Nine months ago Winston Peters had big business in his sights.

Just a week out from the election, a press release — titled "Winston Peters: Our plan to clean up Corporate New Zealand" — described a wild west of low wages for workers and big payouts for fat cat executives.

The parliamentary veteran was talking tough, with policies including changes to the Companies Act to give shareholders more control of executive pay and a ban on big recruitment bonuses (golden hellos) and exit payments (golden parachutes) for bosses.

Nine months ago Winston Peters had big business in his sights. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nine months ago Winston Peters had big business in his sights. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If you'd told business leaders back then that they'd be dealing with Prime Minister Peters this winter, the prospect would likely have incited widespread panic.

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A few weeks later, as Peters made his decision to go into coalition with Labour, his announcement speech did little to reassure business.

Peters talked about a bookend to the "neoliberal era" — an era he described as "unbridled, irrational", and which should be assigned to the dustbin of history.

Anticipating the likely pushback from the business community — since borne out in confidence surveys — he warned of an impending economic correction, and accurately predicted some would blame that on the new Government.

This week saw him backing NZ First colleague Shane Jones in his attack on Fonterra - which included calls for the chairman to step down.

But with no campaign battles to fight and the need to establish a stable coalition, there is some confidence that Peters will take to his Prime Ministerial duties with the same conservative and statesmanlike manner he has shown as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Business isn't likely to love this Government any better, but Peters' elevation to the top job is not viewed with any major concern.

"He'll be Winstonesque," says Phil O'Reilly — who, in his former role as chief executive of BusinessNZ for more than a decade, has been a keen observer of Peters' relationship with the corporate world.

"He'll probably slap a few people down at some stage and be a bit of a tough guy. But my sense is there won't be much change." O'Reilly, now managing director at consultancy Iron Duke Partners, doubts we'll see much of the "tub-thumping Winston" over the six weeks that he is scheduled to fill in as PM.

"My sense is, it is too early in the [electoral] cycle. That's much more likely six months from an election campaign when he needs to differentiate himself again," he says.

If you'd told business leaders nine months ago that they'd be dealing with Prime Minister Winston Peters this winter, the prospect would likely have incited widespread panic.
If you'd told business leaders nine months ago that they'd be dealing with Prime Minister Winston Peters this winter, the prospect would likely have incited widespread panic.

In the context of his four-decade political career and his relatively small support base, Peters has a lot riding on his performance as Prime Minister.

"I genuinely think he's much more likely to want to be a good Prime Minister for the next few weeks ... this is a bit of a legacy issue for him," says O'Reilly.

"It is a remarkable achievement to be there, from his party's particular vote share, so I suspect he'll want to be surprising on the upside in terms of being solid and sensible."

A document from the Prime Minister's office last week clearly outlined what Peters' responsibilities would include. He will chair Cabinet meetings and committees, handle questions to the PM in the House, media and official information inquiries, attend official engagements and otherwise oversee the Government's policy programme.

With much of that programme still dependent on reviews and working groups, it seems likely that Peters will face few, if any, big policy calls.

We might, suggests O'Reilly, see some announcement in regional economic development, an area where NZ First has taken the lead.

The Deputy Prime Minister himself — speaking to the Herald at Fieldays this week — takes umbrage at suggestions he is a different character on the campaign trail from the one we see in Government.

But he does offer some reassurance that business won't see any radical change with him in the top job.

"There will be no surprises at all," he says. "We know that business needs stability. They need leadership and organisation and we'll get on with doing the job."

The real risk may be a lack of action rather than too much, says Catherine Beard, executive director with business groups ManufacturingNZ & ExportNZ.

"One of the things that might happen in the six weeks is nothing much," says Beard. "And in some cases that's not a bad thing but I guess the flip side to that coin is that you need momentum ... and having a vacuum feels a bit strange as well."

Beard says some of the low business confidence right now is to do with lack of certainty around policy.

The previous Government had a plan — the business growth agenda — and its predictability made business more comfortable, she says.

"The big sensitivity at the moment is around costs coming down the line and I think the small to medium sized firms will find this the most challenging," she says.

