There are votes out there to be won - angry, disillusioned, and alienated New Zealanders that Winston Peters is positioning himself to win over in his aim to become the most important politician at the general election next year. His recent speeches, policy announcements and conference activity all show that New Zealand First is attempting to ride - with renewed vigour - whatever populist wave there is to catch at the moment. Peters is therefore more in touch with this Zeitgeist of angry public feeling than perhaps any other politician.
The key to catching the current wave of discontent is channelling an anti-political message. Indeed, Winston Peters and his party are giving a lesson in what it means to be "anti-everything". Below are some of the stances that we've been seeing from New Zealand First.
Winston Peters and his deputy Ron Mark want you to believe that in rejecting National and Labour and voting for New Zealand First you are "casting a plague on both their houses" - i.e. giving a two-finger salute to the major political parties. This is why both politicians are strongly pushing the line that Labour and National are as bad as, and barely discernable from, each other. This appeals to a public that is sick of all politicians.
Ron Mark says: "Enough is enough. These two old hats - National and Labour - have had their day. It's time this country woke up to the fact that these two recidivist offenders, who have ruled between them, are the same... Red or blue, there is nothing new. Like Pepsi and Coke, they are the same. Take them out of their red packaging, their blue packaging, have a sip, tell me if you can tell the difference because most people cannot" - see Newshub's NZ First: National, Labour 'like Pepsi and Coke'.
Newshub's Jenna Lynch elaborates: "So what does it all mean? Well, with Mr Peters, only he ever really knows. The strategy is clear - connect with those who don't vote because they're sick of politics. And if you think it sounds familiar, that's because it's stolen straight from the Brexit playbook" - see: Winston Peters says he could win next election.
Lynch also reports that "the New Zealand First leader said he'll mobilise the near million Kiwis who don't vote", and quotes Peters with the highly populist message: We're going to go out to the hundreds and hundreds and thousands - no millions - of forgotten New Zealanders and tell them that there's one party that has these important words - words as mandate - these three words - 'we hear you'."
This is an age-old populist rallying cry, suggesting that "the people" can put their faith in a saviour who will channel their voices to the powerful.
The party's anti-Establishment mood is also seen by the NBR's Rob Hosking: "Peters' longer term aim seems to be to attract the votes of those who are missing out on what is, in aggregate, a period of reasonably strong economic growth. The message from his conference was the main parties are elitist and big-city groupings who do not understand or care for the large number of New Zealanders outside those main cities" - see: Winston joins the early election chorus (paywalled).
And, as much as ever, Peters is in attack mode, focusing his firepower on all other politicians. Here's how he's characterised the three most popular parties today: "You've got what I call the bum with five cheeks on our right called the National Party, and all its cling-ons. You've got the unholy wedding prenuptials which is a divorce on election night on the other side. And you've got a party in the middle going it alone called New Zealand First" - see Dan Satherley's Government a 'bum with five cheeks' - Peters.
The key to being a successful populist is to not just to be in the centre of the political spectrum, but instead to pivot between the margins of the left-right scale. Therefore, Peters is not only trying to be the Trump of New Zealand, but also our Sanders. This means we're seeing some rather anti-capitalist or anti-rich sentiment from Peters.
And so today Peters has made a strong pitch against the current economic system, presenting himself in an almost socialist positioning. He told RNZ's Morning Report that "Most Kiwis are struggling, treading water and going nowhere. The deck, ladies and gentlemen, is stacked against them" - see: Benedict Collins' Winston Peters: 'Most Kiwis are struggling'.
The same report says that "New Zealand First aims to capture the votes of what it says is the growing number of struggling workers in next year's election" and that "Peters said Kiwi battlers were now being left behind because the government was focused on those at the top." Those at the bottom of the employment hierarchy are being championed, with Peters saying "the government had no appreciation of manual labour". Peters continues: "They wouldn't know what a hard day's work is. In the [Northland] by-election, John Key got out a hammer to nail up a hoarding, and the first nine shots hammer half way up, he missed, and the tenth one he bent the nail."
The same report also quotes the chair of Young New Zealand First, Connor McFadyen, believing that "people everywhere were feeling powerless" and "You've got to give them a voice, you've got to give them an organisation where they can take the power back."
Peters is even using the term "neoliberal" to critique the status quo: "We know that unless we've got a dramatic change from this neoliberal failure that every other country seems to understand now but us, then we as a party would have failed" - see Dan Satherley's Government a 'bum with five cheeks' - Peters.
Peters' championing of the down and out might appear unlikely or inauthentic. For example, Peters claims that his party - unlike Labour and Greens - actually "knows what homelessness smells, tastes and feels like". And he might have a point, with many of his members and MPs coming from humbler backgrounds than the modern middle-class Labour and Green MP. Therefore, while other opposition parties utterly fail to connect with those at the bottom of the heap, Peters and his party probably have more potential. Some of those "missing millions" might finally be enthused to vote by the arguably more "down-to-earth" politicians from New Zealand First. Peters' own way of putting this was that "many in Parliament were privileged and thought manual labour was 'the prime minister of Mexico'." - see Nicholas Jones' Winston Peters: Getting a drivers licence should be 'core subject' at school.
