Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Winston Peters: Regional NZ will be our election battleground

Winston Peters and other NZ First MPs will focus on the regions during next year's election campaign.Photo / Andrew Warner.
Winston Peters and other NZ First MPs will focus on the regions during next year's election campaign.Photo / Andrew Warner.

New Zealand First will ramp up its focus on the regions ahead of the election and has interest from candidates who could wrest seats from National, leader Winston Peters says.

As recent polls indicate Peters could be king-maker next year the party holds its annual conference in Dunedin this weekend with the theme "it's time".

In an interview with the Herald before the conference, Peters said the party would redouble its focus on regional New Zealand to grow its vote.

The 71-year-old has spent less time in Parliament lately in favour of his Northland electorate and the regions, with recent trips to Dunedin, Dannevirke and Kaikohe.

"We are seriously getting around the provinces," he said. "The Greens can cough and get in the media. We pack halls and don't. We pack halls in this country like no other political party."

There has been growing speculation that former Labour MP Shane Jones will leave the diplomatic corps and stand for NZ First in Whangarei against National MP Shane Reti.

Peters would not name names but said there were more people interested in standing for NZ First than any time in its 23-year history.

"There are seats around the country that we can capture...we have a list of them but we are not disclosing where they are at this point in time.

"We are keeping our powder shot dry. We won Northland by totally and utterly ambushing their arrogance. So you can understand our desire to keep our plans to ourselves."

At least five people are understood to be interested in being the next National candidate to try and wrest back Northland, lost to Peters in 2015's byelection.

Peters said a lack of progress on infrastructure in the region including bridges, motorways and broadband meant he was relaxed about any challenge.

NZ First deputy-leader Ron Mark has recently turned attention from National to Labour during exchanges in Parliament, accusing the fellow opposition party of stealing policy.

Labour leader Andrew Little and immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway have raised concerns about the calibre of many low-skilled immigrants arriving in New Zealand.

And Peters reacted angrily after Little said the party was considering policy that would write-off student debt for graduates who worked in certain public service jobs in the regions - similar to existing NZ First policy.

NZ First had been called racist and xenophobic for calling for lower immigration levels in the past, Peters said, and didn't like to see other long-standing policies "stolen".

"We are not being critical, we are just saying imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but own up to where you got it from. I don't want to go down to see some patent lawyers to stop this copyright infringement going on every five minutes."

He did not think much of the memorandum of understanding between Labour and the Green Party: "It's not for me to comment on what their political strategy might be. Suffice to say it's not a winning one".

Peters continued his long-standing position of not commenting on possible coalition deals after the election.

Other NZ First MPs are evidently happy with the latest polling - Clayton Mitchell tweeted a link to an opinion piece on a recent Newshub poll with the message, "It's no longer 'if' Peters is kingmaker".

The king-maker question will almost certainly come up during media interviews over the weekend. But Peters said the party's focus was instead on growing membership through an expanding number of party offices, and a new online approach to connect directly with voters.

"Will we be ready for [the election's] ramifications? Of course we will be ready. But we don't talk about it as a caucus. In fact, I do my best to discourage anybody worrying about where they fit in the day after the election."

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 21 Oct 2016 23:38:00 Processing Time: 547ms