COMMENT:

Shortly before Winston Peters took over his role as Acting Prime Minister a few weeks ago, National leader Simon Bridges made a strategic decision.

It was that National would not go out of its way to try to discredit Peters while he was covering for the PM's maternity leave.

Maybe it was just one of those things Bridges had to say publicly because it sounds so much better than being privately thrilled at the prospect of Peters becoming a sitting target in six-week sedan chair ride.

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Genuine or not, the decision has been thrown out the window, in the past week. The tone has been distinctly lowered.

It may be a coincidence that National's attacks on Peters and his New Zealand First Party have come amid the publicity blitz over the July 1 Families Package windfall.

Since the election and before July 1, much of the political warfare has been rhetorical and National didn't have to go digging for dirt.

Issues presented themselves to the Opposition, such as the scandal at Labour summer camp and National's support held up remarkably well.

It is easy to turn up to the House each day and try to expose Peters' weakness – or strength - that he is a jack of all trades and master of none, except the ability to entertain and bamboozle with his answers.

When Bridges asked this week for Peters to be more explicit on the structural changes the Government had in mind "in terms of the core economic, macroeconomic, and prudential policy settings" he got a musical reply.

Peters: "As Ricky Martin would say, macro, micro, inside upside, the whole lot."
Paula Bennett thanked Peters "for the Winston show".

With money starting turning up in people's hip pockets in extra Working for Families payments, Best Start baby payments and winter energy payments, the job of the Opposition is about to get harder.

That may be adding to the temptation by National to go low.

Peters looked genuinely shocked at some of the allegations from Amy Adams this week over the now-defunct Te Arai exemption for Te Uri o Hau and Ngāti Manuhiri from the foreign buyers ban, fresh from its offensive over the Wally Haumaha appointment to Deputy Police Commissioner.

It signals a sea change in National's approach to Opposition.

It is as though National has emerged from a boot camp on how to make an impact in Opposition - in which reruns of Peters' old political hit jobs were played.

Vintage Peters means knowing the value of mud and its sticking powers, knowing the value of joining a few dots with a damning narrative that transforms what might have happened into what did happen and giving it an airing, preferably in Question Time under parliamentary privilege.

Acting PM comes under unexpected attack from Opposition. Illustration / Guy Body
Acting PM comes under unexpected attack from Opposition. Illustration / Guy Body

Amy Adams to David Parker: "So when he took his recommendation for an exemption for Te Arai to cabinet, did he know that prominent Ngāti Wai kaumātua, chair of Manuhiri, and one of the owner trustees of the Ngāti Manuhiri land at Te Arai is John Paki, Winston Peters' cousin? ... When he said on Wednesday June 27 that no ministers had declared conflicts of interest in respect of Te Arai, because there were none, does he think Mr Peters should have declared a conflict in respect of Mr Paki under section 2.65a of the Cabinet Manual?"

Peters said such insinuations were beneath her and asked whether, by the term cousin, she meant first, second, third, fourth or fifth removed.

The more obvious issue this week on which National has gone low has been on the appointment of Wally Haumaha, principally over his previous close ties to New Zealand First in Rotorua where he was briefly a candidate before withdrawing.

Their target has been Peters, and whether he should have declared that political association to cabinet and whether a New Zealand First minister, Tracey Martin, should be overseeing the Government inquiry.

Under the Inquiries Act, any minister can establish a Government inquiry – and it may have eliminated risk by putting it under the aegis of the Justice Minister rather than Martin as Internal Affairs Minister. But the terms of reference and inquirer will be approved by the cabinet.

Peters announced the inquiry eight days ago, within 24 hours of a Herald story airing the fury of Louise Nicholas at Haumaha's promotion, given the mateship he had expressed 14 years ago for the former cops she accused of raping her.

He can't be faulted for that. It was unusual for Peters to have acted so swiftly but it was the biggest breaking issue he has dealt with as Acting Prime Minister and perhaps he did not want it festering over a weekend.

There were three good reasons to order an inquiry quickly: It was an attempt to cauterize the story, which didn't exactly work, because it grew new legs around Haumaha's political past; it would provide a natural justice forum for Haumaha; and it would reduce the potential for disagreements within the Government over whether he should or should not have been appointed.

There is a recent parallel. The kerfuffle within Labour over Willie Jackson's selection for the Labour list in 2017 despite his contrition for over the Roast Buster comments three years previously illustrates the potency of these issues.

It is not as simple as a clash of political cultures, Labour feminists vs New Zealand First blokes. Haumaha is likely to have strong backing in Labour's Māori caucus.

The inquiry is ostensibly about the appointment process and whether the selection panel and cabinet had all the relevant information.

Most people, however, will see it as being about fairness, and whether someone should be punished for the friends he had 14 years ago.

The worst thing that could happen from National's perspective would be for Haumaha to resign and deny it the chance to drag it out for weeks.

MPs have begun a two week recess, although Peters and Bridges will be touring the regions.

After that National will have only two more weeks to try to seriously discredit the Winston Show.