Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

I did it my way

The critics said he'd never get this far. As NZ First reaches its 20th birthday, leader Winston Peters opens up about life, politics and the advantages of being a rooster

Peters says the secret to survival is to stand for something. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Peters says the secret to survival is to stand for something. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The waitress at Wellington eatery the Green Parrot greets NZ First leader Winston Peters with: "Hello, my fellow rooster."

He is slightly taken aback, before realising it is a reference to Oscar Kightley's recent documentary on the Chinese zodiac, in which Peters was a guest star from the year of the rooster: birth year 1945.

He says, with a large immodest grin on his face, that the characteristics of the rooster are "modesty, self-effacement, unassuming".

The Herald has taken Peters to the Green Parrot to celebrate his party's 20th birthday, a birthday shared with Nelson Mandela and Hairy Maclary.

That party was born on July 18, 1993 at Alexandra Park, to proud parents Hellfire and Brimstone. It was two years after Peters was sacked from Cabinet by then-Prime Minister Jim Bolger and nine months after he was expelled from National's caucus after years of challenging the party's leadership and economic policy.

It's birthweight was one MP after Peters managed to hold on to the Tauranga electorate in a byelection following his ejection from National.

At the general election a few months later, it reached two MPs, thanks to then-NZ First member Tau Henare adding the Northern Maori seat to the tally. By the time it was a toddler in 1996, it got 17 MPs in the first MMP election, including winning all five Maori electorates.

The party had a long gestation.

"It was conceived back in 1988 in meetings in Tauranga and Hamilton, where we were very concerned as to where the National Party was going. We hadn't thought of forming a party then. We thought that the National Party we belonged to could be saved. We didn't decide [to set up a new party] until after the bylection in 1993. The game was up."

The party didn't have a party for its 15th anniversary, when Peters was Foreign Minister in the Helen Clark-led Labour Government. But they're planning a big hooley this time, when the weather gets warmer.

"All those troubled years of being fired and defamation suits and everything else, we did learn how to survive it all and get back in the race. It's important."

He tells an anecdote: "There was a guy called General Abrams, who was commander of the allied forces in Vietnam. Abrams made his name in the Second World War, when he was surrounded in the forest by all these Germans. The Commander called up to ask what was going on. Do you know what he said? 'They've surrounded us again, the poor bastards'."

According to Peters, the secret to that survival is "to stand for something". He says he has seen other "pretenders" set up parties, only to fail. "I've observed over the years the media adulation of them. I don't want to be churlish. We have never been the victim of adulation of the media. That's been the secret of our success. But the forests that have fallen while the media has been adulating them have been quite significant. I'm surprised the Green Party hasn't complained about it."

There is debate about whether to order a red or a white wine. He settles for the rose, which he declares "quite nice, in a quaint way".

There is also a secret dish everybody knows he wants but he won't order because "Joe Bloggs out there is really up against it". The Herald also wants the secret dish, so orders it on the grounds of supporting the Bluff economy.

Peters orders flounder with an egg on top. He likes his flounder undercooked - he abhors an overcooked fish. "Fish is such a delicate thing. Just one half-minute too much and you've ruined it."

He has learned to appreciate food. "I'll tell you the truth of life. When I was much younger I never wasted time with food. Until one time in my career, I realised there are not many things you have time for anymore, so if you can actually enjoy a meal it's a good idea. I remember Keith Holyoake saying if you take more than five minutes for a meal, you're wasting your time. A lot of people took that view. It's from his lesser-known quotes."

The relationship between the Green Parrot and Peters is one of the most enduring in New Zealand politics. He has dined here since the 1970s. He is to the Green Parrot what Norm was to television's Cheers. He likes it because it serves simple fresh food and the staff are friendly. And they like him. Behind the counter they have two CDs marked "Winston" he provided at one point so he can listen to his music while he is there.

"There's nothing pretentious. It's my idea of the kind of thing you'd see in Europe. It's got character, its got customers who come here and, over time, you can walk in here and see someone you haven't seen in donkey's years. It's not the only restaurant I go to, but I think loyalty matters."

He prizes loyalty above all else. It is the feature in common of the two instances he picks out as the most challenging for himself and his party. The first was not the 2008 election in which NZ First fell short of getting back into Parliament but rather the lead-up to the 1996 election, at which it got its highest result: 17 MPs into Parliament. He says during the campaign one of his team was telling the media behind his back that NZ First would side with Labour after the election.

