The Man In The Middle: “When one walks down the centre of the road, one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre.”
- Winston Peters.
With all you’ve got on this week, it’s highly unlikely you’ll have time to read these words. Even so, I thought it was worth adding my ten-cents-worth to the raucous debate about what NZ First should do with the final election result. Your party has been left holding the nine votes needed to assemble a majority in the House of Representatives. As you wryly observed, this puts it between the Devil and the deep blue sea. For the next three years, New Zealand’s future lies in NZ First’s hands.
Before adding anything further, however, let me be very clear about the expectations of the New Zealand political class. In the eyes of all those whose job it is to sell the status-quo to their fellow New Zealanders, your party has no choice at all – it must deliver all nine of its votes to National. Any other choice will earn you, and your party, their bitter – and active – enmity.
That is not something to be casually dismissed. I’m sure the memories of 2008 are still very raw. Even from the perspective of a rank outsider, the behaviour of the political class on that occasion was a whole order of awfulness beyond the norm. How it felt up-close-and-personal, I can only guess. Still, that’s the way the political class rolls. Nine years ago, they needed you gone – and you went. Nine years later they need you to kiss-and-make-up with your former tormentors – and they expect you to do it with feeling. Telling them “No.” would be a mighty-big – and a mighty brave – call.
What is it, then, that tells me a decision in favour of the status-quo is not the decision you wish to make. There’s a clue, perhaps, in the illustrious name you bear. Winston Churchill was a conservative, and yet he served in one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century. In 1940, when vast swathes of conservative Britain were every bit as keen to make peace with the fascists as conservative France, he chose, instead, to lead his people in the paths of righteousness – to their finest hour. It’s part of the explanation for why the political class fears and hates Winston Peters so much: his need to do the right thing – as opposed to the Right thing.
The temptation must be very great to kick this slippery ball of choice into touch, and seat NZ First on the cross-benches. Resist it. A decision to abstain on matters of confidence and supply is just another way of siding with Bill English and his National Party. Keep your NZ First troops out of the fray and the Nats will win every confidence and supply motion by 57 votes to Labour-Green’s 54.
Is that the legacy you wish to leave behind? An enfeebled minority National government kept in power by NZ First’s refusal to strike it down? Never think that by sitting, Caesar-like, on the cross-benches and giving the thumbs-up, or down, to every piece of legislation that comes before the House, you will earn the admiration and support of your fellow citizens. Rather, they will curse you for making such a circus out of their democracy – and such a bonfire out of everything NZ First used to stand for.
Neither Jacinda Ardern, nor James Shaw, possess anything like the quantity of true political grit required to change this country’s economic and social direction. But, if your political career has been about anything, it has been about acquiring the grit needed to, one day, truly put New Zealand first. It was Nietzsche who wrote: “What doesn’t kill us, only makes us stronger.” You have learned the truth of that; and, more importantly, you can teach the next generation of political leaders not only how to survive the difficult choices, but also how to turn them to their advantage.
The National Party needs no such instruction. National and its predecessors represent all those who came to these islands – and who come here still in their thousands – to make money. Their one, unwavering, political objective has always been, and remains, to keep out of office, or drive from power, every individual and/or political party which stands in the way of private enrichment. Bill English and his colleagues have more than enough grit to go on doing what National has always done. Why would you choose to help them?
I wonder if you recall these words you sent me 23 years ago?
“When one walks down the centre of the road, one foot falls slightly to the right, the other to the left, but the head and the heart remain in the centre.”
Changing the government will require a wise head and a great heart. You have until Thursday, Winston, to prove to New Zealand that you possess both.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 10 October 2017.