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Is it New Zealand First – or Winston first?

Illustration by Jeff Bell.

After his 11th-hour grenade-lobbing at the Government, Winston Peters should remember such skirmishes worry voters and feed instability fears.

For any coalition government to succeed, let alone our finely balanced three-party administration, there has to be goodwill – and there has to be seen to be goodwill.

Once again, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has gone out of his way to be seen to be withholding his. Not once, but twice. Just as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern readied herself to give birth, Peters lobbed two gratuitous grenades at the Government that he props up.

The New Zealand First leader’s tactics are always so strategic that the timing of his antics cannot be brushed off as coincidental. First, he pulled the rug from under the Justice Minister’s proposed penal reform – not when Andrew Little first canvassed it earlier this year, but only after ensuring it accrued maximum media momentum, bringing it to a head as Ardern was clearing her desk.

Then came the bombshell that he had advanced his ill-advised legal action over last year’s leaking of his pension details – a court case embroiling two of our most senior public servants. It is an action that cannot help but embarrass the Government of which he is now the acting leader.

Such skirmishes feed fears of government instability, the surest vote-killer of all.

Both Peters and senior Labour MPs are behaving as though no slight was intended or taken in either of these instances. But the public is not fooled. This has been the most cynical of sabre-rattling and bodes ill for the coming weeks in which Peters is Acting Prime Minister, and beyond. NZ First’s unreadiness to sign off on ending the controversial “three strikes” imprisonment policy was genuine, but need not have been turned into an 11th-hour drama. The party could have discussed the issue weeks ago and ensured it was deferred to be dealt with as part of Little’s wider criminal justice reform – as it probably should have been all along. Little was rash to promise the repeal in advance of the full package, and Ardern has rightly reminded all ministers they are not licensed to make unilateral policy plans before full Cabinet and inter-caucus consultation. Not, of course, that such advice was followed when future oil and gas exploration was canned without the Cabinet being consulted.

NZ First likes to be seen to be tough on law and order, but Peters’ three-strikes stand will almost certainly prove to be empty posturing. Eight years after its enactment, the tougher sentencing regime has not provided any measurable deterrent to the country’s most serious offenders. It is doubtful the policy will survive the welcome justice review when it concludes next year.

As for Peters’ own court case, he is deluded if he believes voters will read it as a sign of his might. Rather, it indicates his vindictiveness. When details of his pension overpayment were leaked during the election campaign, the public and even rival parties were surprised but saw the timing for what it was: a dirty trick. To pursue former National ministers and departmental heads personally, whatever the legal merits, will almost certainly prove futile in terms of Peters’ public image and simply make him look obsessive.

His party garnered just 7% support in last year’s election. Now he is reminding the public that its Acting Prime Minister not only represents an unpopular party, but also that, despite having made superannuation his cause célèbre, he was overpaid his pension for several years yet professed not to have noticed. On an Acting PM’s salary, Peters can hardly claim the leak torpedoed his job prospects.

It’s hard to fathom what he hopes to gain in the Court of Public Opinion. His private legal action will be more of a headline-feeding irritant than a coalition bollard. The “three strikes” dust-up was hardly the stuff of white-knuckle brinkmanship, either.

Peters’ instincts have never sat easily with the left. In 1986, he voted against homosexual law reform and was reported in the Listener as decrying this “perversity” and claiming that the bill was “anti-women because it made them irrelevant”. Really? He also voted for National’s tough benefit cuts in the 90s. Labour was willing to look the other way on this history when power became within reach during last year’s coalition negotiations, but his actions in the past couple of weeks are a reminder that he was never going to be an easy partner. He has always had an impulse for manufactured drama and faux outrage.

Peters should remember that such skirmishes worry voters and feed fears of government instability, the surest vote-killer of all. He may like to reflect on how many more strikes he should be allowed. 

This editorial was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.