Winston Peters, 72, is the longest-serving MP, having come to Parliament after a court challenge to win the seat of Hunua in 1978 via a recount. That was the first of a dozen or more court battles that have punctuated his career. This week he threatened another - legal subpoenas, he said, would loosen tongues about how his pension overpayments leaked to the media.

NZ First leader Winston Peters during his speech to students at Victoria University in Wellington, in 2017. Photo / Mark Mitchell
NZ First leader Winston Peters during his speech to students at Victoria University in Wellington, in 2017. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This followed news that Social Development Minister Anne Tolley, deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett and the Prime Minister's chief of staff Wayne Eagleson had been told about Peters' pension overpayment as part of the Government's no-surprises rule.

In this drama, Peters has played the role of both victim and champion. "You've got an attempt to character-assassinate someone on the basis of an innocent mistake. It's dirty, it's filthy ... underhand politics."

He claimed he was pursuing the leak issue so people could have confidence in Government departments.

Advertisement

The leak became the story while other aspects faded. The overpayment - "an innocent mistake ... promptly repaid" - apparently occurred because the single rate was paid when he was in a de facto relationship but the NZ First leader won't waive privacy to provide details, such as the amount repaid.

This is despite Peters' demanding transparency of others, such as telling Bill English to come clean about hundreds of texts the PM sent his former electorate staff member Glenys Dickson during the Todd Barclay taping affair.

Younger generations faced with big education and housing costs and less generous state retirement assistance might reasonably be interested in the details of Winston's pension, suggested Duncan Greive. "It is perhaps scandalising that Peters was receiving the payments" in addition to a salary approaching $200,000, he wrote for thespinoff.co.nz.

Winston Peters, then National Party candidate, in 1975. Photo / NZ Herald
Winston Peters, then National Party candidate, in 1975. Photo / NZ Herald

Peters turned 65 in 2010. He was out of Parliament at the time but had substantial assets, was eligible for handsome benefits as a former MP, and to the Parliamentary Super Scheme for those elected before 1992. His Parliamentary salary was restored when he returned on the party list in 2011.

Grieve: "The worst part is that the presumed justification - that he was only taking what he was entitled to - mirrors that which has accompanied his whole cohort as it has glided through life with a level of government support to which it has studiously taken care to deny its children."

Clever footwork by Peters this week then. Typically so, thought Philip Burdon, Peters' old flatmate from Salamanca Rd in Wellington. Laying the lot on the table would invite endless public debate about how much he got and the rights and wrongs of it.

"He's far better off accusing whoever of breaking the law and leaking information," says Burdon.

No matter that Peters has done famously well out of leaked information and understands more than most about protecting sources. "I'm not being secretive," Peters recently said about English's leaked texts. "If someone is a source of mine I'm not going to go and blow their cover."

Burdon: "You are dealing with an extremely experienced and intelligent politician."

Winston Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of the new political party New Zealand First Party held at Alexandra Park, Auckland in 1993. Photo / NZ Herald
Winston Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of the new political party New Zealand First Party held at Alexandra Park, Auckland in 1993. Photo / NZ Herald

Not that Burdon shares Peters' political values. Far from it. Burdon, who held many core portfolios for National during five terms up to 1996 and is a past chairman of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, has described Peters' vision as locked in a 1950s time-warped prejudice "when the prevailing view was one of suspicion and antagonism to the culturally and ethnically different".

But, Peters is consistent, Burdon told the Weekend Herald, and his conservatism is genuine. Burdon believes those values rather than any difficulty with Peters' personality stopped him becoming a National Prime Minister.

"If you are going to regard him as a man endlessly positioning himself for maximum short-term advantage, you must respect the fact that he has been utterly consistent with his extremely conservative, you may say narrow, small-minded New Zealand philosophy."

Of Maori and Scottish descent, Peters had always demanded, for example, that Maori stand on their own feet and be accountable.

