If you do not follow the politics of New Zealand, you are missing out. The Deputy Prime Minister Of New Zealand and leader of the New Zealand First Party, the Rt Hon Winston Peters, is a veteran of New Zealand politics, and a prominent fixture on the global political scene. One-on-one interviews with him, however, rarely happen until today.
In a finely-tailored dark blue suit, sitting in his office against the backdrop of the New Zealand flag, the Deputy Prime Minister was on the dot for our 9 AM interview.
Who is Winston Peters and what motives his enduring career in politics that spans four decades? That is the question many journalists try to answer by painting a portrait of the veteran “Kingmaker”, as they call him in New Zealand for often holding the balance of power. It is Winston Peters who, throughout many elections, got to choose the next New Zealand government. The world changes rapidly and it is rare to talk to someone who has seen the world of politics in a vertiginous period between the ’70s and now. With that, the question of his political legacy comes naturally to the conversation.
“I did not go into politics to be someone who left a legacy”, he began. “As a former lawyer, I spent time writing legacies for people who wanted to pass something onto their sons and daughters, by way of a testamentary claim. I always find it rather, how shall I say, unusual, that politicians should be talking about their legacy, particularly when they haven’t died. And they, in many cases, haven’t done anything. So if you don’t mind, I don’t want to really talk about any legacy that I might have, other than standing up for the principles I believe in. And being in politics for a considerable time, trying to advance those beliefs and principles, which brought me to politics in the first place,” said Peters.
As a young lawyer, Winston Peters found his intellectual and political home motivated by the ideas of “democracy and real freedom and the right of private ownership of land”. In his formative years, Peters rebelled against the notion of a socialist government trying to take away the land of a lot of people for public utility, recreation, and other purposes without any rights to do so whatsoever.
“I mounted a huge case against the Crown and the Council. The case took 16 years, but, in the end, we won about 90% of it. So the initial cause for getting into politics was an attempt to take people’s fundamental property rights in a democracy and in a capitalist system by a socialist government at the time. I stood against that, and I’m pleased I did,” he fondly recalled his beginnings.
A YEAR OF UPHEAVAL: COVID-19
Flash forward to 2020, a year of unprecedented pandemic and global upheaval, New Zealand consolidated quickly and gained prominence as one of the world leaders in tackling COVID-19. Once the country’s leadership thought they were out of the woods, the election campaign started. Then, new COVID-19 cases emerged. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters called on behalf of his party, New Zealand First, to make the people’s health a priority by asking the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, to postpone Election Day. In an unlikely bipartisan decision almost unthinkable in the current, American political landscape where politicians only seem to politicize the pandemic, PM Jacinda Ardern responded to Winston Peters’ appeal positively and agreed to postpone the election.
“How did New Zealand manage to come together and put the health of its people above politics in the middle of an election run-up?”, I inquired.
“We come out in a hundred and two days without any cases at all. And whilst we were doing very, very well, it clearly was that in the closing days of those hundred and two days, there was a COVID-19 outbreak in our biggest city, Auckland. The moment that became the case, in the middle of an election run-up, it was essential to focus on the health problem. We had to understand what the magnitude of it was, how widespread it might be, by way of a spread, and be on top of it, as fast as possible. It was my party’s belief and my belief that health was the number one priority that we had to deal with before we dealt with the election. We went public and said, ‘We must change the election day’. You’ll hear a lot of people saying a lot of things, but the reality is that the reason why the election date was changed was because New Zealanders called for it. Otherwise, it would not have happened. I can assure you of that. I know the inside circumstances. And I’m very comfortable saying that I’m pleased that the Prime Minister was persuaded to change the election date for the very reasons we set out, to get the health situation under control. Then, when you have that under control, you can be confident, much more confident of a free and fair election; that you couldn’t have the second outcome, a free and fair election in the middle of the lockdown situation. And 71 other countries have been deferrals of the elections because of that,” Peters remarked.
