Winston Peters: Behind the man about to take charge

Winston Peters must be one of the most familiar faces in New Zealand. His unique one-two hit of a peppery comment followed by a cheeky grin has been a regular appearance on our televisions for several decades.

And yet he remains an enigma, possibly because he is full of apparent contradictions.

He's a celebrity politician, but he's described as extremely private. He's the longest-serving politician currently in Parliament but has long complained about the "shiny bums" in Wellington - lifelong politicians and public servants out of touch with the people of New Zealand.

Winston Peters answers questions on his way into the House.
Winston Peters answers questions on his way into the House. Photo credit: Anna Bracewell-Worrall/Newshub.

There are more contradictions - the very first seat Mr Peters stood in was Northern Māori in 1975, one of the four former Māori seats. That was for the National Party. New Zealand First went on to win all the Māori seats in 1996. He's since campaigned for a referendum on removing those seats and, to go full circle on contradictions, he formed a 2017 Government that put National in Opposition.

But is he really a man of contradictions? Look back over Mr Peters' career and he's more consistency than contradiction. He's always stood up for the elderly, the poor, the rural. He appears to have long held a deep distrust of corporates, the media, of powerful institutions. He's a lawyer, and a lawyer through every pore - he entered Parliament after a court-ordered recount on the Hunua electorate in 1979.

Minister for Children Tracey Martin has known Mr Peters for years, first within the party and then within his caucus. At one point she was his deputy leader.

"He's not that complicated. He stands for what is the best for his country," she told Newshub from her office in the Beehive.

Tracey Martin and Jacinda Ardern at a post-Cabinet post-Cabinet press conference.
Tracey Martin and Jacinda Ardern at a post-Cabinet post-Cabinet press conference. Photo credit: Newshub.

Those consistencies might be what's kept such a steady support base around him. For a minor party, New Zealand First has had impressive staying power. Since its inception in 1993, it's been in and out of Parliament, but for the most part, it's landed safely inside the halls of power. It's been in government three times.

Mr Peters told Newshub Nation in almost an offhand comment earlier this year he has "a great deal of sympathy for... even-handed fairness".

At its essence, that's an idea that underpins his politics. He saw the neoliberalism of National in the 90s as unfair and bad for New Zealand, so much so that he left the party and started NZ First.

After coalition negotiations with Labour and National, Mr Peters famously referenced the importance of opposing that neoliberalism to NZ First.

"Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism not as their friend but as their foe, and they are not all wrong. That is why we believe capitalism must regain its responsible; its human face. That perception has influenced deeply NZ First's negotiations," he said before announcing he would support Labour into power.

"If you go back to the difficulties he had in the Cabinet of the National Party, he was arguing against neoliberal ideas he saw doing harm to his country," Ms Martin said. "When it came to negotiations for this election just gone, that was all about policies that have been doing harm in this country for 25 years. He stood against those policies for all that time."

Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley told Guyon Espiner on 9th Floor: Conversations With Five New Zealand Prime Ministers if it wasn't for the complicated fall-out over neo-liberalism, Mr Peters could have had the top job.

Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.
Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. Photo credit: Getty

"Winston could have been Prime Minister, but for want of himself. His complexity often got ahead of his capability... but, look, on a good day he was brilliant," she said.

One researcher Newshub spoke to said Mr Peters is extremely accomplished at reading his electorate and tapping into existing feelings, many of them populist. His campaign bus was called the "straight talk express", decreasing immigration is his main platform, he loves to dish it out to the media and NZ First believes in "one law for all". All are hallmarks of populist politics.

That populism has often had Mr Peters accused of racism. In January 2017, Gareth Morgan called Mr Peters an "Uncle Tom", compared him to Don Brash and said Mr Peters "gets away with anti-Treaty stuff" because of the "old adage that you can't be racist against your own race." 

And then there's the China stuff. In 2002, Mr Peters said "Asianisation by stealth" was occurring in New Zealand. In 2014, he warned against foreign investment in the farming sector, saying: "Two Wongs don't make a white." In 2017, National's Melissa Lee accused him of "race-baiting" after complaining about a crew from a Chinese airline moving into a former affordable housing area in Auckland.

Winston Peters offering some light relief: wearing a tie reading TGIF ("Thank God it's  Friday") during coalition negotiations.
Winston Peters offering some light relief: wearing a tie reading TGIF ("Thank God it's Friday") during coalition negotiations. Photo credit: File

New Zealand First politicians often complain about being misunderstood on these issues of race. "Everyone thinks we are the racist party, that we hate Asians," Ms Martin said. "Some of our strongest relationships as a party are with members of the Chinese community, Taiwanese community in New Zealand.

"[Mr Peters] garners a huge amount of respect in Asia because he's a strong leader. He is very polite. There is a way things should be done and you do them properly.

"You show an incredible amount of respect for your host, but your message should be clear and you should stand up for your people. That's really well respected."

Comments on issues of race, in particular, tend to land Mr Peters controverisal media coverage, and that often means combatative-style interviews. As much as he enjoys a battle of words, though, Mr Peters also knows when to flash his great big smile.

Winston Peters in North Korea in his former stint as Foreign Affairs Minister.
Winston Peters in North Korea in his former stint as Foreign Affairs Minister. Photo credit: DPR Kprea

Many journalists have stories about drinking into the night with Mr Peters. There's one tale about Mr Peters wandering in to the original Shanghai Lil's in downtown Auckland, only to realise it was packed out with rowdy print journalists from the NZ Herald and Sunday Star Times. He looked around the room, made a joke about his own misfortune and stayed for drinks.

As for his background, Mr Peters was number six of 11 children. He was born in Whananaki, a small Northland town about an hour out of Whangarei. It was 11 April 1945 and World War Two was drawing to a close. Mr Peters would be named after the most World War II of political figures - Winston Churchill.

Mr Peters told Listener in 2017 he thinks he has some similarities to his namesake. "We were both bad students, had independence of thinking, were prepared to make our own way and saw that what you do is going to determine your future in more beneficial ways than people think," he said. 

Like Churchill, Mr Peters is an old-fashioned man in many respects. Manners are important.

For Mr Peters, "there's a way that things are done, and they should be done properly," Ms Martin said. "[He tries] very hard not to embarrass people or put them in their place.

"The other thing as a set of values is he does believe women should be treated with a lot of respect. I've articulated before [that] he has a 1950s attitude to how women should be treated with regard to pulling out a chair, opening a door, never swearing in her presence. If she needs a glass of wine, you will get her a glass of wine, and he tried to imprint that on male MPs.

"But when it comes to where does a smart idea come from, he doesn't care. He doesn't care as to who has the right qualities in the right moment for the right job.

"He has a sense of values about how women should be treated, but that does not flow into the positions he thinks women should hold inside business or inside politics."

Winston Peters - polite as ever - stands behind Ms Ardern as she addresses media.
Winston Peters - polite as ever - stands behind Ms Ardern as she addresses media. Photo credit: Newshub.

Ms Martin insisted people will be surprised by Mr Peters as Prime Minister. It will be no big drama, she said.

"His leadership style is so democratic that sometimes it's really annoying," she said.

"He is the political rockstar of our time. If you wander anywhere with him, everybody wants a selfie... I don't think we'll see his like again."