Meet Fletcher Tabuteau, Winston Peters' new deputy leader

Fletcher Tabuteau with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the launch of the Regional Growth Fund.
Fletcher Tabuteau with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the launch of the Regional Growth Fund. Photo credit: Facebook

New Zealand First's new deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau just laughs when asked if Winston Peters is going to step down any time soon. 

It's not a stepping stone to the leadership; the role is not even particularly outward facing, he says. 

NZ First is just the latest of the parties to shed a couple of layers of epidermis.

National's new leader Simon Bridges was selected with a catch-cry of 'generational change'. 

Our Prime Minister's age is branded across the brain of the entire nation, and now New Zealand First, bastion of the Super Gold Card, is going through a backroom metamorphis.

Mr Tabuteau takes 20 years off the last deputy leader - 64-year-old Ron Mark - and has a lot more hair. It is grey, though, he notes.

Ron Mark and Winston Peters at Ratana this year.
Ron Mark and Winston Peters at Ratana this year. Photo credit: Newshub.

The change is partly about bringing in new perspectives, he says.

I say it's also undeniably about the optics.

This past election saw the party focus less on older voters, taking a bus around the regions, talking about immigration, jobs, farming and regional development.

"It was easy to appeal to the younger demographic because we've got Darroch Ball, who is in his 30s, and I might be severely greying but I don't look too old yet," Mr Tabuteau says, speaking to Newshub from the airport on Thursday night, when MPs traditionally jet home to their electorates for a Friday dealing with local issues.

"Hopefully people can connect visually and see themselves in you and think that's a person who could represent them."

Fletcher Tabuteau.
Fletcher Tabuteau. Photo credit: Supplied

The deputy leadership change is no doubt an attempt to diversify the leadership in the hopes of widening the voter base, because the party has a challenge ahead of it. 

Across the world, minor parties struggle to keep up their vote when they join coalitions with major parties. 

NZ First has entered both confidence and supply and coalition agreements in the past. Both times its vote dropped to below 5 percent in the following election. As a result it spent one term out of Parliament. In the other it got back in by the skin of its electorate seat.

"My stepping up to the deputy leadership is a message about the future. Not my future necessarily, but to highlight that we've got a younger generation in the party," Mr Tabuteau says.

He acknowledges there will be challenge, come 2020.

"You've got a Prime Minister who is doing a wonderful job and has wonderful broad appeal, and I think that's a fantastic thing in terms of engagement and empowering the Government to get on and do its job.

"But the reality for NZ First is we have to make sure that we differentiate ourselves as an integral part of that Government.

"It's beholden on us as MPs and our membership to get out there and make sure people know it."

He reckons the answer lies partly in the regions, and NZ First's coalition gains, including the Regional Development Fund.

If it wasn't for NZ First, "we wouldn't be talking about the fund and rejuvenating and getting that life blood pumping back into the regions and the economy," he said.

Mr Tabuteau is regions and small business through and through.

A long-term Rotorua local, he was born there and had a "blessed" childhood there. His parents, who both "passed away too early", ran small business Tabuteau's Drapery in Murupara. 

He still lives in the land of the two lakes, now with his wife and two children. 

Mr Peters values the loyal, and Mr Tabuteau has been a long-term member of the party. He joined the party at its inception 25 years ago. At a local level, he's been a committee member, treasurer, chair. His uncle, Tommy Gear, is a close friend of Mr Peters.

Why join New Zealand First? He spent many years campaigning at a local level, only entering Parliament in 2014, yet stuck around. Why?

"A passion for equality," Mr Tabuteau says. "A New Zealand that everyone believes in, everyone having a fair chance and making sure that what the Government is doing now - which is looking at how a rising tide can lift all boats."

During the campaign, people would say they were voting for National, for Labour, for the Greens, the Maori Party or for Winston Peters. One of those things is not like the others. So, what is it about Winston Peters?

"He won't like me saying it, but he's a superstar. People immediately recognise him. He's had an amazingly long, tumultuous political career. 

"People love the way he has so eloquently fought on their behalf on the issues over the years, so there's a connection there."

"I had the privilege of seeing it first hand during the by-election in particular. It's a powerful thing."


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