Which Way Will He Go? This is the choice that Winston Peters must make. To go on doing what he has been doing since 1993: dog-whistling softly – but not at a pitch to arouse the entire kennel – so as to secure for himself and his followers a seat or two at the top table. Or: to do what he has all along known he has the power to do – unleash hell upon the New Zealand political class.
HOW DOES WINSTON PETERS wish to be remembered? In this, the middle year of John Key’s third term as prime minister, the leader of NZ First must surely be asking himself the same question. Will he be recalled, ultimately, as the gad-fly of New Zealand politics? Memorable for the amount of irritation he was able to cause – but for little else. Or, will all that came before the 2017 General Election be seen, simply, as the necessary preparation for the triumph of his final, finest, hour?
His Northland by-election victory, in particular, must be giving him considerable pause. Something was revealed there which can only have sent shivers down the spines of both the National and Labour parties. A vast and inchoate rage, bubbling and churning like magma just below the apparently placid surface of New Zealand politics. There can be little doubt that Peters sensed its presence – hence his unshakeable confidence that the seat was winnable. But, it is doubtful that he foresaw its size and power. On the night of his runaway win, even the wily Mr Peters must have felt a shiver or two.
The same sort of shivers, perhaps, that Dr Don Brash felt when he sat on his sofa and watched the National Party record an unprecedented 17 percentage point surge in the Colmar Brunton opinion poll on the strength of his Orewa Speech. Dr Brash’s right-wing populism came within an ace of victory in 2005. The ground heaved and flattened, heaved and flattened, but, crucially, the magma did not break through. New Zealand did not burn.
Eleven years on from Orewa, as Mr Peters undoubtedly knows, the target of “Middle New Zealand’s” rage is no longer just “Maori privilege” (although that still rankles). In 2016 the unease is generated by much larger and more profound changes in the shape of New Zealand’s population. If the dominant Pakeha fraction of Kiwi society felt challenged by the Maori Renaissance, it is experiencing the early stages of existential dread about the growing influence of Asian immigration.
There is more to this dread that old-fashioned racism. It originates in the pervasive sense that New Zealand is being changed in ways that most New Zealanders have neither asked for nor desired. That decisions concerning their nation’s future have been made on the basis of research and discussion about which most Kiwis remain completely unaware.
New Zealand’s turn towards Asia, for example, and the dramatic shift in population policy it required, have never constituted the core of a Labour or National election manifesto. Both of the major parties have, instead, quietly accepted the advice of an elite group of senior public servants and academics that New Zealand must prepare for a multicultural future, and that this option is much to be preferred to the country remaining a singularly misplaced, and increasingly isolated, outpost of European civilisation.
NZ First was the only political party to question the wisdom and desirability of the Asian turn – and it was viciously criticised for its pains. Taunts of racism are the political class’s stock response to any individual or organisation foolhardy enough to demand a democratic mandate for a population policy as radical as the one into which New Zealanders have been strapped.
Not that the major parties are unaware of the additional heat New Zealand’s unsanctioned population policies are adding to the magma bubbling and churning beneath the surface of its political landscape. Concern over the sale of New Zealand land to foreigners – out of which both National and Labour, as well as NZ First and the Greens, have sought to make political capital – is but the venting of steam and ash.
The whole political class is acutely aware that if New Zealanders’ concerns about the changing composition of their society; their worries about the neglect of provincial New Zealand and the growing economic power of Auckland; and their fear that the country’s future is being determined without a democratic mandate; were ever to become the core of a political party’s electoral appeal, then the whole country could erupt.
This is the choice that Winston Peters must make. To go on doing what he has been doing since 1993: dog-whistling softly – but not at a pitch to arouse the entire kennel – so as to secure for himself and his followers a seat or two at the top table. Or: to do what he has all along known he has the power to do – unleash hell upon the New Zealand political class.
If a single fissure in Northland could lay the Government low, just imagine what a nationwide rupture could do. Yes, New Zealand would burn, but fire is only a bad thing when it destroys what people value. There is much in contemporary New Zealand that its people would happily consign to the flames.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 January 2016.