Peters can turn an election campaign into Groundhog Day

by Bevan Rapson / 10 September, 2017
NOTED Opinion.
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With the election race this close, Winston Peters may have another shot at deciding who's in government after September 23. Photo / Getty Images

Forget about youth quakes. One of the key players in this election  - yet again - is a cantankerous septuagenarian. 

For all the excitement over the unexpected two-party drag race at the upper end of the opinion polls, there’s something else about this election that’s just déjà vu all over again.

Or maybe you could compare it to Groundhog Day, with the groundhog being played by a 72-year-old superannuitant in a suit.

Despite all the talk about youth quakes and generational change, a man who first stood for parliament 42 years ago could well play some kind of a central role.

Winston Peters was in typical form last week, haughtily refusing to take part in a minor party leader’s debate, then taking over the North Shore’s Bruce Mason Centre to make his latest pitch for the grey vote – a special super-dooper “new generation” SuperGold Card with extra benefits for pensioners.

Peters presumably wanted to remind his wider audience how he’d delivered when he launched the existing card in 2005 as part of New Zealand First’s confidence and supply agreement with the Labour-led Government. Plenty of seniors enjoy the existing card’s provision of free off-peak public transport in particular.

And the updated spin showed how well he knows them. Yes, their toes will have been tapping to the “You are my sunshine” played by his warm-up band, but golden-oldies-loving senior citizens often also have a surprising penchant for new-fangled gizmos, taking a special pride in keeping up with advances that young people mostly just take for granted.

Hence the proposed upgrade, with Peters aiming to make the SuperGold Card a “payWave” enabled loyalty and debit card issued by a bank, giving automatic discounts when used to buy goods and services.

The existing version has fallen behind current technology, he says. One quote, reported by Stuff, captured perfectly the kind of sentiment he hopes to exploit: “The SuperGold card is not even on Facebook. You’d think the young people in Wellington think we don’t even know how to use Facebook.”

To be fair, he doesn’t have this kind of thing to himself. National’s scatter-gun of education policies released a couple of weeks ago included the promise of an app so parents could follow their child’s progress in the classroom. Really? As if the kind of parent who is going to download that kind of app isn’t perfectly able to keep track of little Johnny’s marks through, say, talking to his teacher? Apparently, someone on National’s campaign decided it couldn’t hurt to sprinkle a little new-tech magic dust around. Wonder if they thought of adding payWave?

On Sunday, Peters was again in typically cantankerous form in a multi-party environmental debate on TVNZ1’s Q&A. A visitor unfamiliar with New Zealand politics who happened to flick on their hotel television might have been surprised by the conduct of the dapper older chap who somehow mixed grumpy mini-lectures with flashes of a 1000-watt smile – and by the way the other participants took his idiosyncrasies in their stride. For New Zealanders, including Peters’ fellow debaters, it’s just politics as usual.

On the environment, Peters still puts a lot of store by the Scandinavians, it seems, and also believes more money needs to go to the regions to deal with our visitor influx. “You’ve got all sorts of people crapping all over the roads and in the forests and what have you, and it’s not nearly good enough,” he declared stoutly. If there’s a pro-crap lobby out there, they better watch who they’re picking.

He also took shots at Labour for stealing New Zealand First policies, and resumed hostilities with Act MP David Seymour, who was described in his Saturday speech as “that little Chihuahua from Epsom”.

The grumpy-uncle comparisons that can arise when Peters is on the warpath seemed even more apposite when he got Seymour and Greens leader James Shaw mixed up, calling the latter David. Among a certain sector of the Facebook-savvy retiree population, getting one know-all young whippersnapper mixed up with another will be seen as an entirely reasonable mistake to make.

Those Peters watchers who still bother at this stage of the electoral cycle to predict “which way he’ll go” should he get the choice, shouldn’t read anything into the potentially symbolic but presumably random placement of the New Zealand First leader between Labour’s David Parker and Shaw, but they will have noticed his comparatively warm exchanges with the former.

Despite the promise of a first post-election phone call from Labour, does Shaw get a shiver down his spine at that hint of cosiness and the thought of his party potentially being gazumped again by New Zealand First?

This version of Groundhog Day can sometimes be wearisome for the rest of us. For the Greens it has the makings of a horror movie.


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