Winston Peters has built a political career on scandal so much that it would be ironic if the latest one led to his downfall.
From the late 1980s as a National Party backbencher Peters tried muckraking while Labour was in power engaging in the reform process, with the alleged grounding of a Cook Strait Ferry one of his odd (and failed) attempts at getting attention. However, he didn't have to wait too long to get a new one.
Winston first fronted National Party policy as a reaction to Labour's Maori policy. Winston was railing against the Treaty settlement process with concern about how the benefits of it wouldn't reach grassroots Maori. However, the 1990 election gave more, much more.
National was elected partly on the promise to abolish the hated Superannuation Surtax - that element of Rogernomics that wasn't about liberalisation but about penalising the retired who had made provision for themselves. A throwback to socialism to cover a budget deficit. You see National promised to abolish it, but didn't - sending hundreds of thousands of outraged pensioners into the arms of?
You see around about this time Winston was developing a reputation as a maverick, after he got ejected from Cabinet, the likes of Winston, Michael Laws and more asinine individuals like Gilbert Myles and Peter McIntyre were moaning about the policies of the 1990-1993 National government, most of which were, to be fair, in National's manifesto. However, the betrayal over the Super Surtax hurt National bad. Core supporters looked for somewhere new to go, so in 1992 Winston Peters launched his own political vehicle with - NZ First. NZ First would be the party for pensioners, the party for those outraged by "special treatment for Maori", the party against "big business", the party against "crime". However it had another tinge, which you could see in the name - NZ First. It was nationalism.
Winston Peters railed against foreign investment (yes ironic given recent events), but most insipidly against immigration. He campaigned on the fears of white and Maori lesser educated New Zealanders that Asians migrants were "stealing their jobs" "bringing foreign culture" and "creating separate communities". Winston played his race card, and the votes came in. In 1993, Tau Henare joined him. From then, sensing Maori voters wanted an alternative to Labour, he stopped playing the "anti-Treaty of Waitangi" card and played anti-Asian, anti-foreign, pandering to the greedy grey grizzler vote, Maori voters and the talkback proletariat. He also went on endlessly about the "wine box" of evidence about allegedly dodgy financial arrangements to avoid tax in New Zealand - painting the picture of Winston against the big powerful corporates. Him the little man (apt when you actually encounter him in real life).
He did so well in 1996 saying "to get National out vote NZ First" in his campaign, he was able to play National and Labour like a tune, wandering back and forth between Clark and Bolger like a sleazy businessmen, wondering which prostitute he could negotiate the best price out of. Clark came with Anderton, which was less appealing, and Bolger offered him Treasurer, selling out his own Finance Minister Bill Birch (somewhat), so Winston went with Jim.
The result for Winston devastated his supporters. The Maori voters thought he'd keep Labour honest, and felt betrayed that he kept National in power. The greedy grey grizzler brigade who had a choice of Winston or the Alliance (offering Pam Corkery) aiming for the idiot "government can fix anything vote" also felt betrayed, because National was the great evil party of the "rich". Old people who genuinely felt betrayed by National on the super surtax (and rightfully so) were doubly betrayed by Winston, who went into bed with National.
They ignored that Winston actually ensured the Surtax was repealed in that government- it didn't matter, Winston's voters aren't smart enough to care about policies. He was tainted, and the antics of Tuku Morgan, along with many of his other MPs (remember Deborah Morris, Robin McDonald and the "Tight Five", all thought of as being wasteful and unproductive) hurt NZ First so much Winston nearly lost his seat in 1999 (63 votes between him and oblivion), and his party dropped below 5%.
However, while Labour won back the Maori seats, Winston in 2002 went back to bashing the Treaty of Waitangi, and back to immigrant bashing and crime. National did so badly in convincing voters that it COULD win, that Winston once again took protest votes with over 10%, but in 2005 faced the decline of the protest vote, as Winston offered nothing new. National sucked back half of his support, took his seat of Tauranga back from him, but Winston was wanted by someone.
Labour just made it in 2005, after rallying the Pacific Island vote in South Auckland to vote, but it also found that its partner on confidence and supply - United Future, had been hit rather badly by the election, with a halving or so of its caucus. So while Peter Dunne was a reliable partner, he wasn't enough. So Clark had three options:
- Maori Party. That would've meant surrendering on the Foreshore and Seabed - too much bad blood and too much fear for Labour that it would be unelectable the following election.
- Greens. Undoubtedly workable had the Greens not wanted anything more on GE, or increasing welfare payments or the like. Certainly the Greens may have compromised to get into power.
- NZ First. Well, give away some tricks for pensioners, promise a wider harbour bridge with no tolls and give Winston a serious Ministerial portfolio, and he's happy. NZ First is largely inert.
So you see, Helen Clark tied her government to a man who during his career has sold opposition to the Treaty of Waitangi, opposition to Asian immigration and a barely shielded racism against Asians, opposition to free trade and foreign investment, and an overwhelming emphasis on populism and the politics of envy. A politician who always talked frequently about the dodgy dealings of the wealthy, the likes of Fay Richwhite, the Business Roundtable and other demons he liked to stir for the sake of the great kiwi tall poppy syndrome.
Now Winston has been shown to be the sort of person he himself would have finger pointed at and muckraked. With his Maori constituency as good as evaporated, his semi-literate pensioner supporters dying off, and anti-Labour talkback brigade evacuating to National, what is left for Winston Peters? Nobody every writes him off, he may still struggle through with barely 5% again or the voters of Tauranga may have a rush of blood to anything but their heads again.
However whatever happens to Winston surely will have ramifications for the party who relies on him to remain in government. Labour is continuing to sit with Winston. A position that will surely cost it, unless, of course, Clark is willing to jettison him closer to the election for maximum effect.