Winston Peters on Churchill, international relations and his advice for Trump

by Clare de Lore / 28 August, 2017
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Winston Peters. Illustration/Weef

As part of a new series in the count-down to the election, Clare de Lore talks to political leaders about their literary influences.

Len and Joan Peters named their son, born in 1945, after the wartime leader who saved Britain from the Nazis. Like his namesake, Winston Peters is tenacious and has survived politics over decades of ups and downs, although he is quick to explain he has no illusions that he’s in Churchill’s league.

Peters is one of 11 children born in Northland to parents who ensured their kids got a good education despite limited means. He didn’t shine at school but studied hard enough to get into law school in Auckland and worked as a barrister and solicitor before entering Parliament.

His political career has been one of extremes, beginning with an electoral challenge that overthrew an elected member of Parliament, several high-profile campaigns, serving in governments under National Prime Minister Jim Bolger, then leaving National to set up New Zealand First. He was in National Prime Minister Jenny Shipley’s Cabinet until she fired him. He then served in the Labour-led Government of Helen Clark as Foreign Minister but outside Cabinet. There was a period in the wilderness when, in 2008, he lost his Tauranga seat and his 24-year-old party failed to reach the 5% MMP threshold and so had no one in Parliament.

Peters and partner Jan Trotman have homes in Auckland and Whananaki, from where Peters serves his Northland electorate. He has two adult children and enjoys fishing, horse racing and reading, especially political biography.

Is it true that you keep a book about Churchill by your bed and read something about him most nights?

Yes, that is true, I have for a long, long time. One of the best books I read about him was by former Prime Minister HH Asquith’s daughter Violet Bonham Carter Winston Churchill As I Knew Him. It is very insightful, and as the foreword says, the difference about this book is that the author is in Winston’s league. That is the reason I read it, and it is fascinating about Churchill’s formative years.

You share a name, but he grew up as a man of means whereas you, for example, did your homework in an old water tank at Whananaki, I gather. Is that true?

It is true. I am not putting myself in any way, shape or form in Churchill’s league, but there were certain commonalities. We were both bad students, had independence of thinking, were prepared to make our own way and saw that what you do is going to determine your future in more beneficial ways than people think. Sometimes what looks like a disaster to many commentators is actually a critical part of one’s development.

What are you currently reading about Churchill?

When Boris Johnson [British Foreign Secretary] came here recently, someone got him to send me his book called The Churchill Factor, which was a bestseller for Boris. He sent me the book with his best wishes.

Are you a fan of both Boris and Churchill?

Admirer is a better word to use; I am a serious admirer of Churchill. He was an amazing personality in many ways, with many dimensions to him. Boris Johnson, contrary to his public image, is an extraordinarily bright, clever guy.

Does he impress you?

In a characterless world where people are being dumbed down by conformity, he has refused to do so and so consequently he is very likeable. He has a certain flair about him. I think it must be stultifying for him in the Foreign Affairs setting. But he is doing his best to break free, so to speak.

Winston Peters in the House in 1989. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1989/1300/11a-F

Winston Peters in the House in 1989. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/EP/1989/1300/11a-F

You were in that setting too. How did you find it?

I seriously enjoyed the position of Foreign Minister, but there was enormous pressure to conform with the institutional line, and frequently the institutional line had been overtaken by events or had been discredited by events. It was fascinating, but you have to remember that for the time you have the trusteeship of the portfolio, you need to keep your mind not merely on what your advisers are telling you but also on what else you are seeing around you, including how the person on the other side of the table might be thinking. Body language becomes very important.

So can you alter the course of history with a single conversation and how the personalities involved align?

It is extraordinary how personal relationships are capable of moving international events, more so than is given credit. Anyone in Foreign Affairs will have experienced that, and you also have the difficult ones. How do you handle that? Well, if you have an obvious personality clash, there are certain psychological ways you can handle that. Women do that better than men; it’s very important to study.

Who did you learn this from?

I didn’t learn this from a politician; I learnt it from someone in international marketing, where the person would try to get inside the psychological comfort zone of the other person as fast as possible. The quickest way to do that is to ask them something about their incredible careers. You will find people become far more loquacious and talkative if you say, “Look, I have studied your career and I am amazed by how successful you are. Please tell me more about how you managed that.”

That is the opposite of US President Donald Trump’s approach, isn’t it?

He hasn’t got an approach: that is his problem. He lacks experience and an appreciation of the historic dimension in which he is operating. This is not cowboy territory. It’s about relationships between populations, not just leaders.

What book would you recommend to Trump to try to help him find his way?

American libraries are laden with books about people and relationships. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People would be a good start.

Churchill was fond of a glass of champagne from the beginning to the end of the day. You are famously fond of whisky, but you start later in the day.

Actually, I am not any more than most people, and when I say that, you can visually see who is a drinker and no one can make that claim about me. The media do that because they are fond of restating the mistakes of prior observations; they go on and on and on. The number of people who know the truth is very, very small. I am not the last to go to bed and first to get up in the morning by accident. Just because they [the media] get drunk on a wine biscuit doesn’t mean everybody else is the same.

Before Parliament rose you were focused on the text messages from Bill English's phone to his former electorate secretary and the resignation of his electorate successor, Todd Barclay. Are you seriously trying to take down the Prime Minister before the election?

Unlike others, when I start a campaign like this about public disclosure, about taxpayers’ money, about one rule for all, about someone saying there is nothing to see here and the media walking away, I don’t do that. I am staying put on this issue. The media are saying to me, “Mr Peters, what else have you got?” I’ll show them what I’ve got, but to use a Paul Keating expression, “This is far too much fun to let it go this fast.”

How do you think Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is getting on?

The media lovefest will wane seriously fast. That is their record. Remember this all started with the media touting a Labour-Green combination as the next government. The fact that mathematically they weren’t within cooee of doing that didn’t stop the so-called trained Fourth Estate carrying on with that scenario of National versus this so-called alternative government-in-waiting. Within a few weeks, things will have settled down.

Do you watch Game of Thrones, which is full of political manoeuvring and sometimes bloody takedowns of characters who seem central to the whole show?

I haven’t had the chance. I’ve been flat out. I’d far rather have a holiday where I get all the series and I plan to have a Game of Thrones binge sometime. Possibly on a rainy day over Christmas when nothing else is happening. I won’t watch it all at one time – it has to be over a period of time – but I remember watching The Sopranos several episodes at a time and that means you can follow the themes with greater clarity. When I was at university and exams were over, four of us would get in a car and go around to the suburban picture theatres in Auckland and watch four movies in one day, for about three days, while we were waiting to start our summer jobs. It was a bit of fun, a good way to wind down from university exams.

One of those jobs was mining in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, and speaking of mines, are you still committed to entering the Pike River mine?

I will keep my word on Pike River as I have on so many other things. I have a lot of critics and they can say what they like – I don’t give a rat’s derrière. As a former prime minister used to say, “I’ll be around long after you’ve gone.”

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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