Given all the crises he has steered his country through in four decades in politics, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is ideally positioned, both in terms of his experience and precocity to categorize the COVID-19 pandemic on its scale of devastation for humanity.
“I think this is the worst situation,” Peters said candidly, acutely sensitive to the early effects of the pandemic.
“Put aside wartime, First and Second World War. This is the worst situation because you’re dealing with an unseen enemy. That’s very hard to typecast because it changes and moves in circumstances where the science is not known as well as we would like it to be, and the international ramifications and circumstances are just disastrous. World trade has been affected. The movement between countries and societies has been dramatically affected. The airline industry. All sorts of people who had their lives absolutely dislocated. And for some of them, sadly, it’ll be permanent,” Peters said.
“I cannot conceive in all the history of the last say 40 plus years in politics, anything as nearly as bad as this”, he added recalling the global financial crisis, measles outbreaks, and huge energy shortages at certain times, which affected the world in the ’70s and the period after that.“But nothing like this year,” he continued, “this has got to be the very worst. And very few countries are getting on top of it. Taiwan is a place where they’ve got less than 500 cases and less than eight deaths. Just for 24 million people, but they got on to it early. They were very, very successful. And we’ve too done well. But we’ve got to get back on top of this now and I think we can. But until we do, we’ve got no grounds for relaxation or loosening up our determination to beat the virus one more time.”
ON CHINA & HUAWEI BAN
“Do you think that there should be an independent investigation launched into China into the origins of the virus and how it started?”, I asked.
“There is an investigation by the World Health Organization that China ended up agreeing to be part of. There was an investigation going on with respect to the outbreak and origins in Wuhan in China. And that was not initially popular. But in the end, we’ve got a circumstance where even China is part and parcel of it and I hope it’s a real investigation that gets to the truth because we need to have this information as a forewarning for the future,” he insisted.
Winston Peters belongs to a group of world leaders who are openly tough on China. In 2018, he made blunt comments about China’s actions in the South China Sea with no concern that his direct approach would blowback on New Zealand’s diplomatic relations.
“What is New Zealand’s stance on HUAWEI? Will New Zealand follow the UK’s Huawei ban?”, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister.
“Well, we have what we call the TIKSA legislation of 2013 [Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013]. It’s our security services, the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), who decide in my country, whether such an applicant, wherever the applicant is allowed in or not allowed in. It’s not decided by the Prime Minister, is not signed by the Cabinet. And those two security bodies have said no, it does not conform. So that’s where things stand.”
He added, “there’s been as you know, quite vocal protests by the Chinese with respect to that. But on each and every occasion, we’ve said to them, this is totally separate from politics, and happens to be that legislation we are talking about, the 2013 legislation, was passed by our predecessors. So in this context, you’ve got all parties in Parliament supporting the TIKSA legislation of 2013. Its application is totally separate from Parliament, and the Prime Minister and Cabinet, just the two security bodies who received the application and decide upon it. So no one can argue that we’re playing some political game and unlike the UK and then some other countries we said that from the word go, and so we were first off the block not the last on this matter.”
THE FUTURE OF POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
I asked him about potential big ideas that he might have as to the way political participation will look like in the future and will the voting and political participation, as we know it, change?
“Well, first of all, when you talk about the Postal Service, all around the world, because of the arrival of new means of social media, communications and all the new technology, the postal services have taken a serious hit right around the world. And you can see it in the United States, we can see it in New Zealand. And we’ve had to put some sizable amounts of what you might call social investment support into keeping our Postal Service going, just like they have round the rest of the world. But on the question of, how will this shape politics in the future?
