If Brexit and Trump can't convince you that an electorate can effect change, then maybe nothing will, writes Toby Manhire.

The stop-motion orange figure who exhorts New Zealanders every three years to exercise their suffrage must be getting into shape about now, all chin-ups and squats over at the Electoral Commission gym.

But for all the noble service of our animated androgynous friend, this time round an altogether greater advertisement for the value of a vote comes from a different cartoonish orange guy, who happens also to be resident of the White House, Washington DC.

Because nothing better advertises the muscle of the franchise than the actual election of Donald Trump as the actual president of the United States.


You might be appalled by American voters' choice of leader (yes, I know he lost the popular vote by 3 million, no need to write). You might be delighted at his victory, at the obliteration of the smug status quo. But we can agree it was quite big news.

Our little orange guy is but a pimple on the Donald's luminous ankle.

If Brexit and Trump don't convince you that an electorate can effect change, then maybe nothing will.

All of which casts a tangerine shadow, or a beam of marigold light, across election year in New Zealand.

Gareth Morgan, leader of the fledgling Opportunities Party has strained to squeeze every drop out of the Trumpian anti-elite schtick, while at the same time insisting that he deplores Trump. Any minute now expect him to pipe up with "I'm the biggest critic of failing Trump. No one is more critical of Trump than me."

But the New Zealand individual most often mentioned in Trumpalike dispatches is, of course, the indestructible Winston Raymond Peters.

Mostly it's hyperbole. The founding and current leader of the New Zealand First Party is hardly the Kiwi Trump. He is Mr Conventional by contrast.

And if he is our closest analogue to Farage or Trump or Le Pen or Wilders, then praise the skies, I'll take it: he has after all occupied several senior government roles, and did nothing over the course of those years remotely so deranged as Trump achieves on a quiet afternoon.


Arguably, what's more, one of the reasons New Zealand is less susceptible to an electoral upheaval on the scale of Brexit or Trump is because our proportional system has meant supporters of a NZ First-style philosophy have had representation in parliament - a kind of safety valve absent in the UK and US.

Peters correctly predicted both of those earthquakes: that the UK would vote to quit the European Union and that Trump would actually win the actual presidency.

And he does thump the populist tub on immigration, on globalisation, on the bubble of beltway politics.

He has the most fiery arsenal of insults in New Zealand politics. And he loves little more than launching salvoes at pollsters and the news media for their myriad failures in coverage of his party - albeit laced with the occasional self-aware chuckle that Trump's gargantuan ego could never conjure.

But it is hard to imagine the stars aligning more favourably for Peters six months out.

There's that profound global mood, for starters. Domestically, there's no visible Conservative Party to carve into the core vote. This month has seen record immigration numbers. Foreign ownership is in the news. And the prime minister, Bill English, has just torn up his predecessor's blood oath never to move the superannuation age from 65.

Then there's personality. Next week's valedictory speeches from the two former leaders of the main parties, who are skedaddling early from Parliament, will illustrate the greyness of the current pair.

For all that Bill English and Andrew Little might have a better grasp of their policy platforms than their predecessors John Key and David Cunliffe, they're not exactly box-office.

By comparison, Peters looks nimble, impish - a bright, mercurial bolt among the grey.

So, Winston's year? Everything is in place. The global mood. The policy timing. The personality contrast. And the polling, too: in last month's Colmar Brunton poll for TVNZ, NZ First registered 11 per cent, level with the Greens.

Remarkable, really, given that not long ago any conversation about Winston would include questions about whether the 5 per cent threshold was reachable. No one is discussing that now.

There are, though, reasons to doubt whether Peters can stage a 2017 surge.

The response to English's superannuation announcement was uncharacteristically muted - in part, no doubt, because everyone over 45 was given a free pass and a gold card. But the tiger of old seemed oddly lacking.

Questions around the succession will amplify, too. The swirl of rumour around Shane Jones leaping from the atolls of the Pacific into the NZ First battlewagon has reached a state of near fait accompli - which alone is reason to treat it with caution.

But if Jones does join, that will focus attention on the potential for a fight with Ron Mark, Peters' current deputy.

Either way, the question of who comes after Winston, 72 next month, will be inescapable.

Another political reality, and we'll be hearing about it ad infinitum in the coming months, is just what a stretch it is to see a government being formed without NZ First.

Key escapes Parliament having never had to seek Peters' backing. English is highly unlikely to avoid it.

On the other side, Labour and the Greens need even more of a steroid shot to be in a position to govern without the Winstonian blessing.

If NZ First climb further in the polls in election year, Labour will increasingly lean towards cobbling together a government with Team Peters, cornering the Greens - their partners in a Memorandum of Understanding that expires on election day - into sideline subservience or being cast as the enablers of a fourth National term.

Can NZ First climb in the polls? Of course they can. Nothing charges Peters' batteries like an election. And his party consistently gathers support through the campaign.

If they hit their stride that February poll number of 11 per cent could grow substantially.

In the same period ahead of the last general election, February 2014, NZ First scored 3.1 per cent in the Colmar poll. On election night they hit 8.7 per cent.

Back in the first MMP election, 1996, NZ First returned their best ever result, with 13.4 per cent delivering 17 MPs.

If Winston Peters, who is about to contest his 13th general election, has still got it, they could yet better that in September. Buckle in for the last hurrah.