NZ Election 2020: Timeline of Winston Peters' 'polarising' and 'remarkable' political career

NZ First leader Winston Peters is being described as a "polarising" and "remarkable" politician after his party failed to get back into Parliament. 

New Zealand First didn't meet the five percent threshold to get back into Parliament in the 2020 election, getting just 2.7 percent of the party vote and failing to win a seat. 

Peters remained coy about his party's future on Saturday night while he thanked volunteers, staff and supporters at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell. 

"To those who have been successful tonight, congratulations and best wishes," he said.

"For 27 years there's been one party that's been prepared to question the establishment and challenge authority and tonight more than ever that force is still needed.

"For in any challenge, it is the preparedness to stand up and take on the challenge, win or lose, what really matters.

"And as for our next challenge, you will have to wait and see."

Political commentator Grant Duncan said Peters, 75, has had a remarkable career of ups and downs. 

"The Winston Peters story is a remarkable biography. He established a reputation for himself as a person who was good at pulling off the electoral victory against the odds… they called him 'the comeback kid'."

Peters' career has spanned decades and seen him knocked out of Parliament more than once, fall out with the National Party and hold the country to ransom as kingmaker multiple times. 

Despite the controversies, Duncan said over the years Peters has cemented himself as a charming and straightforward, if not polarising, politician.

"There are people who just want to get rid of him but then there are people who, even though they might disagree with him, quite admire his style and his directness and his wit."

"He doesn't mind lashing out at someone… and there have been moments where he's been extremely frustrating. He can be very slippery and sly and sometimes a little bit too clever for his own good."

Despite his polarising nature, Duncan says Peters and his party have served an important political role. 

"I think we will look back and think that NZ First served a really important purpose in New Zealand politics, despite all its weirdness and the cantankerous leadership. We shouldn't rubbish them."

Duncan says the party's importance may be highlighted if more extreme parties, such as Advance NZ or the New Conservatives, take its votes. 

"NZ First has taken some anti-immigration standpoints in the past and if you look at the opinions of many NZ First voters they do tend towards those… anti-immigration, anti-political correctness opinions and some of them tend to be prone to those right-wing conspiracies."

"NZ First soaks up a lot of that kind of… opinion but the party itself is not an anti-establishment party. 

"What troubles me is that with NZ First gone, and surely it can't be long before Peters retires from politics, who fills that gap."

Peters hasn't shied away from controversy over the years, Duncan said, pointing to the winebox inquiry. 

In 1992 Peters made repeated claims in Parliament about fraud and incompetence by both the Inland Revenue Department and the Serious Fraud Office. The saga became known as the winebox inquiry after Peters brought documents to support his claims to Parliament in a wine box. A controversial Commission of Inquiry found that there was no fraud or incompetence.

Another notable moment was in 2008 when John Key said he would never work with NZ First. At the time, Key's decision was described as a "killer blow" and saw NZ First knocked out of Parliament, but not for long. 

"Key delivered the killer blow… But then Winston came back in 2011 campaigning with the objective of getting into opposition…"

"And he succeeded. Not many people could pull that off, getting knocked out of Parliament in one election and coming back in the next. That was quite a feat," Duncan said. 

Timeline of Winston Peters' political career:

  • 1975 election - Winston Peters stands unsuccessfully for the National Party in the Northern Māori electorate seat.
  • 1978 election - Peters stands for National in the seat of Hunua and wins but only after overturning the election-night results in the High Court. 
  • 1981 election - Peters loses his seat.
  • 1984 election - Peters wins the Tauranga seat. 
  • 1987 election - Peters moves up to National's Opposition front bench and becomes the spokesperson for Māori Affairs, Employment, and Race Relations. 
  • 1990 election - Peters becomes Minister of Māori Affairs in the National Government.
  • 1991 - Prime Minister Jim Bolger sacks Peters from Cabinet after he criticised his own Government's economic, fiscal and foreign ownership policies. 
  • 1993 election - Peters resigns from National and forms New Zealand First. 
  • 1996 election - As the leader of NZ First, Peters won 17 seats in Parliament and held the balance of power because neither National nor Labour had enough seats to govern alone. It was widely believed Peters would go with Labour because of his falling out with National but after over a month of negotiations, Peters formed a coalition with National becoming the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer - the latter role was created for him. 
  • 1998 - The coalition dissolves after Bolger is replaced by Jenny Shipley.
  • 1999 election - NZ First returns to Opposition before forming a coalition Government with Labour Party Prime Minister Helen Clark.  
  • 2005 to 2008 - Peters serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
  • 2008 election - NZ First fails to reach the 5 percent threshold and Peters loses his seat after a funding scandal. 
  • 2011 election - NZ First sees a resurgence in support winning 6.8 percent of the party vote and gaining eight seats in Parliament. 
  • 2014 election - NZ First wins 8.66 percent of the party vote, winning 11 seats in Parliament. 
  • 2017 election - Peters loses his Northland electorate seat but his party wins 7.2 percent of the vote, securing 9 seats in Parliament. Peters once again held the power to decide the next Prime Minister. After nearly a month of negotiations, Peters entered a coalition government with the Labour Party and the Green Party on a confidence and supply agreement. The coalition saw Peters become the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
  • 2018 - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes six weeks of maternity leave and Peters takes on the role of Acting Prime Minister.  
  • 2020 election - NZ First fails to receive 5 percent of the party vote.