Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
- Humphrey Bogart (as Rick Blaine) in Casablanca
WINSTON PETERS may have thought he could sit out the looming years of parliamentary conflict on the cross benches. Like Rick Blaine, the flawed hero of Warner Brothers’ classic movie Casablanca, he figured on doing as little harm and as much good as he could, as far away from the action as he could possibly get. But just because you don’t go looking for trouble, doesn’t mean trouble won’t come looking for you. Now trouble has found Winston Peters. Trouble in the shape of a lanky brunette with a bad haircut and a crooked smile. “Here’s looking at you kid.”
Like one of those affairs that seem inevitable to everyone except the participants, Labour and NZ First were bound to get together sooner or later. There’s just too much of the old Labour spirit in Winston. That cussed determination to set an independent course for the New Zealand economy – the vision that drove Coates and Sutch and Kirk - has always been central to NZ First’s philosophy. In much the same way, Winston’s instinctive mistrust of big business, and his realisation that only the state is strong enough to challenge its power, used to be central to Labour’s philosophy.
Most of the men Helen works with aren’t like that. Today’s Labour men tend to resemble the Victor Laszlo character in Casablanca – high-minded types who grasp the theory, but struggle to master the practice. Above all else, Winston is a practical man.
And so, in ways that Winston has yet to appreciate, are the Greens. When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of practical politics, he may find that he and Rod Donald are not so far apart. Sustainability, for example, may turn out to have a great deal in common with forging a multi-party consensus on the optimum size and composition of New Zealand’s population.
The Greens opposition to Free Trade Agreements, their call to “Buy NZ Made”, and their policy of keeping New Zealand land in New Zealand hands, slot easily into Winston’s campaign for economic sovereignty. Both parties also decry the fact that 25 percent of New Zealand children live in poverty, and both have called for the Minimum Wage to be raised to $12 per hour.
Give the deal a year, and Winston may even end up repeating to Rod and Jeanette Rick’s famous line to the Vichy French police captain at the very end of Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
An even closer alliance stands ready to be forged between Winston’s team and the beleaguered remnants of Labour’s right-wing faction.
Right-wing Labour MPs like Phil Goff, Clayton Cosgrove and Damien O’Connor will find ready-made allies in the likes of Ron Mark, Peter Brown and Doug Wollerton. These are men who can be relied upon to hold the line against the Labour Left and the Greens’ obsession with unpopular causes.
It may even have occurred to the wily Mr Peters that his current core constituency of elderly New Zealanders isn’t getting any younger. If it is to grow and prosper in the 21st Century, NZ First needs to expand its electoral base beyond white-haired old women and grumpy old men. This is especially pertinent given Winston’s surprise defeat in Tauranga.
In Labour’s socially conservative, blue-collar voters there lies a vast reservoir of potential NZ First support. Fed up with “political correctness”, sick of the Treaty, opposed to mass immigration, punitive when it comes to drugs and crime, instinctively protectionist and proudly patriotic, these voters used to regard the incautious Mr Tamihere as their spokesman. Now that he’s no longer in Parliament, they may be in the market for a new champion.
It’s not a silly idea. Jim Anderton and Matt Robson have spent the last three years trying to persuade Labour’s blue-collar battlers to switch over to the Progressive Party. Unfortunately for Jim and Matt – especially Matt - the fledgling party was sending out too many mixed messages. On the one hand there was the Progressive Party’s popular stance on drugs and the drinking age; on the other, its decidedly unpopular championing of Ahmed Zaoui and the rights of refugees.
Winston Peters and his team are in no danger of getting their messages mixed. No one is likely to mistake Ron Mark for a bleeding-heart liberal.
On some issues, however, Winston and his colleagues will have to tread carefully. Granting confidence and supply to a Labour-Progressive minority government presupposes a willingness on NZ First’s part to engage both more frequently and more effectively with organised labour. The same social conservatives who applaud Peter’s stance on Ahmed Zaoui, will look askance at any attempt to undermine workers’ rights in the workplace.
Once again, NZ First and its leader may discover they have allies in the unlikeliest places. Winning a $2.50 increase in the Minimum Wage is not the worst way to kick off a closer relationship with the Council of Trade Unions. And Winston Peters’ distinct lack of enthusiasm for Labour’s proposed Free Trade Agreement with China is unlikely to get him off on the wrong foot with CTU economist, Peter Conway, or the Engineers Union boss, Andrew Little.
Nearly ten years ago, in the April/May 1996 issue of NZ Political Review, Bruce Jesson attempted to define the phenomenon that was Winston Peters. Jesson felt aggrieved that his fellow political journalists were always so quick to brand him as both a racist and a populist:
“I personally think that they have consistently misjudged Peters as a politician. His strength as a politician is that he has the ability to cause a sensation, but that does not make him simply a sensationalist. He has the ability to tap popular feeling, but that does not of itself make him a populist (whatever that means in the New Zealand context).”
Jesson took a kinder and more measured view of his subject:
“Perhaps the truth is that Peters is a sensationalist with an element of sincerity? Who knows? Probably not even Peters. It doesn’t matter anyway because Peters’ importance is his role not his motives. His role is indicated by the name he has chosen for his party: New Zealand First. And it is indicated by the things he campaigns about, because there is a consistent thread running through them. He is as fiercely opposed to foreign investment as he is to the government’s immigration policies. Peters is a rarity in New Zealand, he is a nationalist – probably our only serious nationalist politician since Norman Kirk, or perhaps even John A. Lee.”
It is significant, I think, that both of the politicians to whom Peters is compared by Jesson were from Labour.
At this point in its history, New Zealand stands in need just such a nationalist politician. Already, in the private seminars and political briefings paid for by the big corporations, there is talk about the changes our association with the burgeoning economies of Asia is bound to bring. Hints that our Enlightenment faith in individual liberty and the Rights of Man may have to be modified if we are not to antagonise our new “partners”.
Winston Churchill heard similar whispers in the early months of 1940 – and rejected them. Britain, he knew, was more than a collection of islands, it was a collection of ideas. Ideas too valuable to surrender for the paltry “rewards” of a dictated “peace”. Ideas worth fighting for.
It’s that same determination to stand and fight that lifts the movie Casablanca so far above the ordinary Hollywood fare. The unlooked for appearance of the idealistic Ilsa, draws forth a kindred response from the world-weary Rick. In the end we discover that the hero’s dead-pan, wise-cracking persona hides something altogether more admirable - more noble.
So play it Winston. Play it one more time.
You know what we want to hear.
You played it for Bolger, now play it for Clark.
If he could stand it, so can she.
This essay was originally published in The Independent of Wednesday, 19 October 2005.