"And I finally cottoned on to it and got off the bus at Papakura for a speech and the polls turned around. What incensed me was that I had someone inside my organisation telling the media that privately. Disloyalty can be so destructive to an organisation."

The second was after he was sacked from Cabinet and walked out of the coalition with the Jenny Shipley-led National Government in 1998 following a bitter dispute about the privatisation of Wellington Airport. Eight of his 17-strong caucus opted to stay with the Government rather than back him.

None of this was his fault, of course, just as nothing since then has been his fault. Or has it?

He's had three years to contemplate life, three years in which the party's survival depended on his ability to resurrect it again. That came after NZ First didn't make it back into Parliament in 2008 - an election campaign in which Peters was dogged on the campaign trail by questions about donations from Owen Glenn, Bob Jones and others. He says now he accepts responsibility for that defeat. Kind of.

"There was a five-month character assassination of me and when it was all over that election night, I knew that I could have won. And I blame myself for losing. I got so upset at the insinuation that I was corruptible, I never got any perspective after that. When all is said and done, I knew enough and have experienced enough to see it for what it was. And I should never have got angry."

It is a surprising admission from a man whose default has been to blame the media, the polls, other politicians or all of the above for what ails him. That, and his willingness to let the Herald shout him dinner at his safe place, the Green Parrot, indicates the value of those three years off and, perhaps more, his return to Parliament at the end of it.

If any further sign was needed, the Winebox Inquiry does not come up until half an hour into the interview and when it does it is raised by the Herald. This happens after he rates the 2011 election as the most exciting time in his career. That was the year he pulled off the comeback few believed even he was capable of.

He is asked where he ranks the day the Court of Appeal ruled on his side over the Winebox Inquiry into tax avoidance schemes.

"That was the only time I've ever cried in my career. I was in a meeting in Christchurch and a helper gave me a note, which I've framed: 'we've won'. I think we've actually changed a bit now. People are more suspicious about the establishment. But back then it was 'it can't be right, these are pillars of society' and all that sort of stuff."

Peters was the 6th of 11 children. When he was about 5 years old he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle to help them on the farm. "She was running the farm by herself. It was the loneliest year of my life. I've never forgotten it. We had a pretty smooth operation, me and my aunty. But it was lonely."

He says it was a defining time in his life. "Little did I know that when I got older I'd come to love my own company. I found myself so much more reasonable to deal with than other people."

Peters' first direct political experience was when he was 14 or 15, when his parents took him along to see Sir James Henare speak with then-Justice Minister Ralph Hannan. "Even though Ralph Hannan was a very good speaker, the other guy had charisma. He had something about him. Which was why my mother took me. I was seriously impressed with him. Everything he said then was a harbinger of things to come."

His parents were always interested in politics. His mother was a Scot, his father Maori. "My mother was more National and then she was into Labour. My father started off seriously Labour and became more National as time went by. But I know there were times in my mother's voting life she voted Labour. In 1957 she voted Labour because the leader was Arnold Nordmeyer and he was a Presbyterian minister and he could not possibly be telling any lies because he was a Presbyterian minister."

His mother also liked Rob Muldoon. "She liked Muldoon's humour. He used to have a vignette in the middle of his speeches where he'd stop off to share his jokes with the public. You'd see my mother and all these other older ladies in the Whangarei Town Hall giggling. Because it was funny. And humour is a great thing in politics."

He was a member of the National Party's youth arm, Young National "until I realised half the people who joined had only done so to try to find a wife or husband.

"I realised before too long that all the romance, and glamour and glory of being in politics was not part of that organisation. And there is a romance and glamour and glory in being involved in politics. Despite what anyone says, there are great causes we are fighting for."

He chose National because of Rule 242 in the Labour Party, which prevented MPs crossing the floor. "Rule 242 in the Labour Party back then was 'the party's conscience is your conscience'. In the old days, National defended your right to cross the floor. I remember a National guy telling me that one of the most difficult decisions to make was to depart from his colleagues and vote against capital punishment. And I always thought, whatever is wrong with National, the right for someone to do that is a valuable right."

