Is Winston Peters the tail wagging the dog? He's certainly very powerful in the current post-election coalition negotiation period. Hence the complaints about whether New Zealand First has too much power or, indeed, whether Peters is so problematic this could lead to a weakened democracy.
Does Winston Peters have too much leverage?
Many commentators are expressing frustration at the power wielded by Winston Peters and New Zealand First. These complaints partly stem from a failure to adjust to MMP realities, in which the major parties don't have all the power. But there are legitimate questions about the extent of Peters' power.
Probably the strongest reaction is from Duncan Garner who says The megalomaniac reigns all over National's parade. He points out that 93 per cent of voters "overwhelmingly rejected Peters" by voting for other parties, and asks: "In a country that prides itself on fairness, how can one man, Winston Peters, with just 7 per cent of all votes, have 100 per cent of the power?" Garner complains, "One man with 160,000 votes now dictates terms and holds to ransom the two political beasts with 1.8 million votes between them."
Garner has a message for other media following the ins and outs of coalition negotiations: "Trying to second guess Peters and his next move is a fool's paradise. Don't bother, go on holiday. Wait to be told. He wants the attention, don't empower him. He's known as the ringmaster at times like this: in charge of the tired and exhausted nationwide circus with its empty seats, same old tricks, shabby backroom processes and policies not thought through or costed."
This week's Listener magazine editorial makes some similar points: "Peters, who lost his own electorate seat and whose party vote went down, has 100% of the power to anoint the next prime minister. For a country that values fairness, that feels intuitively wrong. On election-night results, English should be in the driving seat; the problem is that Peters is lying across the windscreen" - see: Winston Peters has 7% support yet 100% of the power - that feels wrong.
Some of that might just be old FPP-style thinking, but the editorial certainly makes a good point against the argument that New Zealand First has a stronger mandate to go with left rather than right: "Shaw's argument that most New Zealanders voted for change would stack up if New Zealand First had declared before the election that it would align with the Greens and Labour".
Commentators are forecasting the techniques Peters will employ to extract the highest possible price from National or Labour in the negotiations. Audrey Young outlines one negotiating method: "It is possible Peters will conduct something more akin to a closed tender. Anyone who has bought a house that way knows how hard it is for the buyer (National and Labour) and how advantageous it can be for the seller. Under that scenario, the onus would be on National and Labour to present their best - and potentially their final - offers, which may or may not be accepted, or could be referred back for suggested improvements. NZ First would be freed from the accusation that it demanded anything. Labour and National could not afford to open their negotiation with a sub-grade offer in the expectation of slowly working up to a final agreement. There just would not be time for that. The time pressure would be designed to work in NZ First's interests" - see: Winston Peters: 7 per cent of the vote, 100 per cent of the power.
Peters' public obfuscation
We already know that Peters is combative, obstinate, and tends to obfuscate. Perhaps that's what his voters love about him. We're seeing plenty of this in his post-election behaviour. But, of course, it was also in evidence throughout the election campaign. It probably reached its height in the infamous interview with Guyon Espiner two weeks prior to polling day. You can watch the full 25-minute interview here: The Leader Interview - Winston Peters. Many consider this one of the highlights of the election campaign.
Michael Daly wrote down the best parts - see Some of the best bits from Winston Peters' Radio New Zealand interview. And communications professional George Hulbert blogged about it, describing, it as a "truly brilliant interview" - see: An interviewing masterclass: Guyon Espiner tackles Winston Peters.
Hulbert says: "From the sublime to the ridiculous, this interview had it all - a calm, well-prepared and persistent interviewer, a seemingly unprepared, irritable interviewee, and of course us, the audience making our own judgement. Normally in our blog we try to dissect topical items and show how you can communicate better, but this was just so good that I think it does it all by itself. I recommend you watch it - and enjoy it as much as I did."
Peters continued his aggressive orientation towards the media after the election, with his spectacular news conference last week at the Beehive. This was strongly condemned by the usually mild-mannered Bernard Hickey, who stated Peters' performance "was beneath him and served only to feed his small base with the red meat of abusing the media and scoring cheap points. It was self-indulgent, pointless and simply wasted one of the biggest opportunities he has ever had to convince New Zealanders he deserves to be in this position of deciding who will lead our next Government" - see: Winston's awful start.
