Winston Peters is shaping as the man who will choose our next Prime Minister - again. At 72, the kingmaker of New Zealand politics could make a final play to snare the top job for himself, writes Audrey Young.

When Winston Peters warned Green co-leader Metiria Turei that there would be consequences for her calling New Zealand First racist, history would suggest he meant it.

And history, as they say, is the best predictor of future behaviour.

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Peters' party had almost completed its coalition negotiations with National in 1996 but there were two outstanding issues.

The first: Peters wanted an apology from Prime Minister Jim Bolger for having repeatedly called him racist.

The second: What job Peters would get in a coalition Government. He wanted Prime Minister.

This election has already revived talk that Peters may pitch for the top job. And so history, it would seem, repeats.

In 1996 Peters was being offered at the very least the role of Deputy Prime Minister to Bolger, so it was important that their bitter disputes of the past be put behind them.

That happened one night over a whiskey session in Peters' Bowen House office, before the New Zealand First caucus took on the task on December 10 of picking a winner from the final versions of the Labour and National agreements.

Whether the "consequences" for Turei would be more severe than having to bury the hatchet in a whiskey session with Peters remains to be seen. Regardless, this election is shaping as the third time in 21 years that New Zealand First will hold the balance of power.

Peters dislikes being referred to as a Kingmaker, let alone a potential King. The reasons are obvious. The Kingmaker title reminds the left-leaning voters that he could go with National and reminds right-leaning voters he could go with Labour.


And the King title suggests a level of self-motivation in whatever deal is done.

Peters celebrated his 72nd birthday in April - he's just one year older than Donald Trump, four years older than Jeremy Corbyn, and three years younger than Bernie Sanders.

Current life expectancy in New Zealand is 82 and rising. We're all living and working longer and Peters exemplifies that.

Rebel Tauranga MP Winston Peters is followed by TV cameras after being dumped from the National caucus in October 1992. Photo / NZH Archive
Rebel Tauranga MP Winston Peters is followed by TV cameras after being dumped from the National caucus in October 1992. Photo / NZH Archive

Commitment to his causes remains undimmed by 38 years in politics and while he may be slowing down a little, giving up smoking has improved his health and his campaign stamina is unparalleled.

He thrives on attack and on being attacked.

Peters has made the most of Turei's insult. It was a big deal but would not necessarily be a bar to a post election-deal with the Left, if the deal is good enough.

The Weekend Herald has talked to several participants of the 1996 talks and decision.

On December 10 that year the decision almost made itself, one participant said. By the end of the day, after various caucus members had put up the alternatives on an overhead projector, the caucus overwhelmingly favoured the deal with National - which included giving Peters the Treasurer's job.

Asked if there was any sense in which Peters had manipulated the result to go with National, the answer was "absolutely not".

It had plainly been a better deal.

Winston Raymond Peters had his first tilt at politics as a 30-year-old. He unsuccessfully stood for National in Northern Maori against Labour's Matiu Rata in 1975, when New Zealand's population was a little over three million, TV2 launched on our screens and Footrot Flats made its debut.

Peters takes a walk after storming out of National Party headquarters in Wellington in March 1993. Photo / NZH archive
Peters takes a walk after storming out of National Party headquarters in Wellington in March 1993. Photo / NZH archive

He made it into Parliament after the election three years later - though, perhaps fittingly, by court order, launching a turbulent career in politics that endures 42 years on.

The racist label has been a frequent epithet from Peters' rivals.

His attacks on immigration led to a surge in support which ultimately delivered him the Kingmaker role in 1996, a role he also held in 2005 - and again is likely to have after the September 23 election.

The bid for Peters to become Prime Minister in 1996 was kept secret from most of the caucus and the media.

But it is the nature of those discussions 21 years ago that created the notion of Peters becoming King - which has never quite been killed off despite National and Labour leaders ruling it out every election.

Details have trickled out over the years but it was recently publicly confirmed by Helen Clark in an interview for RNZ for the series The 9th Floor.

The approach to Clark was an informal one, understood to have been made by Peters' youngest brother, Wayne.

"I don't think it was ever a serious proposition," she said. "It may have been loosely floated but not in negotiations."

She was dismissive of the notion, then and today. "You can only have one Prime Minister," she said.

She was more forthright in a private letter written to a Labour supporter in the weeks after the 1996 coalition negotiation.

"Labour takes pride in not having conceded to Mr Peters' preposterous demands to become Prime Minister for at least part of the term of Government, to become Finance Minister and to require us to jettison core aspects of our policies," she wrote.

"Unlike the National Party, we had made it clear that we were not interested in power at any price.

"We sought power to govern in the interests of ordinary people and to build a better society. If we could not achieve that, then holding ministerial office was no prize at all."

New Zealand First's approach to National was different, the Weekend Herald has learned.

The issue of Peters becoming Prime Minister was first raised during talks with National on November 13, 1996, in the regular negotiating room of Bowen House, 10.02, where there were about a dozen witnesses - each side had five or six participants.

