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What's with Winston's crush on Russia?

The question is where does the inner-Winston’s Russia fetish spring from? Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

Winston Peters has a thing about Russia, and no one can explain why.

Every politician has an idyll – a political hero, a signature credo or some notion of cargo-cult euphoria they long to deliver on. For Sir Robert Muldoon, it was keeping the cost of living down, no matter how much borrowing and protectionism – and nearly the mortgagee sale of New Zealand by the World Bank – it took. David Lange dreamt of having a bold and independent foreign policy – even if, as did seem possible, none of our allies would ever speak to us again. With Helen Clark, it was to make the liberal, progressive Scandinavian ethos our own – and never mind that few of us understood this as other than being blonde and having saunas, and we’re still waiting for an Ikea store.

At least we knew roughly where they were coming from.

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With Winston Peters, it’s the Secret Samovar. He has this thing about Russia, and no one can explain why. There was the suggestion, when he began harping on about restoring full trade relations with Russia some years ago, that his close ties with the fishing industry had made him hyper-sensitive to lost trade opportunities in seafood. But frankly, Vladimir Putin can see to it that his people don’t run out of kai moana without our contribution, and our fisherfolk aren’t without other markets. Clearly there’s more to it than that.

This week, Peters has repeated his scepticism that Russia shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine in 2014 and expanded that refusenik-ism to cover the growing suspicion that Russia just poisoned a spy and his daughter in Britain.

He also averred that our getting a free-trade deal with Russia would be just as good, and should be just as big a priority, as scoring one with the European Union. Well, it’s a point of view – but it’s a bit like saying we’d be better off bringing back Piri Weepu than fielding Brodie Retallick, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett and Jordie Barrett on the rugby field. Piri’s still a mighty player, but things have moved on. The EU, even without the UK, is several times the market that Russia is. Peters’ fixation is beginning to seem fetishistic.

Strongmen of the world unite

Lest anyone think this is simply a romantic, aesthetic attachment born of many happy hours listening to Shostakovich while reading Dostoevsky with a Stolichnaya at his elbow, it’s worth remembering that Peters also had a massive crush on the late Lee Kuan Yew, whose legacy, as Donald Trump just reminded us, is Singapore’s death penalty for drug offences (and incarceration for the slightly lesser offences of chewing gum and having long hair).

It may be that Peters admires Putin’s strongman approach in the way he shares some heartland electoral territory with Trump over immigration and protectionism. Among his startling comments as Foreign Minister this week was one expressing sympathy with the US’s proposed new tariffs on aluminium and steel – which had immediately to be contradicted by Trade Minister David Parker. Peters is also famously, and not uninformedly, uneasy about our buddying up to China under its One Belt, One Road global infrastructure programme.

It’s tempting for anyone sceptical about the coalition Government to infer that Peters is gearing up for a righteous rift. The theory goes that his priority now is not being in Government but saving the New Zealand First party from extinction. It’s now barely registering in the polls after a too-narrow squeak in last year’s election, and in theory it could restore some of its lost popularity by turning tail on Labour and the Greens at some point before the next election.

Peters has done this once before, leaving Jenny Shipley’s National Government in 1998. But here the theory falls down, because she did as much, if not more, to drive NZ First out than it did to find an excuse to huff off. And much good it did them. Next election, NZ First was down 12 seats, from 17 to five, with less than 5% of the vote, and National was sentenced to nine years’ Opposition.

He’d be bonkers to try that again, especially given his visceral aversion to today’s National Party. Anyone who thinks Peters is already packing his bags ought to try that idea out on a National MP and see the anticipatory surge of exhilaration.

Right Back to Pasternak

Anyway, Peters’ preoccupation with Putin’s Russia goes back years; it’s not something he’s just manufactured as a handy coalition prying bar. And dying in a ditch over Russia is hardly the gesture lost NZ First voters – or any other voters, for that matter – would rally around. More likely the popular response would be, “Someone hide his Doctor Zhivago DVD, for pity’s sake.”

For the Labour Party, though, this is the problem you take on with an old warhorse like NZ First. It comes with idiosyncratic baggage and can’t be expected to stow all of it in a locker. It’s a political miracle it shelved its opposition to the transpacific trade deal so blithely. If the UK does, after investigation into the poisoning, lead a sanctions campaign against Russia and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern agrees to join it, she’s going to have her work cut out getting our Foreign Minister into line.

It’s possible Peters is simply setting out a shouty new shop frontage to remind voters of his party’s inherent independence from Labour and the Greens. It’s even possible that, in the way he dissented from Clark’s free-trade deal with China as Foreign Minister in 2008, some face-saving formulation can be made this time.

But it does all look extremely odd, and if anyone can locate the inner-most matryoshka doll of Peters’ mysterious Russian obsession, there’s an avid political audience waiting to hear about it.

Before any conspiracy theorist proposes that Peters is the most daring of double-double-double agents for Putin, just think about what his briefings to the Kremlin would be like. “Read my press release! No, I never said that … Well, that’s a stupid question. You’ve been around enough to know better than to ask me that! … Look, I’ve got better things to do than explain the basics to a bunch of spotty-faced Kremlin quislings …”

No, our secrets are safe with Peters.

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.