Of course, it was that same right that eventually got him into trouble - or out of trouble, the way Peters likes to see it - by forcing him to leave National and set up his own party. One of NZ First's founding principles was to allow MPs to vote as they wished on all but confidence issues.

He is intrigued by the Old Testament and gave up studying Maori in favour of Hebrew at university because of that.

"All you have to understand about life is the works of Shakespeare and the Old Testament. Then you will understand what human nature is all about. Nothing has changed in all this time." All other literature is "refinements of a work that has already been written".

Peters may be a more amenable force, but Fire and Brimstone are still alive and kicking. Life is no fun without someone to pursue and, of late, he has been pursuing United Future's Peter Dunne over a GCSB leak and Prime Minister John Key over Kim Dotcom.

"It is a game, but it's the most serious game I know. You can make a wrong decision and do so much bad for a country, but you can also do so many things that are good for a country. I think that's important.

"I've never stood by and said politics was a bad profession. In all my career, I've defended the profession. While I may not have defended politicians, the profession is still a great one to join."

He likes Labour's David Shearer. "Do I have respect for him and his career and do I like him? Yes, I do." When he is asked if Shearer would be a better Prime Minister than John Key, he circles his hand in the air to indicate it is time to move on to the next question.

He says he hasn't kept many records for memoirs. "You're meant to be living a career, not trying to record it. I've seen far too many people obsessed with recording their own record of what they did in history rather than keeping their eye on what history is about.'

However, the prospect of leaving it to journalists to chronicle his record is "my greatest fear".

There is a belief that Peters is getting near the point where he has to contemplate his party's expected life span. He is now 68. Peters does not subscribe to such a vicious rumour.

"People talk about leadership when the party hasn't got a leader. I'm not being arrogant, but we have got one. Are we going to have a future leader? Yes we are. Is that person going to be enormously successful? Yes they will." But then he points to German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor of West Germany, who held the post for the Christian Democratic Union Party from 1949 to 1963, when he was almost 90. "He was in his 80s and led the most amazing recovery in European history, economically. And he had a successor."

Later in the evening, the undercooked flounder has been eaten and the quaint rose enjoyed. Under some urging, the rooster starts to recite Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle into that Dark Night. "Rage, rage, against the dying of the light," he quotes.

The recorders are off, so Peters makes me get out the notebook to write this down: "I'll be round a long time, long after John Key is gone."

There is a triumphant laugh and he sits back, satisfied.

Winston Peters and NZ First: The milestones

1979: Winston Peters is elected National MP for Hunua. Loses the seat in 1981.

1984: Wins Tauranga electorate for National.

1990: Appointed Minister of Maori Affairs, but sacked by Jim Bolger in 1991 for criticising leadership.

1992: Expelled from National Party caucus for challenging the party's direction.

Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of NZ First, 18 July 1993. Photo / NZ Herald
Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of NZ First, 18 July 1993. Photo / NZ Herald

1993: Wins Tauranga by-election in February and launches NZ First at Alexandra Park raceway.

1996: Party wins 17 seats in first MMP election, including all five Maori seats. Enters coalition with National, led by Jim Bolger.

1998: Prime Minister Jenny Shipley sacks Winston Peters, who leaves coalition. Eight NZ First MPs defect to stay with the Government.

1999: NZ First gets 4.3 per cent but Peters' Tauranga seat gets it five MPs in Parliament.

2002: NZ First secures 10.4 per cent of the vote and 13 seats.

2005: Peters loses Tauranga to National's Bob Clarkson. Gets 5.7 per cent and 7 MPs. Enters confidence and supply agreement with Labour, Peters is Foreign Minister.

As Foreign Minister in 2008, Peters denied Owen Glenn had given money to NZ First. Photo / Mark Mitchell
As Foreign Minister in 2008, Peters denied Owen Glenn had given money to NZ First. Photo / Mark Mitchell

2008: Peters stood down from ministerial roles during investigations into donations. Privileges Committee sanctions Peters for failing to declare donation from Owen Glenn. National leader John Key rules out a deal with Peters. NZ First gets 4.07 per cent in election and fails to get back into Parliament.

2011: NZ First gets 6.6 per cent in the election, and returns with 8 MPs. Brendan Horan is later expelled for a dispute over his mother's will, but stays in Parliament as an Independent.

- NZ Herald

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