Before the discussion began, it was suggested by the New Zealand First team that it would be appropriate if Bolger and Winston Peters left the room.

Peters undoubtedly knew what was about to be raised on the other side of the door, even if Bolger didn't.

The arguments for giving the junior partner the Prime Ministership were led by Doug Woolerton, party president and new MP, and Wayne Peters.

Scandinavian countries sometimes gave the leadership of a coalition to the smaller party, they said.

Always giving the larger party the Prime Ministership led to a perception that the larger party would have a permanent veto over the junior party.

Wayne Peters asked National to consider sharing the Prime Ministership during the three-year term - perhaps for a year - which was instantly dismissed by deputy leader Don McKinnon.

The protracted negotiations went on for months. Peters eventually became Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer - a post created especially for him - and senior to the Finance Minister.

Peters has never ruled out going for the top job, and there is no reason why he should. What party leader doesn't want to be the most successful they can be and to exercise power in Government?

Winston Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of the new political party New Zealand First Party held at Alexandra Park, Auckland on 18 July 1993. Photo / NZH Archive
Winston Peters arrives at the rally for the launch of the new political party New Zealand First Party held at Alexandra Park, Auckland on 18 July 1993. Photo / NZH Archive

But Sarah Gerard, formerly Neems, a former political advisor to Peters, does not believe he is driven by an ambition to be Prime Minister.

Even when was a National MP there were quite a few colleagues who thought he could lead the party if he had played his cards right.

"He just wouldn't play the game with them," she said this week. "He never seemed to be overly driven by that whole 'Yes I'm going to be the first Maori Prime Minister' [thing] because, at that stage, that is what they were writing in the papers every day.

"He certainly wasn't going to compromise or wasn't desperate to be Prime Minister."

She believes that during the negotiations in 1996, the suggestion that Peters should have a turn at being Prime Minister was part of the party's approach to drive a hard bargain.

However she believes he has a "huge opportunity" in the coming election and would drive another hard bargain if he did well enough - possibly for the top job.

If Peters were to pull it off, she thinks he would surprise people by doing the job well, as he had done as Foreign Minister.

"I think he has learned from his experiences when he was part of the Government," she said.

"He would also know - hopefully even Winston can acknowledge - that he has only got limited years in Parliament now, so he would be willing to make the most of it."

Turbulence seems to follow Peters. He was sacked from Cabinet in 1998 and suffered lean years of support.

But in 2005 the Kingmaker returned.

There had been loose talk among some of his MPs and National MPs about the prospect of a power-sharing deal with National, which was led at that time by Don Brash.

But the way the numbers fell after the election, though it would have been possible to do a deal with National, it would also have had to involve United Future and sworn enemies Act and the Maori Party.

Labour takes pride in not having conceded to Mr Peters' preposterous demands to become Prime Minister for at least part of the term of Government.

Helen Clark moved quickly to stitch up a deal with Peters and United Future leader Peter Dunne as ministers, in which Peters ruled out the Greens from Government. He became Foreign Minister - despite his now-infamous promise to refuse the "baubles of office".

For the second time he was in a pivotal position post-election - but the situation was quite unlike 1996 and there was no question of elevating Brash or of Peters making a bid for the top job over Clark.

The idea that the country could be led by head of the smaller party in a coalition is not without precedent.

Peters himself has cited the early 1930s, when George Forbes of the United Party was Prime Minister in a coalition with the Reform Party, led by Gordon Coates.

The parallels are not overly similar to today, however, according to former Labour minister and historian Michael Bassett.

Forbes may have had fewer MPs in 1931, but it was only by one or two.

A reference in Bassett's recent book, New Zealand Prime Ministers, suggests there may also be a gulf in any personal parallels between Forbes and Peters.

"No other holder of the office of Prime Minister has had so little sense of his place in history," Bassett said of Forbes.

The chances of Peters becoming Prime Minister this election are not high.

But they are not impossible, despite Bill English and Andrew Little having ruled it out, as they must.

There are several ways it could happen.

New Zealand First could go into coalition with National, conditional on Peters leading the Government for half of the term.

No other support would be required, but after three terms leading the Government, National is likely to be the least receptive to being led by Peters.

Any deal involving Peters leading the Government is more likely to be with Labour, which has been in Opposition for three terms, and the Greens who have been outside Government for six terms terms.

New Zealand First could go into coalition with Labour, conditional on Peters leading the Government for half a term, say the first half, which would give Labour the benefit of incumbency at the 2020 election and half the term to decide who its PM would be.

An alternative would see Labour's support collapse and New Zealand First become close to the second largest, if not the second largest, party in Parliament, leading a coalition with Labour for a term.

No poll gives New Zealand First and Labour the numbers to govern without the support of the Greens. And no poll gives the Greens the chance to be part of a Government without the support of New Zealand First.

Weird as it seems, Metiria Turei's comments about New Zealand First were part of a strategy to try to strengthen the Green Party's hand after the election.

New Zealand First and the Greens may need each other for the best deal possible - although it may take a bottle of whiskey for that reality to be accepted.