Well, you’ve got social media, but your trouble is, in the social media, you’re inside bubbles that are of a certain size, and often, the conversations have very little intellectual value, because it’s actually a reinforcement of what people think, or worse still, or just reinforcement of what they don’t know. And they just repeat it over and over again. If you look at some of the social media things that are out there, they might sound like they’re attractive. But I do not think that they are a replacement for open public dialogue, for conventional media, and dare I said, campaigning itself. And so depends what the political parties are. But if your party has a certain type, you’ll need to get out and meet people on the streets. And in the villages and all the EMS (The EMS service in New Zealand is International Courier) and all the towns and cities around your country, there’s no option to do that. And that’s what many parties’ survival will depend upon.
I think it’s too early to say it’s all going to change. What’s very important, though, is that many of the commentariat and the traditional media outlets are of less importance now, given the capacity to get straight out to the people and direct your campaign in a direct, unedited, unfiltered dialogue, straight to the public”, said Peters.
As the most experienced contestant in New Zealand’s forthcoming general election, Winston Peters is aware of the importance of connecting with voters on a deeper level. “Who is the ideal voter, this veteran politician would like New Zealand First policies to help?”, I inquired.
“The ideal voter, someone that goes and votes when he’s a young fish, that’s number one. The second thing is there’s no standard voter because, under MMP (Mixed Member Proportional), people have two votes. You have your local constituency vote, and then you have your second, your party you vote for. If that fails, you get 20% of the party vote. Then it gets 20% of the members of parliament, so it’s Mixed, Member, Proportional. That’s what MMP means. It’s very similar to the German system. Except, we have a nationwide threshold of 5%, and in Germany, it’s state-by-state. So our threshold is much harder to get over but as a pilot, it was formed at the start of British deployment pay and again, when MMP was in our second election MMP had become effect, by then, we’ve always supported the 5% threshold because it eliminates what we call the absolute extremists, which you’ll see in some other MMP environments with a lower threshold,” Peters said.
“Now, having said that, there’s no ideal voter, you’ve got to look and see. Yes, that’s true that that looks like that might be a voting bloc or some other political party. But within it, and on their second vote, you may well have a chance of getting your fair share of those votes. So it’s very difficult to target. You got, what you might think, your high-performance areas, but then you can have if you are carefully planning your campaign, better outcomes than you would think by taking the time to talk and campaign with these people,” he added.
“It’s not like circumstances where you’ll see ‘that’s Republican,’ ‘that’s Democrats,’ or ‘forget about it’ when you’ve got a second vote, you’d never forget about it because that person might be it party a for my first good and I’ll vote for you on your second vote. That’s why you gotta keep yourself focused on that,” he explained.
THE RISE OF CONSERVATISM
The Conservative wave gets a sizable market share of the electoral vote not only in New Zealand but throughout the world. We observed it in Europe in Hungary with Orban, in Poland with Andrzej Duda, with Boris Johnson in the aftermath of Brexit, and we have seen the emergence of Donald Trump in the United States.
“What would you say are the limits of liberal politics, if any?”, I asked Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.
“Interesting, you use the word liberal”, Peters made a penetrating observation, “it’s probably the most misunderstood word in politics right around the world as to what liberal means”. He added, “There has been a rise in conservative and conservatism right around the world. You saw it in the Brexit campaign, in 2016. You saw it the same year in the Trump campaign, the United States, and it was an original Australia campaign. And then you look at Italy, Hungary and a lot of other countries, and dare I say it, Brazil. Around the world there has been a shift to conservatism, politics that is not liberal, that is not of The Left. It’s a trend that was unnoticed by the media and still ignored by the media, but it’s still there. I think it’s still going on in the Western world, in particular”.
What explains the strong shift toward conservative politics throughout the world is “the “Venezuela of the world”. According to Peters, “once, leading the economy of South America, now, a disaster. You don’t need too many international examples of that to realize, for business people to realize, for ordinary people to realize, that they’ve got a stake in politics and where the country might be going. These are disastrous things to happen.”
The other example he observes is Lebanon, “which has once been among the most exciting countries in the Middle East” and its capital Beirut “perhaps its most exciting city, all dramatically changed from outside interference and disastrous domestic circumstances to a tragic circumstance what we have today.”