Then Foreign Minister Winston Peters during a media conference at Parliament, where he denied Owen Glenn has given money to New Zealand First, in 2008. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Then Foreign Minister Winston Peters during a media conference at Parliament, where he denied Owen Glenn has given money to New Zealand First, in 2008. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He was once heir apparent within National. "He was telegenic, contemporary, at a time society was beginning to recognise its bicultural heritage. Peters was tailor-made for the job".

Ruth Richardson indicated in her biography that she and others in the party had Peters in mind for Prime Minister before they realised how divergent he was from Roger Douglas' free market reforms.

Jenny Shipley, who sacked Peters from cabinet in 1998, said as much in her interview for the recently-published book by Guyon Espiner and Tim Watkin, 9th Floor: Conversations With Five New Zealand Prime Ministers. "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."

Despite his undeniable political talents, he came to be considered not to be a team player. In 1993 after National decided Peters would not be its candidate for Tauranga, he resigned and forced a byelection which he won as an independent and won again later in the year after forming NZ First.

Peters this week scoffed at the suggestion a grudge over the leaking of his pension overpayment might influence a coalition choice should he be in a position to make one. He'd formed a government with Jim Bolger in 1996 despite Bolger having sacked him from National's Cabinet five years earlier following a bust-up in which Bolger called Peters a racist and Peters said Bolger was unfit to govern.

Winston Peters shared an Auckland stage with his mentor Sir Robert Muldoon, in 1989. Photo / NZ Herald
Winston Peters shared an Auckland stage with his mentor Sir Robert Muldoon, in 1989. Photo / NZ Herald

It would be unfair to call Peters destructive, says Burdon, who describes him as intelligent, extremely congenial and opportunistic. "He will maximise every situation to his best advantage, play every controversy out to the hilt."

"He's got a few wrong and he's gone pretty close to the line. The Owen Glenn [donation scandal], he was pushing his luck." Peters, who famously held up a "NO" placard in answer to whether he had received a donation from Glenn, was censured by Parliament for "knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests".

The matter related to $100,000 donated by Glenn and paid to Peters' lawyer to fund Peters' legal costs of challenging the election of Bob Clarkson in Tauranga in 2005.

Peters can be brutal and was considered to be harsh on Chas Sturt and David Henry, who respectively headed the Serious Fraud Office and Inland Revenue Department during allegations of fraud and incompetence during the Winebox tax affair the politician drove during the 1990s.

Then rebel Tauranga MP Winston Peters is followed by TV cameras after being dumped from the National caucus in 1992. Photo / Martin Hunter
Then rebel Tauranga MP Winston Peters is followed by TV cameras after being dumped from the National caucus in 1992. Photo / Martin Hunter

He again made a scathing personal attack on a senior civil servant, on Thursday accusing the head of the Ministry of Social Development of taking part in a politically-motivated conspiracy to leak Peters' superannuation overpayment.

The Winebox affair petered out with a partially-successful appeal of the Commission of Inquiry's finding and both sides claiming victory, but served Peters by adding to a perception of him as a crusader against fraud and graft.

He is adept at accusing others of his own sins. He will call other politicians show ponies, and election bribe merchants, as he did on Monday with a press release headed "'Desperado Bill' Pulling Out The Political Bribes".

A costing tally being kept by the Taxpayers Union of policy promises has NZ First as easily the biggest spender.

He was accused of pressing the racism button the week before when he questioned why staff of a Chinese airline were living in a development in Mt Albert formerly owned by Housing New Zealand and supposed to be in a designated Special Housing Area. The agency said it had decided to sell the land as it would not have been cost-effective to carry out a redevelopment in such a high-value area of Auckland.

Tauranga MP Winston Peters points the finger in 1994 as he gives details of an alleged tax sham in the Cook Islands. Photo / NZ Herald
Tauranga MP Winston Peters points the finger in 1994 as he gives details of an alleged tax sham in the Cook Islands. Photo / NZ Herald

Burdon: "He does not resile from playing ruthless and unscrupulous politics. That is his hallmark and that is the way he has survived. He has succeeded in never being starved for oxygen as a minor party.

"He is not cruel or unkind but he operates on that principle that the end justifies the means and you could describe that as Machiavellian.

