Winston Peters at 72 is a year older than Donald Trump whose appeal to a decisive slice of American voters last year leads to the inevitable question: could New Zealand's old populist pose a similar challenge to the political "establishment" here at the election in September?

Unlike Trump, Peters is not a political novice, he has been in Parliament longer than any other current MP. But he campaigns as an outsider, appealing to people who distrust politicians, dislike "political correctness" and hear him say what they think others are afraid to say about Asian immigration, Maori claims and foreign investment.

Could this man become New Zealand's Prime Minister? Certainly not in the usual way of winning more votes than any other party leader at the election. But the question is not preposterous, as our political editor, Audrey Young, has explained today. Peters put exactly this proposition to the major parties after a previous election when both needed his support to form a government.

In 1996 both National and Labour dismissed his attempt out of hand, although National agreed to him becoming Deputy Prime Minister and "Treasurer" - a sort of ceremonial Finance Minister who read the Budgets after the real Finance Minister, Sir William Birch, had done the donkey work. Peters did not have a reputation for hard work at Parliament. National also gave NZ First an assistant finance minister, Tuariki Delamere, to read Treasury papers.


As every election approaches, the polls put Peters in the roll of potential "kingmaker" since both sides might need his party's votes for a governing majority. This election is no exception. TVNZ's latest Colmar Brunton poll gave National 47 per cent, Labour 27 per cent, NZ First and the Greens each 11 per cent.

Peters' prospects of becoming Prime Minister, for at least part of a term, may depend on the strength of the leading party in the coalition he joins. To come out of the election with 27 per cent, or anything much below 35 per cent, would not leave Labour in a strong position. The Labour leader would be bearing the blame for such a dismal result and might be persuaded to give Peters the role, especially if Labour wanted to change its leader. It is unlikely of course, but a coalition on current polling would not simply be a Labour-led Government. NZ First and the Greens, if they could get along, would be powerful components.

It is hard to know whether the possibility of Peters in our highest office, even if he would probably leave the governing work to others, would help or hinder Labour's prospects at the election. Labour MPs would be even less comfortable than National at the thought of him carrying their flag but Labour voters might have fewer qualms. Northland's Labour voters gave him crucial support when he took that seat from National at the 2015 byelection.

The question might as easily become, would Peters be comfortable at the head of a coalition with Labour and the Greens? His distaste for the Greens kept them out of a coalition with Labour in 2005 but on current polling they would have to be in. It does not look like a stable and sustainable coalition. Putting Peters in the plum job might be the least of its problems, but it cannot be discounted.