IF WINSTON PETERS did not exist, the Right would have to invent him – and it can’t. Peters is a product of the assimilationist era of New Zealand’s social history. That period between the end of World War II and the 1970s when the central objective of race relations policy in New Zealand was to create “Brown Pakeha”. Citizens who were proud of their “Maori heritage”, but otherwise determined to make of themselves and their offspring well-educated and well-adjusted citizens of New Zealand.
A young Maori person emerging from the University of Auckland with a law degree in 2021 would be extremely unlikely to see themselves as a Brown Pakeha. In the nearly fifty years that have elapsed since Peters’ graduation, the assimilationist policies of the 1950s and 60s have become the focus of bitter criticism. It is difficult to see a contemporary Maori law graduate devoting their newly-acquired skills to derailing the bi-cultural project on behalf of the Pakeha Right.
That being the case, the Pakeha Right is stuck with Peters. Who else can be sure that his critique of “Maori separatism” will not be met with angry charges of racism and white supremacy? Peters’ Maori ancestry cloaks him like a political force-field, allowing him to speak out fearlessly where Pakeha right-wingers are tongue-tied by timidity.
In addition to his ancestry, Peters brings the invaluable gift of sincerity. He dubbed his party “NZ First” because he is fiercely and unquestionably loyal to the country that made his rise to power and influence possible. He refers often to his dual inheritance: of being a judicious blend of British and Maori cultural influences. The New Zealand he prioritises is a projection of his own experience – the best of both worlds.
Peters’ other big advantage is his age. Many commentators fail to grasp the importance of the fact that he has been a politician for more than forty years. That he entered Parliament in 1979 means that his career has spanned the whole of New Zealand’s recent political history: from the era of his mentor, Rob Muldoon, to that of his erstwhile protégé, Jacinda Ardern (who was not even born when Peters first became an MP). Along with the Baby Boomers and what remains of the Greatest Generation, Peters remembers the “old” New Zealand, and can justly claim to have resisted most of the worst aspects of the “new” New Zealand. Political longevity and consistency, properly presented, can be an attractive combination – as the career of Bernie Sanders attests.
Such is the scale of the problem facing the Right. The sheer impossibility of finding another politician with Peters’ extraordinary credentials. How can they not ask Peters to front the fightback against bi-culturalism and the forces which, in his speech to NZ First’s AGM on Sunday, 20 June 2021, he dubbed (with his trademark wicked accuracy) “Ngati Woke”? Who else is there who can pull the Right’s irons out of the fire?
But, if they can’t invent him, and they can’t do without him, then those committed to preserving the state bequeathed to New Zealanders by the imperialism and colonialism of the Nineteenth Century, and fine-tuned by the social-democratic nation-builders of the Twentieth, are going to have to protect him from the weaknesses that have plagued him from the very beginnings of his political career.
Peters is prone to the worst kind of cronyism: to building and maintaining tight little cliques of confidants and admirers who learn very quickly how to navigate their boss’s idiosyncrasies or find themselves ejected unceremoniously from his inner circle. The danger here for Peters is sycophancy: the absence of a warning hand upon the shoulder in precarious places.
How much more effective Peters might have been as a political leader if he’d been willing to take advice from someone other than himself? Certainly, he could have avoided the pitfalls (and enormous costs) arising out of his seemingly insatiable appetite for litigation. He might also have avoided the many errors arising from his aversion to individuals as talented and ambitious as himself. Those who are truly great recognise and welcome the greatness they see in others. They do not drive it away. To be the only big bullfrog in a tiny pond is no great achievement.
If the Right is serious about asking Peters to defeat Ngati Woke, then it must also, for once, make sure he has all the financial resources needed to do the job. Too often in the past, Peters has been forced into the orbit of interests in the market for a political fixer. If Peters has not learned by now that any attempt to draw a veil of secrecy across such negotiations is bound to end in disaster, then he never will. Under no circumstances should those keen to harness Peters’ talents leave the management of NZ First’s funds to its leader and/or his friends.
This, then, is the Right’s mission – if it is serious about bringing the drive towards a bi-cultural state to a halt. Conservatives must know by now that neither Judith Collins nor David Seymour have the chops for this critical historical task. Only with Peters’ help can Labour be defeated.
But, if the more conservative elements of the ruling-class are serious about bringing into play Peters’ unique strengths, then they must be equally committed to protecting him from his own worst weaknesses. He needs people around him who are not too proud to admit that there is no one else. Experts who know all the latest campaign tricks. A team willing and able to give this extraordinary performer the opportunity to do what he does best: be the Winston Peters that Winston Peters invented.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 22 June 2021.