His style was necessarily tailored to his political circumstances and support base, "the elderly, the grumpies, those who are agin the system and those who think the whole place is manipulated.

"Once you accept that he was never going to get half the votes for being moderate and reasonable, then you must accept he has endlessly paraded an extreme position as and when appropriate."

In the old paper clippings files that record the Herald's pre-digital output there are six fat folders for Winston Peters - as much as for any politician. The photo files attest to a charismatic charm that has helped sustain him through the decades.

Then Tauranga MP Winston Peters arrives at the National Party headquarters in Wellington. National Party executives are meeting to decide his future as a candidate, in 1993. Photo / Martin Hunter
Then Tauranga MP Winston Peters arrives at the National Party headquarters in Wellington. National Party executives are meeting to decide his future as a candidate, in 1993. Photo / Martin Hunter

When NZ First staff did a survey of media in the late 1990s they found Peters got more coverage than any other politician, says Raphael Hilbron, a communications specialist, who worked for Peters at the time.

Incredibly wily, often underestimated, deeply conservative and something of an enigma because he purposely keeps his cards close to his chest, is how Hilbron describes his former boss.

Suggestions that Peters is not hard working are wrong, in Hilbron's experience, a cheap shot in Burdon's view. He may be "a bit indifferent to routine responsibilities", says Burdon, but is capable of 'intense concentration". "Self-indulgent you may say but never lazy."

And nor is Peters a natural outsider, says Burdon. "In the context of friendships he is incredibly loyal and consistent and very generous."

While contemporaries moved on, Peters has remained. He has a party to think of but may also struggle with the prospect of life beyond politics. "He adores the drama and the theatre of politics and he has certain core beliefs that has given a legitimacy to his raw ambition and to his love of the drama," Burdon says.

Peters perhaps revealed something of his nature and political style nearly 30 years ago when he told the Listener about a precious painting. "Oh, it's just of a boxer standing in the corner of the ring," he told Tony Reid. "He's got a towel over his head. The fight is over. But, you see, the towel is not hanging on the ropes. You can tell he's in pain but he's not throwing in the towel. So you don't know whether he has won or whether he has lost."

A Herald predictive model based on all the polls and election results since 1999 points to Peters again being Kingmaker (or Queenmaker). Photo / Peter de Graaf
A Herald predictive model based on all the polls and election results since 1999 points to Peters again being Kingmaker (or Queenmaker). Photo / Peter de Graaf

If the choice falls to Peters, Burdon is picking his old friend will go with Labour, so long as there is not a gulf in the result between the two main parties.

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern, 37, represents the future and the incoming tide.

Prime Minister Bill English has been in Parliament 27 years, Peters 33 years (allowing for two terms in the wilderness). Peters would want to avoid the image of two old men being in charge, says Burdon. "I think Winston would be misreading the tea leaves if he didn't see a great deal more mileage in being associated with change, given his own age."

Peters will be 75 by the next election. If this is his last hurrah, the survival of the party may depend on the remote prospect of finding a leader with similarly strong individual appeal.

"So I think you are dealing with a remarkable political career," says Burdon. "You can describe him as a maverick, however, he has been utterly consistent to his own highly conservative beliefs and idea of the state's responsibilities, which is inconsistent with the perception of him as the ultimate shallow-minded opportunist."

Hits & Misses

Hits:

• Maori loans affair, an unauthorised attempt by the Department of Maori Affairs to raise money (supposedly $600 million) overseas. Exposing the deal - which had hallmarks of an international con - helped Peters' promotion to National's frontbench.

• Winebox Affair, boosted Peters' image as a crusader against fraud and graft.

• The Gold Card, entitles over-65-year-olds to concessions, including off-peak transport.

• Scrapping the surtax on superannuation

• Racing industry subsidies

• Free doctor appointments for under-6-year-olds (since extended to under-13s)

Misses:

• Referendum on compulsory retirement savings scheme was heavily rejected in 1997, a decade before Labour finance minister Michael Cullen launched KiwiSaver.

• Censured by Parliament for failing to declare a $100,000 donation from ex-pat billionaire Owen Glenn.

• Sacked from two governments.