And A Smile On The Face Of The Tiger: New Zealand has been fortunate in its political encounters with populism. Whether manifested in the Social Credit Political League, the Alliance, or NZ First, Kiwi populist movements have typically been pretty good-natured affairs. Bruce Beetham’s toothy grimace; Anderton’s manic giggle; Peters’ sunburst smile: all have reassured voters of their owners’ fundamentally honourable intentions.
DON BRASH has a story he likes to tell about Winston Peters. The Leader of NZ First had just been appointed “Treasurer” and had accepted the Reserve Bank Governor’s invitation to discuss the Exchange Rate. For years, Peters had been thundering away about the New Zealand Dollar being overvalued. Now that he was Treasurer, and his party was all that stood between National and the Opposition benches, Peters was finally in a position to do something about it. As Governor of the Reserve Bank, Brash considered it his duty to dissuade the populist Samson from pulling down the monetary temple.
As Brash tells the story, Peters just wasn’t that interested – dismissing the whole issue with one of his trademark grins. A few years later, Labour’s Steve Maharey would excuse his own party’s failure to follow through on a promise with the observation that it was just one of those things you say in Opposition and then forget about in Government. Had the Treasurer anticipated Maharey’s insouciance? For Winston Peters, is the journey always more important than the destination?
Throughout his long and eventful career, this curious disjunction between Peters’ fiery pursuit of power, and his considerably less than incendiary application of it, has both infuriated and intrigued his followers. It’s as though, blackballed from the exclusive club of his dreams, Peters has vowed vengeance. Invoking the most dire punishments against arbitrary power and privilege, he’s recruited a vast and menacing army, marched it up to the club’s front door, and incited his followers to smash their way in. Then, having informed his followers that “Winston will take it from here”, Peters carefully replaces the shattered timbers, saunters into to the club bar, flashes the horrified members his most winning smile, and orders … a whiskey.
For Peters it has always been about vindication. The National Party refuses to acknowledge his obvious capacity for leadership? Very well, he will prove it to them by forming a party of his own and leading it into Parliament. The Left brands him a racist? Very well, he will take all of Labour’s Maori seats. The advocates of the Free Market insist that “There Is No Alternative”? Very well, he will demonstrate the electoral appeal of NZ First’s paternalistic capitalism.
Vindication – but not revolution. That was the Alliance’s problem. Its activist base (and on some issues even Jim Anderton himself) wanted to roll back completely the reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. It was a mistake. The MMP electoral system, which transformed both the Alliance and NZ First into viable electoral propositions, was designed specifically to preserve the status quo – not overturn it. The Alliance firebrands were unwilling to live with the compromises of coalition government. Peters and NZ First, by contrast, resigned themselves to racking-up only small victories.
Small – but not unimportant – victories. Making visits to the doctor free for children under six. Securing a “Gold Card” discount scheme for citizens over sixty-five. Gifting them free off-peak public transport. These were the sort of changes that people appreciated every time they took advantage of them. They did not bring the new economic order crashing down, but they did chip away at its ideological pretensions. Peters and NZ First proved that a helping hand could be extended to one’s fellow citizens – without the sky falling.
New Zealand has been fortunate in its political encounters with populism. Whether manifested in the Social Credit Political League, the Alliance, or NZ First, Kiwi populist movements have typically been pretty good-natured affairs. Bruce Beetham’s toothy grimace; Anderton’s manic giggle; Peters’ sunburst smile: all have reassured voters of their owners’ fundamentally honourable intentions. Peters in particular, has always taken care to offset his ferocious rhetorical forays into such fraught areas as Maori-Pakeha relations and Asian immigration by offering the public his most mischievous of conspiratorial grins. As if to say: “What did you think of that? Impressive? Good. Just don’t take any of it too seriously!”
As the years have passed, however, New Zealand’s “Populism With A Smile” has become increasingly difficult to sustain. In relation to the rest of the world, the Alliance and NZ First were movements ahead of their time. Over the past two years, however, the global populist herds have overtaken us with a feral strength not encountered since the darkest years of the 1930s. And, while anger has always driven populism forward, today’s populists are super-charged with unreasoning hatred and rage.
This leaves Peters in a difficult situation. Historically, his aggrieved followers have always allowed themselves to be halted at the gates of power: always willing to “let Winston take it from here.” But, placing himself at the head of a populist movement in 2017 may prove to be an altogether riskier undertaking.
This time the people might insist on going in with him.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 27 June 2017.