When Winston Raymond Peters entered Parliament as a National Party Member of Parliament in Tauranga he had most probably never thought he might one day be leading a party of his own. In his first three terms in Parliament he saw National exit the Beehive after nearly bankrupting the country with its grandiose Think Big projects. He spent six years of those nine years on the Opposition benches watching the Labour Government of David Lange/Geoffrey Palmer/Mike Moore instigate market reforms that sent unemployment sky rocketing. And when he and his National colleagues were re-elected they chose to continue the path of Rogernomics.
Sometime between 1990 and 1993, Mr Peters began to become disillusioned with National. The damage that the sale of state owned enterprises was doing appalled him. The pain being inflicted on the socially vulnerable and the elderly shocked. As his mistrust of National grew, he began to contemplate going back to the electorate for a mandate to form a new party. It would not be a party aligned with the right or the left, but one in the centre with a nationalist ideology of putting country and people first. Thus New Zealand First was born in the first year that I seriously tried to understand politics.
Since then I have heard Mr Peters being described as many things. Some have been in praise of one of the longest serving Members of Parliament in New Zealand history. Some have been outright lies or insults simply put out in a vain attempt to discredit the New Zealand First leader, whilst still more have been grudging acknowledgements of a politician who just – for better or for worse – just will not go away.
Mr Peters is a master of political survival. More than once political events happened to Mr Peters and New Zealand that might have finished off any other politician and made the others under who leadership wonder if they could keep on going, and people have written him off as politically dead. His party grew to 17 Members of Parliament in 1996, holding the balance of power and enabling him to form a coalition with National (which imploded in 1998). From holding Tauranga by just 50-something votes in 1999 to picking up 13 seats in 2002 before exiting Parliament altogether in 2008. Mr Peters has managed to hold a party together whilst in the wilderness before – to the horror of National – leading it back into Parliament and facing down the very politicians who had hoped they had seen the last of him.
And since coming back from his second near death political experience, Mr Peters’ party has only grown. The membership has increased. The youth wing is perhaps the strongest it has ever been and is now recognized by the Board of Directors as being an official part of the party. The policy platform is as solid as that of any other party in Parliament. The Party has 12 Members of Parliament and is consistently underrated in the polls by a factor of 2-3 seats or 1.5-2.0% support, which could cause a change of Government were those seats to come from National.
I had a bet in 2011 with a mate that Winston would be back. He was so confident Mr Peters would not come back that he put two beers on it. I know of another case where someone in the North Island put hundreds of dollars on Winston coming back in the same election. Whilst certainly not being brave (or perhaps stupid) enough to do that, I would say that anyone who writes of Mr Peters and New Zealand First in 2017 could be in for a very expensive lesson.
With the Greens not firing on their usual cylinders, Labour still trying to get out of first gear and history not favouring National getting a fourth term, could this be the true hour of Winston Peters? Not impossible. Not impossible at all.