“These countries have had great difficulty. As to why it happens? I think people have looked very hard and do realize that governments do matter. But it depends at this point in time, how long this trend will go on. But there is a trend to go to the right, or to conservatism so to speak.”
THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
In the course of his career, Peters made many difficult decisions, but which one was the hardest? On that, Peters recalls the time when he took his party out of the coalition. In August 1998, Peter and his ministers walked out of the Cabinet and Government over the privatization of Wellington Airport.
“A long time ago, in 1998, I wasn’t willing to compromise what I stood for. I made it very clear, as then Prime Minister [Jenny Shipley, the country’s first female Prime Minister] was determined to go on. I was in the same party [New Zealand First] at the time, but I was determined that as the Prime Minister has been pulling out some secret agenda, then I wasn’t gonna stay. And so I walked. I’ve never regretted it,” he revealed.
“That person [Jenny Shipley], of course, took the party to the worst result the National Party at that time ever had in 1999. It’s the kind of thing that, in politics, I look back and look at all of my colleagues I know full well, they knew what she was doing was wrong. She knew there was a disaster. But you know, courage, grit, and determination is not a common thing in politics. And particularly in Western democracies, where people see advantages to themselves by staying silent and not taking the action. And as a consequence, you know, the National Party at that time went out of town and stayed at about nine years. A long time,” said Peters.
Winston Peters’ relationship with the United States grew stronger over time. In his role as the Foreign Minister of New Zealand, he brought the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to New Zealand in 2008. Flash forward to 2020, his good relationship with the Trump administration is widely known. His assessment of VP Mike Pence during their encounters in Washington D.C. was that he is “personable”.
“Relationships really matter in politics. Just like they do in business, just like they do in every profession I know in terms of getting cooperation and getting progress. If you can establish a good relationship with whoever you’re dealing with internationally, and in this case, the United States, and where people understand themselves directly from the word go, then it’s a huge advantage,” he said.
Alluding to the Trump administration, Peters approves of their open demeanor. “ It’s excellent to talk to people who mean what they say and say what they mean. That’s what we need to know. That’s what we want to know as a small country. A democracy that’s been only one of nine that’s survived since 1854. That’s only nine in the whole world. We’re proud of that,” he said.
“Our relationship with the United States is as good as it’s ever been because of circumstances to do with personal context, and also because I think countries more acutely see that typically that we have weighed down in the South Pacific, to play a much larger role in the world’s political circuit, the political movements, and political causes.” Peters assessed.
“Because we’re surrounded by smaller Pacific island nations, but in a huge part of the world’s surface, plus possibly between one and a quarter of the world’s surface if we reach all the way to Hawaii, across the whole Pacific itself. And so the presence is important. And we have to spend so much time trying to get countries to understand that we [New Zealand] could play a far more important, significant and helpful role to all parties concerned if they give us some support with respect to open access to their economy and trade with their economy. So it’s a long slog that we’ll get there and someday soon, I believe,” he affirmed.
On July 18, 1993, Winston Peters founded the New Zealand First Party, a political creation that was tough on immigration but was not easy to place either on the right or the left side of what usually is a black and white political spectrum. One of the interesting components of the New Zealand First platform is that it places the national interest within a global context.
“We stand for free and fair trade. You can have free trade, but it’s got to be fair. If you’ve got trade, which is weighted seriously against one economy to the advantage of another, then it just won’t in the long run be supported by the local people. If you’re going to have free trade between two economies, and one economy doesn’t have a free health system or a free education system, and your economy does then you can see what the disadvantage is for this economy that has serious sound investment policies and human capital. So we are for free and fair trade and always will be. That’s not a challenge to nationalism, it is actually a reinforcement of nationalism because in the end, you’ve got a far greater chance of lifting your country’s wealth base, and health base,” said Winston Peters.
