Twenty-nine years after fighting his way into Parliament on a court-ordered recount, Winston Peters was yesterday voted back into the wilderness.
One of the great survivors of New Zealand politics, Peters lost the last of his nine lives yesterday, at the end of a campaign that was fraught with difficulty.
Beset by allegations over party funding and caught in a net largely of his own making, he was thrashed by National’s Simon Bridges in Tauranga. His party New Zealand First looked likely to trouble the 5 per cent threshold as early votes were counted, then dipped away as the evening wore on. And so, Peters was out of a job. Parliament had lost its most colourful character, its snappiest dresser, a clever debater and a man who had been an effective Foreign Minister in the previous Government.
In defeat, he arrived at his party headquarters in Tauranga, still wearing his famous smile. “It’s about the people’s voice, the people’s will and the people’s view,” he told his supporters.
The issues NZ First had fought for had not gone away “as we will see in the next three years”‘, he said. “It’s been a marvellous experience, a tremendous experience.”
It is too early to say it is the political end of Peters, 63. He has fought his way out of deep holes in the past, and was even voted out of Parliament from 1982 until 1984.
Peters long had the ability to sniff the wind and successfully tap into the desires of some sections of New Zealand society. He couldn’t work his charm this time, as he was forced into fighting attacks on several fronts going into this campaign, and that sapped his ability to chase votes. His snapping, growling attack-dog approach to those who queried him wore thin, and his (mostly) elderly supporter base ebbed away just enough to drop his party under the 5 per cent threshold.
Peters defied the odds to get into Parliament for the first time, with a court-ordered recount taking Hunua for National in 1979. He defied the odds to win Tauranga as an independent in 1993, after being expelled from the National Party cabinet. At that time his personal popularity was higher than that of prime minister Jim Bolger. In 1999 he again defied those who predicted his political demise, as his popularity plunged. He had led New Zealand First into an immensely unpopular coalition with National, which had then fallen apart.
Treasurer in that ill-fated government, he barely staved off doom, battling back from the “campaign from hell” to hold Tauranga by 63 votes. By 2002 he was on the rise again, with NZ First winning 10 per cent of the vote, and 13 seats. He survived being kicked out of Cabinet by two National Party Prime Ministers — by Bolger in October 1991 when Peters was a National MP, then by Jenny Shipley in 1998, when NZ First and National were in unhappy coalition.
But 2008 seems to have proved a ballot too far, even for a survivor of his quality.
At times he was tagged redneck and racist for his stands on law and order, immigration and the Waitangi treaty industry, his key election policies.
Historian Michael Bassett in 2002 told NZPA he suspected Mr Peters was in politics out of self-interest, not out of interest for New Zealand. “You must start from the assumption that’s he always had the interests of Winston first, second, third and fourth — the country gets a little bit of a look in at point five.”