John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Brazen Peters back with a vengeance

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Winston Peters. Photo / NZ Herald
Winston Peters. Photo / NZ Herald

As Parliament's Speaker, Lockwood Smith is on a salary of just under $260,000. This year, he is going to earn every last cent.

Smith is going to need the patience of a saint and the wisdom of Solomon to maintain the order he successfully imposed on MPs in the House during his first three years in the job.

The reason can be summed up in two words - Winston Peters. Not only is Peters back. He is back with a vengeance and making up for three years of lost time in the political wilderness.

The New Zealand First leader was expected to spice things up following his party's return. This year's sitting is all of two days old, however. No one expected him to dominate proceedings so soon.

Yesterday's episode of the Winston Peters Show was most notable for a prolonged bout with the Speaker - something which was also inevitable, and sooner rather than later.

Though the pugilism was of the verbal kind, it was as bare-knuckle as the punch-up that preceded Sonny Boy Williams' latest bid for boxing glory.

Yesterday's performance saw Peters continue his torture of the Maori Party with what is looking to be a sustained offensive against Tariana Turia's Whanau Ora programme. At one point, Peters described a forthcoming New Zealand On Air-funded documentary on the subject as a "very expensive brown elephant in the name of the Maori Party".

Sitting just a few seats away and dressed in a fiery-red number which no doubt matched her mood, Turia sensibly bit her tongue, rather than foolishly respond.

Peters' tactics have seen him try to create splits within the Government arrangement by directing his parliamentary questions to the Prime Minister, rather than a Maori Party minister. Not surprisingly, John Key was not playing ball.

Peters complained to Smith. "I just want an answer to my question ... and I expect that you will ask the Prime Minister to give it to me," Peters demanded. Referring to Smith's rulings in the last Parliament that ministers should seriously attempt to answer questions rather than duck them, Peters said he had been told there had been progress in question time. "I want to see it," he added.

Smith, however, was no slouch in the sarcasm stakes either. After lengthy wrangling between Peters and Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee, the Speaker ruled one of Peters' questions actually was in order. "How intelligible it is is another matter ..."

That remark had Peters back on his feet telling Smith he was the one out of order.

The sight of an MP so brazenly challenging the Speaker's word provoked a round of barely suppressed "oohs" and "ahs" from colleague and opponent alike.

Such was Peters' audacity that it provoked an outbreak of bravado, with Labour front-bencher Clayton Cosgrove going as far as wondering aloud whether it was in order for the Speaker to abuse a member of Parliament.

Smith ignored the provocation despite having already threatened to eject Peters from the debating chamber on lesser charges.

This monumental collision of political egos could be billed as the Unstoppable Force (Peters) meeting the Immovable Object (Smith). The next time, something has to give, however.

For Smith, though, there is light at the end of this tunnel. He will be posted to Britain later this year as New Zealand's High Commissioner. London has probably never looked so attractive.

- NZ Herald

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