Winston Peters – anti-immigration party leader is kingmaker in New Zealand

The sharp-tongued 70-year-old lawyer has had a 40-year career in politics

 New Zealand First leader Winston Peters speaks at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention in Manukau on July 16th. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters speaks at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention in Manukau on July 16th. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

 

The cantankerous kingmaker of New Zealand elections, Winston Peters, is once again the person who will determine which party ends up governing, with his New Zealand (NZ) First party holding enough seats to form a coalition with either National or Labour.

With virtually all results counted, National, the incumbent party, is ahead – but with a projected 58 seats, it falls short of the 61 needed to form a majority government.

Labour is forecast to take 45 seats, but with its natural ally the Green party winning a likely seven, a deal with NZ First and its nine seats could get it over the electoral line.

Under New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) voting system, in place since the 1996 general election, both major parties have been forced into sometimes tense relationships with minor parties in order to govern.

NZ First has previously worked with both, entering into a coalition with National in the 1996 election with Peters serving as deputy prime minister and forming an unusual confidence-and-supply agreement with Labour in 2005, which saw him appointed foreign minister.

Current Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has previously promised to call the Greens first, honouring the two parties’ memorandum of understanding.

But in her speech to supporters on election night, she made it clear she was open to talks with Peters, saying she would speak to him on Sunday and making a pointed appeal to some of the NZ First leader’s priorities.

Speaking of people she had met on the campaign trail and would like to help with a Labour government, Ardern mentioned a man in Kaitaia – a deprived town in Peters’ former electorate of Northland. She went on to mention Pike River mine and her desire to help the families of the 29 men who died there to recover their bodies – another pointed appeal to Peters, who has long vowed to “bring the boys home”.

Labour has also promised to cut immigration numbers by up to 30,000, a key theme of New Zealand First’s ideology.

In his own speech, current prime minister and National leader Bill English praised “the strong performance of Winston Peters and New Zealand First”, acknowledging that voters had put them in a position to play a part in the next government. He said he would speak to Peters “over the next few days”.

Peters himself has said he will not be rushed and – somewhat bizarrely – told reporters to stop asking him which party he would back.

Patience

“The decision we will make, it will not be premature, we will make a decision in the interests of all New Zealand, in the national interest and that will take us some time. We invite you to be patient: don’t ask us who we are going to go with.”

Peters (72) a sharp-tongued lawyer from Northland in the North Island, has had a 40-year career in politics, starting out with the National party in the early 1970s.

Verbose, frequently belligerent and engaged in a long-term love/hate affair with the media, Peters relies on the support of working-class voters and frequently stokes fears that foreigners are stealing New Zealand jobs.

“If you examine New Zealand as it once was a country, compared to where it is now all these years on against the rest of the world, you’d have to admit we’ve done very, very badly,” Peters said this week.

“I get credit for standing up for what I believe in and it is the only reason I bother staying in politics because I seriously like to go horse-riding and boating.”

Peters is against taxing water – a key Labour campaign promise – and has promoted a police squad to crack down on gangs, a pledge that overlaps with National’s tough stance on drugs and crime. This could push him and his party closer to a deal with English.

Peters and English have had a generally good relationship throughout their many years in parliament and have developed a mutual respect. That changed this year when the NZ First leader called on the prime minister to resign over a secret recordings scandal linked to a National MP. Peters said at the time: “I don’t believe English is a straight shooter.”

Peters has said that he and Ardern have never had a one-on-one conversation. The two have a shared fondness for whisky, though.

Despite a campaign bus named the “Straight Talk Express”, Peters has been characteristically opaque during this election, keeping his cards close to his chest until someone comes knocking with an attractive enough offer to start negotiating his many “bottom lines”.

But expect immigration to be a key one. “The government deludes the public these migrants are skilled – it’s a myth, most of them are unskilled and drawn to this country in many cases by the generosity of our social services,” Peters said this week.