The NZ First bus outside the campaign launch in Highbrook, East Tāmaki.
Chief executives are divided on whether Winston Peters has been an effective leader of NZ First over the past three years.
Some 45 per cent of respondents to the Herald's 2020 CEOs Election Survey said he had; 42 per cent disagreed and 13 per cent were unsure.
Balance Agri-Nutrients chief executive Mark Wynne said Peters has been a balancing force in the coalition. "But I don't think he has done much to build the NZ First brand and they will suffer as a result at the election."
Peters was effective in the sense he has pulled his coalition partner back on some unpalatable policies, explained a funds firm boss. "The acid test will be whether NZ First is back in Parliament after the election."
Peters is now fighting for his party's political life. He is strenuously campaigning throughout New Zealand in an effort to boost NZ First's flagging popularity in the hope it can net more than 5 per cent of votes and make it back into Parliament.
Sentiment towards the NZ First leader among senior business leaders has changed over the past three years. In 2018, 59 per cent of CEOs credited Peters as being a "better than expected" acting PM while Jacinda Ardern was on six weeks maternity leave; with a further 40 per cent saying he performed to expectation. In 2019, he was credited as a "voice of reason". Some two-thirds of CEO said Peters' moderating influence on Labour within the Coalition had produced better outcomes for business and farming communities.
"NZ First does great work behind the scenes to protect the country from mad policy calls," added a government relations firm boss.
"He's certainly had quite a significant impact on Government policy — in foreign policy, in blocking the capital gains tax, in blocking light rail in Auckland, in blocking a settlement of the Ihumatao dispute," said a bank chairman. But his party's very low polling suggests he hasn't been "an effective leader".
Being the Coalition handbrake comes with a cost. With just weeks to the October 17 election, some question whether he has lost some of his appeal to his traditional fan base. "He may have been okay for NZ First but not for New Zealand, the polls will tell the story," was a typical comment.
Some criticism was pungent.
A marketing chief said, "he is too emotional — putting his own personal grievances ahead of the needs of the country eg, the High Court case vs National ministers (over the leak of his National Super overpayments at the time of the 2017 election).
"The continued questions around the NZ First Foundation and his personal lawyer's involvement lacks transparency. This is more 1980s behaviour than 21st century."
An investment firm boss added, Peters has caused NZ's reputation for transparency and low corruption to be sorely tested.
Countering these comments was approval of him as an effective Foreign Minister, said a leading banker. A funds firm boss summed up: "Personally, I don't have any time for Mr Peters, but he is always true to label and he does an incredible one man job keeping the party afloat over many, many years."
Provincial Growth Fund
The $3 billion regional development fund was an NZ First policy win during its coalition negotiations with Labour in 2017. But Peters' decision to put it under NZ First MP Shane Jones' wing has been problematic.
The NZ First leader was criticised over his "inability to clearly direct and control Shane Jones and delegate consistently to other members of his caucus".
Beca Group CEO Greg Lowe said the PGF targeted regional investment which is needed, particularly in infrastructure. "The scale of investment needed however, and the speed with which it needs to be delivered, is greater than the mechanism."
A legal firm boss said it was a mixed bag so far. "Some projects are worthwhile but the fund is open to criticism for being a tool designed to generate political benefits for NZ First rather than a government initiative designed to benefit regions."
Other CEOs were unkind: "A slush fund to garner votes", "pork barrelling on a breathtaking scale", "ill-focused lolly scramble with no apparent business case", and "a disaster reeking of 3rd world politics" were typical comments.
Others said it was the right idea but poorly executed and with a lack of rigorous accountability mechanisms in place."We needed a fund but the criteria for decision-making has allowed too much discretion for ministers and not enough focus on merit," said a legal firm boss.
"Much more could have been done. The shovel-ready projects put forward to Crown Infrastructure Partners were the result of an urgent call to get the economy going after Covid-19. The same ambition should have been in play straight away for the PGF," said Sanford's outgoing CEO, Volker Kuntsch.
Said a company chair: "this 'bauble of office' has been a money spray with little or no accountability and a shocking indictment of those involved in agreeing to this during coalition negotiations."
Labour has said it will replace the PGF with a $200 million Regional Strategic Partnership Fund.