Peters says he forecast a slowdown in his coalition announcement speech last October because he knew there were those with "biases and prejudices" who would push back against change.

He says that was based primarily on what we saw in the winter of 2000 — the infamous "winter of discontent" faced by Helen Clark's Government.

"Nothing's new," says Peters.

But he argues there is no reasonable basis for the current lack of confidence, pointing to the record high on the NZX and record terms of trade, with strong prices for dairy and meat.

"If you look at the fundamentals there is more money in the economy now than ever before," he says.

NZ First traditionally has a track record of being very supportive of small and medium sized business — and regional growth.

As much as Peters talked tough about corporate cronyism and free market capitalism in the 2017 campaign, it shouldn't be forgotten that he also proposed cutting the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent (it's now 28 per cent) and an even lower 20 per cent rate for export-generated income.

Those tax cuts might well have appeased many business owners and offset concerns about other policies such as immigration.

Beard says she's not sure where the party sits in regard to business.

"I'm not sure what the overarching framework or narrative is," she says, "you get the sense that things are assessed on a case by case basis."

In a 2004 Herald column, political commentator Colin James succinctly summed up NZ First's alignment in two sentences which hold up well after the 2017 election: "Generally, Winston Peters' party favours lower taxes and a less regulated workplace than Labour, but otherwise it is probably closer to Labour than National. Where it differs from both is in its suspicion of free trade, foreign ownership and immigration."

Peters argue that NZ First has always been pro-business. "In contrast to many of my opponents, I have been in business myself and very successfully so."

Asking him to describe his relationship with the business community draws a smile. "All the sane, sensible and reasonable ones, I get on just fine with them." We can no doubt expect plenty more of that kind of colourful, combative language in coming weeks.

"I think the next six weeks could be quite entertaining because he's a very good performer in Parliament, he's a very good performer in press conferences," says Oliver Hartwich, CEO of economic think tank The NZ Initiative.

"He will enjoy that, he's hugely entertaining and he's pretty charismatic — whether you agree with him or not. So I think we can expect quite an interesting time in that respect." On policy, Hartwich doesn't expect any change. Peters now has a script to follow, in the coalition agreement.

"There are still enough senior Labour figures around, probably even including the Prime Minister in the background, so we shouldn't expect a revolution from him," he says. "We shouldn't forget we're living in a parliamentary democracy. In the end it doesn't really matter too much who the figurehead is.

"You need parliamentary majorities, you need an agreed working programme ... they need coalition agreement. None of that has changed."

Despite Peters' protestations, Hartwich concurs with the narrative that Peters is a different character in Government than on the campaign trail. "I saw him at a business function in March this year — at the Trans-Tasman Business Forum — where he stood next to [Australian Foreign Minister] Julie Bishop, and I think even the Australian audience liked what they saw."

Beard agrees that Peters has performed well in the Foreign Affairs role. She cites the signing of the CPTPP trade deal as very positive and the progress on an EU deal.

"They seem equally committed, as the last Government was, to seek out new trade deals." On some issues, NZ First could be the voice of reason, she says, preventing the coalition veering too far to the left. For example, the party is credited with keeping the 90-day trial period for businesses with less than 20 staff.

"If that happens it will make business increasingly comfortable with the coalition," Beard says. "I think he'll rise to the occasion.

Her advice to Peters is to keep doing what he's doing on trade. "Business is very appreciative on that ... the other big bit of advice is: just be very cautious about anything you do that undermines the competitiveness of our companies."

But while O'Reilly sees little downside of having Peters as acting PM, he can't see him improving business confidence either.

Confidence is down partly because of external risks like North Korea, Brexit and so on, he says. And also because everyone has to wait and see on key policies such as labour relations reform, RMA reform, and climate change.

"My sense that business confidence is much more related to those kinds of issues ... uncertainty about what Government is trying to achieve," he says.

"Will Winston help any of that? Well I'm confident he won't make it any worse. I suspect he'll say some good things about regions and small business growth and if he does, good for him ... but I don't think that will help the overall narrative for this Government anytime soon."