“If you’re going to turn inwards, and trade only with your population, then we know what the outcome of that is. Until somebody goes offshore to make money to bring it back to your country, you won’t get any wealthier at all. So it’s not complicated, so to speak, but it’s when you talk about trade, it’s often seriously misunderstood. And there is a cabal of people on the international stage who just think trade is fantastic, but they don’t look at the quality of it,” Peters revealed.
“Remember”, he continued, “they said free trade was far more a worldwide concept at the end of the 1800s then it was at any time in the last century or this one. In short, there was far greater trade and access. Then, the world has been working on protectionism and the defense abundant economy, following the Second World War. It is just a difficult environment, wherever you’re dealing with it, but I saw a chance for the Commonwealth, which is 2.2 billion people. And pre-COVID19 it was growing at an average rate of 5.5%. And yet, no work had been done towards that at all. Nothing has been done, in the UK, in Australia, Canada, New Zealand. I’m trying to promote such a concept, I still think it’s got value.”
TRADE DEAL WITH THE UNITED STATES
Winston Peters is big on strengthening trade and economic cooperation between New Zealand and the United States. The New Zealand First party leader and deputy Prime Minister pushed for the free trade deal with the United States during his high-level meetings in Washington.
“We’re approaching on an aspect of a trade deal with the United States, pressing it real hard, but you can understand that it’s not an excuse, but you can understand, at least, COVID-19 challenging days. It’s all administration’s got a preoccupation with that. And as you’ve got the COVID-19 damaging effect on domestic economies, the chances of pushing a free trade deal I can list an attractive bullet economy in each case, not on our case, but definitely for others,” said Peters.
“So I’m going to press on this”, he declared, “because it’s important in the big picture of defending democracy, freedom and international trading rules in this world.”
TRADE DEAL WITH UK
“In terms of the trade deal with the UK, what is the main barrier right now? Is this deal going to happen in the way that you’re hoping for?” I asked the Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand.
“I think when you say the main barrier is not the right word but with what we’ve got of course is, they still have to do the UK exit from the EU. That’s number one. Number two, they’ve got a number of trade relationships that they are seeking to work on, including the United States. And dare I say it, getting out of the EU, nevertheless dealing with the EU and their trade relationship as well. So they’ve got quite a lot on their plate. And the UK, as of late, has not been doing much in the world of free trade agreements and talks,” the Deputy Prime Minister assessed.
“So you’ve got to ask, what is their practice, what is the professional build-up of this skill amongst a lot of people? Because these are skills positions, and whether or not they’ve got so much on their plate with Australia, with New Zealand, with the Commonwealth, with the United States, and with the EU that we will be required to take more time than we thought we originally would,” he said.
“We believe we can get a deal done very fast with the UK. We – Australia, and New Zealand— are, to use the phrase “match fit” in terms of preparation, because we’ve been doing it for years.”
TOUGH BUT NECESSARY CHOICES
Winston Peters is a rugby aficionado, and in sports, like in politics, an incumbent has to learn to win and to lose. Throughout his career, he went through highs and lows, but so far always managed to stay in the game of politics and outlast expectations even when many quickly wrote him off.
“What would you say is the biggest life lesson politics taught you so far?” I asked.
“The biggest lesson I learned was before I came into politics. I know of no profession that can do so much harm to people so quickly as politics. Conversely, I know of no more efficient way that can do people so much good, so quickly as well,” Peters revealed.
As a country, New Zealand was very successful in banning automatic weapons. After the 2019 Christchurch mosque terrorist attacks, when white supremacist Brenton Tarrant killed 51 people, Peters’ government acted decisively and swiftly. In the United States, its problem with mass shootings remains unresolved.
“What is the ‘secret’ to that, was it hard to make that decision at the time of the attack in Christchurch?” I wondered.
“Well, sadly, you say what’s the ‘secret’?”, Peters quickly observed the undertone of my multifaceted question. “51 people massacred, terribly damaged, and terribly wounded and harmed, required us to take action. And one of the difficulties is that this is political for some people who want to maintain, despite that example, the same access to military hardware. These are not just sports guns, they’re much more serious than that, and we’ve had to make a decision and come down firm.”
