Way back in 1979, when New Zealand prime minister Chris Hipkins was in nappies and his likely replacement was in primary school, Winston Peters entered parliament for the first time, fresh off a court battle to overturn the election night result and win his seat.
That fight has never stopped. In the 45 years since the pugilistic populist has been booted from parliament three times, but made it back in both 1984 and 2011. An increasing number of polls now indicate his party, New Zealand First, will once again return at next month’s election and hold the balance of power, its votes necessary to form a government.
Usually we would call Peters “the kingmaker” at such a point, but since he has ruled Labour out and Labour have ruled him out, there are only really two options on the table – NZ First supporting a National-led government or the country being forced into another election.
National leader Christopher Luxon seems to have decided on the first option, releasing a video saying he was open to working with Peters if necessary.
This would put him at the top of a chaotic coalition between his own centre-right National Party, the further right Act Party, and the populist NZ First, which can fit into the centre, the right, and the left on different days.
For many, Peters’ continuing prominence showcases the issue with New Zealand’s proportional electoral system, where one party can rarely govern alone. NZ First is polling at just over the 5% threshold which would let it enter parliament, meaning about 19 in 20 voters are not supporting him. Yet because there will be no other option for Luxon to form a government, Peters could have a strong influence, as he did in 1996, 2005, and 2017. These critics ignore the fact that NZ First clearly has a constituency, even if it isn’t giant, and that his party could largely be stopped from ever holding this kingmaker position if both major parties ruled out working with him, or lowered the threshold so a wider array of parties in the centre were elected. These actions are unlikely because no matter how much many find him distasteful, Peters can be a fairly reasonable coalition partner – he didn’t stop New Zealand’s world-leading Covid response in 2020 or blow up the foreign affairs portfolio in either of his stints in that high-profile role.
So who is the 78-year-old Peters, and what would he want out of a new government?
It can be easy to fit Peters into the mould of “right-wing populist”. He started a party called NZ First which fights to lower the rate of immigration. He has repeatedly attacked Asian immigrants. He puts on a strong performance of hating the news media – he once wrote a whole press release about me – but usually insults us with a big grin on his face. This election campaign he’s been sucking up to those opposed to Covid vaccines and campaigning to ban trans women from women’s bathrooms.
But Peters is also New Zealand’s most prominent Māori politician, and the one who opted to back liberal darling Jacinda Ardern over Catholic conservative Bill English at the 2017 election. His early political career was dedicated to fighting the stripping back of the state by successive Labour and National governments, and he retains a taste for a big-spending paternalistic government. When in government, as he was with Labour twice and National once, his party is generally very good at stopping things it doesn’t like from happening, but not particularly strong at enacting many of the big populist promises he has made over the years. For example, he killed off Labour’s attempt to remove the Three Strikes sentencing provision in 2018 and introduce a capital gains tax, but did not introduce a royalty on bottling New Zealand’s water, or remove sales tax on basic food items.
It could well be that prophylactic skill which is giving Peters his latest burst of support. Peters managed to stop some of the left-wing dreams of Labour in its first term – perhaps some voters are keen to see him hold back Luxon and Seymour from stripping back the state or raising the pension age.
The voters who want NZ First to actually do things – whether that be a compensation scheme for losing their jobs from a vaccine mandate or moving Auckland’s port to Northland – are less likely to see these policies enacted. But he will be able to give them his trademark grin and make it clear that he’s making life difficult for all the other politicians – the ones who aren’t as honest as him. In an era when so much of politics concerns resentment and revenge, that could be just the ticket.