With Winston Peters at the helm, almost anything could happen

by Bill Ralston / 19 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Winston Peters Acting Prime Minister

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern should switch off her cellphone and unplug her computer when Winston Peters assumes the role of Acting Prime Minister.

In 1987, I was having a beer with Winston Peters at a table outside a Honolulu hotel bar when he wandered off for a few minutes. A young waitress leaned over to me and asked in a hushed voice if he was my prime minister. Snickering, I replied, “Not yet.” That “yet” took more than 30 years to come about, albeit if only for several weeks before he supposedly has to surrender the role to the rightful incumbent, who is busy having a baby.

Independent of each other, Peters and I were in Hawaii investigating a scandal called the “Māori loans affair”, which concerned an attempt to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in dodgy foreign loans for the Māori Affairs Department, as it was then, involving an assortment of con men and a smattering of spies. It was a media ruckus of the kind he repeatedly threw himself into, usually to discredit the Labour Government of the day.

Now he has assumed the role of Acting Prime Minister accompanied by the whistle of High Court writs flying on his behalf against members of the former National Government and various government officials, whom he accuses of involvement in the leak of details about his pension overpayment, which he subsequently repaid. It is all rambunctiously Winston.

Watch: The top ten moments Winston was Winston 

The unfortunate part for the two accused former ministers and the three public servants apparently cited in the breach-of-privacy action is that although the state would usually pay their legal fees in this $450,000 case, their request for cash would almost certainly have had to go before a Cabinet with Peters in the chair. Presumably, he would have absented himself from the discussions. It is not often, though, that you see a prime minister suing his Attorney-General, State Services Commissioner and the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development.

By way of full disclosure, I should point out that Peters once sued TVNZ when I was head of news and current affairs. The claim, I believe, was eventually settled. TVNZ, of course, is just one of several parties to have been on the end of legal action and threats from Peters over the years as he has sought to defend himself against criticism.

The slightly difficult part here is that prime ministers, even acting ones, are often criticised, sometimes unjustly, sometimes fairly, so it’s possible the next six weeks may provide lawyers with plenty of business if journalists apply their customary scrutiny to Cabinet decisions.

Still, I’m pleased to see Peters finally achieve the position of prime minister. He has put in decades of hard yards to get to that point. He may also develop a greater sympathy for predecessors David Lange, Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Helen Clark, John Key and Bill English. I believe they may have experienced a smidgen or two of frustration in dealing with him at the time.

My thoughts are with Jacinda Ardern. Coping with childbirth and infants is hard enough, without having to peer over your shoulder at whatever brouhaha is brewing in the Byzantine world of the Beehive under Peters. But she has tough nuts, such as Grant Robertson and David Parker, on the Labour side to clean up any mess that occurs. So, she should turn off her cellphone and unplug her computer for the six weeks. The Government will still be there when she gets back and, after the experience of having an Acting Prime Minister, she may find herself even more appreciated by all concerned.

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

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