Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Winston Peters' latest contribution to The Great Superannuation Debate is that someone who once displayed so much foresight on pension policy should sacrifice that legacy on the altar of short-term politics.

"There is no ageing crisis. The pension age and the amount paid is affordable," Peters assured the New Zealand First convention last weekend in a speech entitled "Remember - This is no Time For Amnesia".

Is this the same Winston Peters who in 1997 as the senior finance minister in the National-New Zealand First coalition argued that people "do not believe that the current arrangements will be there to deliver the same level of assistance in retirement that their parents currently enjoy"?

Peters had the sagacity then to try and introduce a compulsory retirement savings scheme to address what would be - in his words - the "enormous increase" in spending on New Zealand superannuation in this century.


His scheme was subsequently trashed by referendum for reasons not so much to do with the proposal and a lot more to do with the unpopularity of Peters and his party.

If the future bill for New Zealand superannuation was going to be expensive then, little has changed since to suggest otherwise now.

True, in the interim, Labour set up the New Zealand superannuation fund to meet part of that extra cost. But Government contributions to the fund are currently on hold - with no guarantee when they will resume. Then there is Labour's other savings initiative - KiwiSaver. But this is a second-tier scheme designed to complement New Zealand superannuation - not replace it as Peters' proposal would have eventually done. If, in 1997, New Zealand superannuation was looking unaffordable down the track, it is incumbent on Peters to explain in detail why it is affordable now - not least to reassure those who continue to believe it is not so.

Politics has intervened, however. The consensus on superannuation policy which kept the issue submerged for the last decade or so is fraying badly and rapidly.

Even though he did not sign up to maintaining the retirement age at 65 - as other parties did in the law setting up the super fund - Peters is insisting the age not be touched. This is to avoid risking sending a mixed message to his supporters even though many of them will not be affected by raising the age to 67.

It is all about using the issue to lift New Zealand First's profile. Peters is now biffing Labour for supposedly running a campaign to cut entitlements as part of a conspiracy to "privatise" New Zealand superannuation. This in turn fuelled more guessing games about whether Peters could work with a Labour-led Government - further grist to the Peters publicity machine.

Lost in all this, however, is a rare opportunity to initiate some kind of cross-Parliament dialogue involving Opposition parties and National's support partners. Peters could have played a pivotal role. That would have left National even more isolated and the public asking more questions about why John Key will not shift his stance. But it would not have done anything for New Zealand First publicity-wise.

Peters has instead become an unlikely ally in the Prime Minister's similar rationalising of his unwillingness to budge on the retirement age.

It is an odd coupling, given Key's pointed refusal to work with Peters.

Key yesterday joked that this conjunction of events was not akin to some Gone With The Wind-style match-up of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler proportions.When it comes to being grateful to Peters, however, Key's smile suggests he does give a damn.