After the election campaign highs, Winston Peters brings the buzz-kill

by Bevan Rapson / 25 September, 2017
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Could the kingmaker climb down from his high horse, please?

We all knew Winston Peters had a good chance to play kingmaker again, but that doesn’t make the reality of it any less tiresome.

Right up until the declaration of results on Saturday night, this election was a pretty sound example of democracy in action, an often compelling contest of ideas, tactics and personalities. 

The leaders of both our main parties deserve credit here. Jacinda Ardern revived Labour’s fortunes and brought star power and excitement to the campaign. Her “relentlessly positive” approach proved a tonic after the furrowed-brow lecturing favoured by a couple of recent predecessors.

She defied the sceptics who wondered whether she had the fortitude for the job, handling with aplomb most of the avalanche of debates, interviews and media stand-ups that come with leadership. Her “captain’s call” on a capital gains tax was a howler, but she didn’t let the subsequent u-turn drain the feel-good factor from her campaign.

Though the result fell short of what her fans hoped for, she re-established Labour’s standing as one of the two parties likely to lead governments.

Bill English, too, performed above most expectations and also seemed to enjoy himself. Someone might have told him to smile more at the beginning, but by the final weeks he appeared to be taking real pleasure in what he called “retail politics”, chatting with all comers, posing for selfies and tirelessly hammering away at National’s key messages.

It was still high-stakes politics, not tiddlywinks, so when the Ardern surge looked so ominous for the incumbents, National’s cynical “$11 billion hole” claim shouldn’t have been too unexpected. But neither English nor his challenger go in for trash-talking, tub-thumping or histrionics. Both by nature tend to be civil and respectful, even in the heat of debate. We could also give a shout-out here to James Shaw, another affable and articulate figure who maintained his equilibrium even as his party tipped precariously towards disaster.

But if these worthy personalities and the campaign’s exciting twists were enough to induce a mild democratic high, a certain cranky pensioner has effortlessly killed the buzz.

Peters’ pronouncements since New Zealand First’s pivotal role was confirmed have been the usual hodgepodge of score-settling and high dudgeon: “Let’s stop the mirage and the facade here,” he told reporters waiting outside the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell on Sunday. “We all know what has to happen, okay. So all this talk about making phone calls and talking to you people [reporters] about what am I going to do next will not be happening from NZ First’s point of view.”

Nobody expects him to negotiate in public, but with the nation hanging on his every word how hard would it be to come up with a few lines of clarity and assurance about how matters will play out over the coming days?

Peters’ prickly jousting with the media has for decades been a staple of political theatre in this country. As a sideshow, trying to decipher his flights of fury can be mildly entertaining. As the main event, that reflex indignation is an insult to voters – who have “spoken” but whose preferences must now be subjected to MMP’s murkier processes.

Worryingly, Peters’ irritable inscrutability seems to have increased with age. The interview with Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner during this campaign almost worked as satire.

Exiting New Zealand First MP Richard Prosser – who it should be said has an axe to grind, having been demoted on the party list – yesterday described Peters’ behaviour as increasingly erratic. “He has always been Machiavellian, I guess, and a bit mercurial. And sort of says things in a way that leaves wriggle room,” Prosser told the New Zealand Herald. “This goes beyond that. These are things when you just think, what on earth is happening?”

Let’s hope Prosser is off-beam. We need Peters to get on and negotiate a sensible deal that works for whichever parties are involved – and their supporters. Elections need winners.  He’s done it before. The stable, functional relationships he maintained with Jim Bolger and Helen Clark should give us some confidence he’ll do it again.

But after a gripping campaign, and with so much power in one man’s hands, how about Peters stables his high horse and just gives the public as much clarity as he can as soon as he can?

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