Despite his high profile, Winston Peters remains something of a mystery. Former Herald political editor Tony Verdon has written an as-yet unpublished biography of the MP and today reveals some insights into the man who will choose our next prime minister.

For a politician who has dominated headlines for more than three decades, Winston Peters remains an enigma to most New Zealanders.

While most politicians use social media to nurture or soften their public images, Peters positively revels in putting his combative nature on full display, no matter what the platform.

Yet this is a veteran politician who also manages to nurture long-term friendships and respect from many contemporaries, regardless of their political views.

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He remains friendly with many of the politicians he entered Parliament with in the mid 70s, such as his flatmates from that era Philip Burdon, Paul East and Don McKinnon.

Like Peters they all became ministers, and two of them (Peters and McKinnon) went on to become deputy prime ministers.

However Peters took a long and tortuous route to ministerial office, after being ejected from the National Party caucus by Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

In spite of that rejection, within months he was sitting in a Bolger cabinet.

Although his two ministerial stints have been relatively brief and have ended in tears, Peters has retained friendships with colleagues throughout his long and tumultuous career.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his deputy Winston Peters share a laugh as they sign the new coalition agreement in the Legislative Chamber. Photo / Martin Hunter
Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his deputy Winston Peters share a laugh as they sign the new coalition agreement in the Legislative Chamber. Photo / Martin Hunter

For the third time in as many decades, he has fought and won a crucial position at the heart of New Zealand politics.

Remarkably he has achieved that while keeping his private life intensely private, revealing to the public only as much as circumstances have forced him to divulge.

It is no secret that he has always enjoyed a drink, has been in the past a committed cigarette smoker, and for decades been a regular late-night mid-week diner at the Green Parrot at the bottom of Wellington's Taranaki St.

Some of that late-night mid-week socialising has apparently been toned down in recent years, especially the smoking and drinking. But at his very core Peters is a social animal, albeit that now in his seventies he picks and chooses more selectively how often and with whom he socialises.

That sociable side of Peters' personality is in stark contrast to the pugnacious aggressiveness the public sees, no matter who is interviewing him.

There was a glimpse of the Jekyll and Hyde personality at the end of Wednesday's press conference in the Beehive theatrette - when the intensely combative session with journalists was over Peters could be seen smiling and joking as though he was among mates drinking in the pub.

The combativeness is a family streak - Peters comes from a family of 11, all of whom have become successful in a wide range of occupations.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters during a media conference at Parliament, where he denied Owen Glenn has given money to New Zealand First. Peters is holding a sign saying No. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Foreign Minister Winston Peters during a media conference at Parliament, where he denied Owen Glenn has given money to New Zealand First. Peters is holding a sign saying No. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Two of his brothers, Jim and Ian, also became members of Parliament, one for National and the other for New Zealand First. A third, Ron, stood as a New Zealand First candidate. Their sister Lynette Stewart was the chair of the Northland District Health Board for almost a decade.

Outside politics his younger brother, Whangarei lawyer Wayne, became prominent in both the Northland Rugby Union and in the New Zealand Rugby Union, before he suffered a stroke and resigned from those positions on health grounds.

Other members of the Peters family have been involved in Maori land issues, and sports and community organisations, although they have deliberately chosen to keep out of the public limelight.

The family was brought up on a small coastal farm at Whananaki South, and neighbours say both parents insisted that all members of the family work hard and apply themselves to getting a good education.

The most reclusive brother is David, who has been popular among locals for his willingness to use his grader to unblock slips on the notoriously windy gravel road leading into Whananaki South.

The family stands out as being eloquent and charming, confident and articulate. All have become successful professionally, particularly in the law and education sectors.

Though their father Len was Maori, mother Joan came from Scottish stock, and in the local Whananaki South community at least, is given most credit for raising the family. She died in her 90s in 2005, and is buried in the local cemetery. Len is buried on the family urupa overlooking Whananaki harbour.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at his electoral office in Tauranga. Photo / Chris Skelton
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at his electoral office in Tauranga. Photo / Chris Skelton

Neighbours say the family members were always combative, and if two members were invited to dinner, lively debate inevitably followed.

However they have remained intensely loyal to each other throughout Peters' turbulent political career.

This in spite of internal family political differences - for example Lynette Stewart stood as the Labour candidate for Whangarei, and was appointed (and reappointed ) chair of the Northland DHB by Labour health minister Annette King and successor David Cunliffe.

When Joan died in 2005, among those acknowledging her voluntary work in the local community were Maori Party leaders Dame Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples.

Now each member of the Peters family has a house or bach on the Whananaki property.

Peters retreats to his coastal idyll often, particularly in the summer, and locals say it is a sure sign he is there if the Sky racing channels are heard on the beach below the house.

Peters and his wife Louise had two children, a son Joel and a daughter, Bree, an actress, who has become successful in her craft on her own terms rather than as Peters' daughter.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters talks to media. Photo / Nick Reed
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters talks to media. Photo / Nick Reed

Apart from an initial part-term as National MP for Hunua between 1979 and 1981, Peters spent eight terms as the MP for Tauranga, from July 1984 until he lost the seat, in September 2005.

He was a list MP until 2008, when New Zealand First failed to reach the 5 per cent MMP threshold, and he found himself out of Parliament after nine terms as an MP.

Though he and his party were written off by many in Wellington, they had failed to notice the time Peters was spending nurturing voters in the regions, particularly his traditional Grey Power constituency.

He returned to Parliament with renewed vigour, having lost none of his stubborn combativeness, which some colleagues had partially blamed for the extraordinary peaks and troughs of his political career.

This is a man who would argue about what day it was, and who takes no notice of the old political adage of stop digging when you're in a hole.

But that personality trait works both ways - few politicians could have turned around the superannuation overpayments revelations breaking during an election campaign, as quickly as Peters managed to do. One day the story was he receiving super payments he was not entitled to, the next it was "who leaked the details?"

Winston Peters with his partner Jan Trotman, at the Ellerslie races. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Winston Peters with his partner Jan Trotman, at the Ellerslie races. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

For some years Peters has lived with partner Jan Trotman, a successful business person, whose application for national superannuation at age 65 triggerered the overpayment brouhaha. The couple live in a multimillion-dollar house in St Marys Bay, which has a close-up view over Auckland Harbour.

Trained as a lawyer, and having formed a close relationship with his younger brother and fellow lawyer Wayne, Peters takes a legalistic approach to his politics. If he thinks he is right, there seem to be few around him who can persuade him otherwise, no matter what the public reaction is.

Though he is scathing of journalists and their efforts, and is quick to bring legal action if he perceives a slight, it doesn't stop him talking to them - and often socialising with some of them moments later.

Whether you think his policies involve race-baiting, nationalism and any number of isms, he is a political survivor - and no one lasts as long as Winston Peters in politics without a healthy dose of pragmatism.

Tony Verdon was a Herald reporter in the press gallery from 1979 until 1987, the last three years as political editor and has followed Winston Peters turbulent career from the beginning.

Tony Verdon was a Herald reporter in the press gallery from 1979 until 1987, the last three years as political editor and has followed Winston Peters turbulent career from the beginning.