The "political class" of various elites are an ongoing target for Winston Peters, with the media being his most popular focus. TVNZ reports "Peters has ended his party's annual conference taking a swipe at the polls, his political rivals and the media" - see: Winston Peters launches fiery attacks on polls, rivals, media at NZ First conference.
The NZ First leader singled out TVNZ's own Q+A programme, claiming it had left him off the show, and the producers "Never had the intellectual fortitude, integrity or outright decency to ask us on the programme". TVNZ refuted that, pointing out: "In fact Mr Peters was twice invited on Q+A, and twice backed out."
In his speech, Peters also turned his fire on political commentators and political scientists from the "commentariat" and "beltway". But he said his party had the plan and ability to by-pass these people - he could go straight to the masses through the use of social media, which the party was putting more effort into.
Even New Zealand First's new driving lessons policy bolsters his anti-intellectual stance, with the stated goal of making schools more practical. For the best coverage of this, see Jo Moir's NZ First and Winston Peters targeting the youth vote with free tertiary study and driver's licences.
And the policy is getting lots of support. See, for example, Rachel Smalley's column, Making driving a core subject at school has some merit. She says that although it might seem like an odd policy for Peters, "there is good reasoning behind this. He says it will improve law and order." See also Duncan Garner's Buried in the bluster Peters finds a good idea.
Anti-immigration and foreign capital
New Zealand First's conference featured plenty of anti-immigration sentiment, as usual. And according to one recent report, Peters has claimed to be ahead of Donald Trump on his anti-immigration policies - particularly in terms of building walls. Peters says: "NZ First was saying this before Donald Trump even dreamt of standing for the US presidency... We don't have to build a wall, we've got miles of it, it's a water wall" - see Nicholas McBride's 'We don't have to build a wall' - Winston Peters talks immigration.
Such a focus on immigration has led John Key to compare Peters with a famous Brexit campaigner and politician: "Because with the greatest respect to Winston, love or hate the guy, he's been consistent. 40 years he's been the Nigel Farage of New Zealand" - see Newstalk ZB's Key: Winston Peters is the Nigel Farage of New Zealand.
Not surprisingly, Peters is also lashing out at a new ethnic-based party, saying it will harm New Zealand - see Claire Trevett's Political party for Indian & Asian migrants angers Winston Peters.
It's also rich foreigners that Peters is targeting. Richard Harman reports on the latest policy focus of his party: "Peters has narrowed down the party's priorities to a short list. At the top is banking. He is on the warpath against the "Australian-owned" banks which the party wants an inquiry into particularly focussing on their profits. And NZ First has long wanted to amend the Reserve Bank Act to broaden the primary function of the Bank to include macro-economic factors such as the rate of growth, export growth, the value of the dollar, and employment as well as price stability in setting the Official Cash Rate." - see: Maybe Winston means what he says.
As with the provincial Brexit voters in the UK, as well as other "heartland" revolts in western countries, Peters is also increasingly anti-cosmopolitan, and focused more on the regions. According to Jo Moir, this is why Dunedin was chosen for the party's conference in the weekend: "Winston Peters is sending a signal to the South Island - 'we haven't forgotten you'." - see: Fire in Winston Peters' belly to take more regional seats at the next election.
And according to Nicholas Jones, the party "would redouble its focus on regional New Zealand to grow its vote" - see: Winston Peters: Regional NZ will be our election battleground, as well as NZ First can take Whangarei and Whanganui seats from National - Winston Peters.
The anti-hero - Shane Jones
Who could continue Peters' anti-political campaign after he retires? The person that everyone has settled on is Shane Jones, who has a history and persona of someone that could successfully run the anti-political lines and "tough talking".
Jones is strongly rumoured to be ready to give up his diplomatic job and come back to Parliament in 2017, this time as a New Zealand First MP - see Jo Moir's The NZ First succession plan: Shane Jones vs Ron Mark. And she believes Jones is probably going to do so: "It's looking increasingly likely that Jones will be on the ballot paper in Whangarei next year, especially after Peters confirmed on Saturday the party wants to contest the seat."
However, the current deputy, Ron Mark, is already said to have designs on the leadership position after Peters goes, and Moir reports Mark being rather dismissive and disparaging of Jones' career and chances. And in another column, Winston Peters is in attack mode and ready to fight National for its regional seats, Moir asserts that "Mark will need to fight if he wants the top job and, if his fiery speech on Sunday was anything to go by, he's already in the ring."
And as a further sign that Jones is willing and able to come back, Patrick Gower says that the ex-MP is writing a book that "would allow him to set out his differences with the Labour Party and align himself with Winston Peters" - see: Shane Jones' new book a 'political reset button'.
Finally, all this angry campaigning is making for some very entertaining put-downs and sledges by Peters - and Toby Manhire does a great job of evaluating these in his blog post, Power ranking Winston Peters' sick burns - NZ First conference edition.