Those who care about good governance may be surprised when they end up missing Winston Peters.
Labour and National strategists worry about NZ First yet making 5 per cent, but the polls suggest more strongly than ever that the curtain is finally falling on Peters' nearly 50-year — but mostly pointless — political career.
Partly, that is because Peters entered government again in 2017. As in 2005, 1996 and 1990, his opting for the responsibility of an actual job has not been electorally advantageous. Nearly as unhelpful has been the distraction and taint of the so-far inconclusive investigation into NZ First's funding arrangements by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).
The end of the campaign runway is now near. Overseas voting opens in just five days and local polling booths in eight. The Electoral Commission is urging people to vote early "to help maintain physical distancing" and evidence from previous elections suggests Peters' elderly supporters are more likely to comply. The SFO surely accepts it has a democratic duty to either exonerate or charge the subjects of its investigation before voting starts.
The NZ First founder will then have mere days to turn things around.
Throughout his career, Peters' most successful strategy has been his trademark attacks on unpopular targets his supporters can then blame for society's ills. These have ranged from New Zealand's wealthiest and most powerful business leaders and bureaucrats, to Somali refugees. Peters has always been an equal-opportunities muckraker.
His problem is that the market for this style of politics is now crowded with new entrants, in part motivated by Christian evangelicalism and conspiracism in the US.
Building on Colin Craig's legacy, Leighton Baker's New Conservative Party says New Zealand "will no longer support the interests of globalists and autocrats". It has successfully owned the anti-UN, anti-ETS and pro-referendum space, and already rivals NZ First in the polls.
Hannah Tamaki's Vision NZ has pockets of support, promising to put "Kiwis First, not Kiwis Last" and to keep "Kiwi Land in Kiwi Hands".
Stephanie Harawira and Edward Shanly's ONE Party says it is time to advance the Kingdom of God. It promises "a strong Christian voice championing Godly values and principles". It too has managed to register in the odd poll.
The big mover, though, is Billy Te Kahika and Jami-Lee Ross' Advance NZ, a merger of groups that called themselves the New Zealand Public Party, the Reset New Zealand Party, the New Zealand People's Party and Direct Democracy NZ.
It too worries about "the disproportionate influence of international organisations like the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO), with whom successive governments have signed us up to treaties". It promises "a fundamental reset of our democracy ... whereby power is stripped from a handful of politicians and placed back where it belongs — in the hands of the people of New Zealand".
Sprinkled among supporters of these parties are concerns about issues like fluoride, 1080, 5G and the origins, spread or non-existence of Covid-19.
If you are tempted to ignore people who believe the Government is infecting us with Covid-19 through the 5G network, you may have forgotten Peters' rollicking tales as he emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There were Russian submarines operating off Great Barrier Island. The Mikhail Lermontov, which sank in the Marlborough Sounds, was a Soviet spy ship. Richard Prebble was accused of covering up a Cook Strait ferry scratching its bottom in Tory Channel. Mystery surrounded whether or not Peters had met US President Ronald Reagan. His Māori Loans Affair introduced us to a cast of characters with names like Rocky Cribb, Michael Giscondi and Max Raepple, who may really have been Werner Rohrich.
The Wine Box, BNZ and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence conspiracies involved a who's-who of the business, public service and law-enforcement communities, with dark hints of cover-ups involving even murder.
After Peters bizarrely alleged Sir Selwyn Cushing tried to bribe him, Judge John Dalmer found in the subsequent defamation action that "Mr Peters was at best reckless or even worse he knew the words used were false. Either way he acted maliciously."
This was terrific entertainment for everyone except those falsely accused, and not such a long way from accusing shadowy establishment networks from running global paedophile rings out of pizza shops or spreading viruses through mobile phones.
Why, though, would conspiracy theorists and other social outcasts bother with whatever 1990s-era story Peters might unveil next week, when they can get a shiny new product from one of the new entrants? To use the old adage, Peters is selling a Walkman in a Spotify age.
In a splintered market, the most likely outcome is NZ First, the New Conservatives, Vision NZ, ONE and Advance NZ all missing out and Peters retiring to Whananaki.
And therein lies the danger.
For a quarter century, Peters has been a useful safety valve in New Zealand politics. He has offered a home for mercantilists, xenophobes and other cranks but has never acted on his rhetoric. He is a mainstream Foreign Minister. It took Covid to deliver his decades-old promises on immigration. In the end, his safety-valve role has turned out to be the point — and even the value — of Peters' nearly 50 years in politics.
Remove him from the scene and a more genuine and thus more sinister new champion will emerge. As registered parties, NZ First, the New Conservatives, Vision NZ, ONE and Advance NZ must have at least 500 financial members each. They are all at least adequately funded and have activists prepared to do the hard yards. Combined, their membership rivals the larger parties and their public support already sits above 5 per cent.
With Peters out of the picture, the most charismatic of their leaders — most likely Te Kahika — will have an opportunity to bring them into one vehicle for 2023. The prospect of such a movement holding the balance of power will make everyone pine for the good old days of Winston Peters.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant, whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.