IF (OR SHOULD THAT BE ‘WHEN’) Winston Peters hits the comeback trail, Labour should look to its defences. Having transformed their erstwhile NZ First ally into a sworn enemy, Labour’s leadership will likely be forced to rely on the Greens to keep them in office. That reliance may end up costing Labour much more than anything NZ First ever asked it to pay.
The “crime” for which Peters and his party will be seeking vengeance is the deliberate suppression of the He Puapua Report. I must confess to missing this aspect of the He Puapua story. My assumption was that there were still enough people around Jacinda Ardern with the political smarts to spot the report’s enormous potential for inflicting electoral damage, and that is why it was kept under wraps until the 2020 general election was safely out of the way.
It took a journalist of Richard Harman’s insight and experience to identify the real reason. Writing on his Politik website, Harman put it like this:
“[S]ources close to NZ First believe the decision to keep He Puapua from Cabinet was deliberate. Once it had gone to Cabinet it would have been seen by NZ First’s four Cabinet Ministers and they would have been able to campaign on it; veto it and thus kill it. But now, NZ First are out of Parliament and the document is public.”
Like all shrewd observations, when you see it written down in black and white, Harman’s conclusion seems obvious. Had Peters known of its existence, he would have fallen upon He Puapua as a gift from God. No one has a more fearsome reputation for “fighting Maori separatism” than Winston. He Puapua, and all it represents, could have been sold to the electorate as the best possible reason for keeping the NZ First “handbrake” in place. Peters would have had little difficulty in painting a Labour-Green majority as both unable and unwilling to prevent the report’s “Maori separatist agenda” from being rolled out in its entirety. NZ First could have billed itself as the Kiwi voter’s insurance against extremism.
It is important to remember the time-line here. He Puapua was presented to the then Minister of Maori Development, Nanaia Mahuta, in November 2019. Had it gone to Cabinet, Peters and his fellow NZ First ministers would have had close to a year to position it at the centre of their 2020 election campaign strategy. Even with the Covid-19 wind at its back, Labour was unable to prevent the nationalist and conspiratorial Right from amassing over 6 percent of the 2020 Party Vote. Had Winston had He Puapua to play with, there is every chance he would have claimed the lion’s share of that vote (and quite possibly a bonus sliver of National’s) to take him safely over the 5 percent MMP threshold.
Ironically, such a result may have served Labour’s long-term interests a great deal better than NZ First’s failure to be returned to Parliament. In retrospect, Winston’s judicious application of the conservative handbrake, looks suspiciously like a plus, not a minus, for Jacinda Ardern’s coalition government. It arguably prevented her from making a number of deeply unpopular decisions – as well as providing her with a handy excuse for not keeping her promises.
No chance of that now. All the major players in NZ First have been made aware of Labour’s deadly sin of omission. If they’re clever (and they can be) they will turn the suppression of He Puapua into a dark betrayal myth: a fundamental gesture of bad faith and ingratitude which cries out for vengeance.
Two years from now, the howling Covid gale that blew Labour into an absolute parliamentary majority will (hopefully) have sunk to a gentle zephyr. With “normalcy” restored, the electorate will be much less disposed to accept excuses for abject government failure, and much more willing to listen to alternative and harshly critical voices. Chances are that in 2023 National and Act will still have the biggest sound systems, but, as has happened three times before under MMP, it may prove to be Winston’s little loud-hailer that contributes the decisive voice.
And the inspiration for the song he’ll be singing will be He Puapua – but not in a good way.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 7 May 2021.