He continued, “As a party with significant support from, you might say, the gun lobby and the rural lobby, we nevertheless realize that we just had to make a stand in the interest of New Zealand’s long-term safety. We couldn’t have this. And as a consequence, there’s been a dispute between the gun lobby, so to speak, and the usual person. Our response is we’re not going to face the world not reacting properly. So we had to make a decision. And we made it, we think that the law is sound, it is yet to be totally finalized, but it will be sound and in the long run, also, we are stapled to them as well. That’s the responsible outcome after a mess of international disaster. This person came from outside New Zealand, it was not a New Zealander that did this.”
THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR EXPERIENCE
In a recent interview for the Guardian, Peters said that he helped Jacinda to put forward good policies while saving her from some disastrous ones.
“How do you tell the difference between the two?”, I asked.
“In the history of humanity, people, and animals as well, have serious instincts that they learn because they are instincts for survival. But what is most important in politics? I think it’s not just knowing the facts. You better know all the facts you possibly can, and if this suspicion that you’ve got has got eight legs to it, you better know each one of them and know them very, very well. But having said that, there’s no substitute for experience. You can be brilliant, you can be an absolute genius, but experience teaches you if you’ve got time to decide by all the time you can so that you can find out every aspect of what you’re going to decide, not just half of the story, but the total story so you know that you’re not caught by any surprise,” he said.
“Also”, he continued, “be prepared to be a good listener of what goes around you. You’ll have a lot of people with a lot of talent, ability, and also experience. But in the end, if you’ve heard all that, and you’ve got to make a decision, that experience teaches you that you got to be bold. You get nowhere by being timid, or too scared. That tends for you to make half a decision or a very inadequate decision.
We’re celebrated for great ideas and a serious hand break for bad ones, and we’re proud of that. New Zealand First can prove where we have been so right, where we can look back and say if you’d gone down that path, this would have been a disaster, it would have cost you this amount of money. It would never have worked. And there’s often resentment when you do that. But, funny enough, you are you can be, and you’re often so surprised that something that you were the cause of happening, is now being claimed to be the brainchild of someone else in your coalition arrangement. It’s not unheard of,” he revealed.
SUCCESS HAS MANY FATHERS, FAILURE IS ALWAYS AN ORPHAN
New Zealand’s political insiders tend to say that Peters has “turned Jacinda conservative”.
“Is it true that you are in fact behind most of Jacinda’s great policies?” I wondered.
“No, I can’t say that’s all true”, he insisted. “What I can say is that the great policies to do with rejuvenating all the provinces with serious infrastructural investment, a billion trees to change our climate footprint, reviving our defense capacity and now military utilities and assets, putting far greater investment to Foreign Affairs and Trade offshore. There’s a lot of ideas that come from New Zealand First, exclusively. But as I say, success has many fathers, failure is always an orphan. You’ll be surprised how many people claim to be the architect of the policies we’ve been pushing.”
“At a time when politics still has the biggest power to change people’s lives, what is the most important value Winston Peters stands for, a touchstone of New Zealand First?”, was a question I put to him.
“You cannot be in a country of freedom without freedom, this is the most important value that I’ve got. If you look at the canvas of history, democracy and freedoms are pretty rare outcomes for humanity. Most of history it’s been anything but democracy, anything but freedom, anything but the rule of law. There’s been dictatorships and despotism down through the centuries. So that’s the number one value that we’ve got and in my view, all countries matter. Small countries matter, as well as big countries. I can’t emphasize how important it is. Just because you’re small does not mean you can’t be a world leader. We’re not a big place, but in many ways, we’re a very lucky country and our international relationships are based on shared principles that are very important to us,” the Deputy Prime Minister concluded, as New Zealand’s politics continues to write itself.