Hickey was incensed by what "was more than the usual banter. It was just plain ugly, bizarre and painful to watch and be in. It made an important part of our democracy (the coalition-building phase after an MMP election) look like a chaotic joke".
And as to the substance of Peters' complaints about the media, Hickey responds: "His points about his policies not being covered fairly by the media are simply not credible when for months he has refused to answer detailed questions about the specifics of his policies, including how they would operate and how much they would cost. He cannot claim the media did not cover his policies when he would not say what they were in detail." And for more on this, you can listen to Guyon Espiner, Tim Watkin and Lisa Owen's very good podcast: Coalition negotiations, THAT press conference & the supermarket dash.
The Press' Martin van Beynen has also looked at Peters' complaints about the media, and admits he's partly right: "The media should have paid him more attention. The fact he, and let's face it, it will only be him, would decide the nature of the next government was probably the safest prediction of the election campaign. Maybe we should have looked much closer at NZ First's policies and how much they would cost. Radio New Zealand's Guyon Espiner did and Peters came out looking ill-prepared and on the back foot. Yes maybe we should have followed Peters around and quizzed him on the detail of his policies and pronouncements" - see: Yesterday's man holds all the cards.
And van Beynen says that more media attention was required because we still don't know that much about what Peters and his party really stands for: "it might have exposed a political game player who lacked the intellectual rigour and stamina required of a leader in 2017. We should have put him under the lights and got to the bottom of what exactly he stands for. Because after 40 years, it's still murky what exactly Peters is in politics to achieve. We know he is anti-immigration, anti-special treatment based on race, anti-changes to superannuation and anti-fat cats. But despite his strong protestations, bottom-lines and apparent bitterness, his seriousness and sincerity remain in question."
The Winston Peters enigma and his circus
For an insight into the politician and his background, it's worth reading former Herald political editor Tony Verdon's article, Winston Peters: Politician, family man and enigma. He stresses Peters' "Jekyll and Hyde personality" which shifts from highly sociable and amicable, to sometimes pugnacious and aggressive.
Peters is undoubtedly enjoying the attention. And according to Tracy Watkins he also loves the scheming: "He makes Kevin Spacey's House of Cards character Frank Underwood look like an amateur. Peters lives for the backroom deal and revels in conspiracy, intrigue - and keeping people guessing" - see: Winston Peters is in the box seat, and don't we know it.
Furthermore, Watkins alleges Peters is driven by rather base motives: "revenge and ambition are two emotions that carry Peters a very long way and he was back three years later. Peters may claim he isn't driven by utu but he does have a very long memory". She calls for him to get more serious: "now is the time to stop playing up to the small coterie of admirers and supporters who hang off every insult and every cantankerous tirade, and start acting like the statesman that the role of kingmaker demands."
And some of his former colleagues are also suggesting Peters is merely playing games. Outgoing NZ First MP Richard Prosser is reported as believing that "Peters probably made his mind up well before the election campaign even began" - see Dan Satherley and Lisa Owen's What Winston Peters will do, according to those who know him.
The same article and video has former NZ First MP Tau Henare arguing that Peters is simply enjoying "the theatre" and that he's already made his decision.
Tim Murphy raises the issue of Peters' age and suggests it could be problem: "Peters' difficulty is that he is old in New Zealand terms to be shaping, deputising for, and possibly leading the country. He is older than President Donald Trump. Older than Sir Robert Muldoon was - not when Muldoon rose to the Prime Ministership, or left it, or left Parliament, but when he died aged 70. If Peters aspires to share the role of Prime Minister, unless he negotiates to get the job-share in the early part of the administration, he could be PM in 2020 and match Walter Nash at 75 as our oldest to become the nation's leader. If the burden of office, the travels as a possible foreign minister, the wearying inanity of dealing with enemies and the media became too great, who would Peters call on to take his party onwards?" - see: What if Winston, Bill, or Jacinda can't go on?.
In this article Murphy also alludes to unsubstantiated health rumours spread during the campaign. These garnered a very short, sharp press release from Peters - see: Filthy rumour, dirty campaign - Winston Peters.
Finally, for an updated view of Winston Peters' kingmaker role, see my blog post of Cartoons and images about negotiating the new government.