Towards the end of his talks this week Winston Peters looked unlike I've ever seen him. Serious. Not the angry serious that has been the trademark of his long, strange career. This time he looked lost in thought as he faced a camera, almost pensive.

I don't remember him looking like this when he went into coalition with National in 1996 or with Labour in 2005. When he was sworn in with Labour at Government House he looked awkward in his pin stripes, like a guest at the wrong wedding. This time could be different.

He looked like a man who, at 72, suddenly knew this is probably his last shot at doing something worthwhile for all those years in politics.

His roles in those previous governments had been ceremonial really. National let him be "Treasurer" to read Bill Birch's budgets but Birch insisted on NZ First having another associate finance minister because he knew Winston wouldn't do the work. As Foreign Minister with Labour he was kept well away from trade negotiations handled by Phil Goff.
This time he sounded genuinely less interested in his personal position than the policies he wants.


Genuine is not a word I have previously used for Peters. I met him when he came into Parliament in 1984. As a reporter, I didn't enjoy dealing with him. He made himself Parliament's best-known muck-raker. People would send him scandals real or imagined and he knew how to make news, usually by darkly suggesting he knew more than he did.

He would wear the angry face on TV but when you interviewed him off camera he would make the same accusations with a knowing smirk. I found him false.

He gets along well with reporters, by the way. The oddly aggressive way he responds to their every question is another charade he does for the public. It also conceals a deficiency. His mind is just not quick enough to provide him with safe and sensible answers on the spot, an essential skill in a Prime Minister.

So I can believe he is less interested in a position this time than policies. This is not a comfortable thought.

It has been a joy to live in a country open and confident in the world, with a strong, stable economy that is attracting our children back home. I like immigration too. Our population was stagnant for the last 25 years of last century and it is only in the last five years that we've been attracting record numbers.

Peters is probably going to be able to put a stop to that. He wants to put the clock back 33 years to July 14, 1984, when he thinks the country went off the rails. He said as much on RNZ shortly before the election.

Bill English was aged 22 in 1984, Steven Joyce was 21, both old enough to have known the economy Peters would like to restore. Grant Robertson was 12, Jacinda Ardern was 4. I shudder to think of them negotiating economic policy with our living fossil of Muldoonism.

When Peters returned to Parliament in 1984 (he had been briefly there until 1981) he was 39. Unlike most of National's younger MPs, he was not attracted to free markets. National was a liberal conservative party and Win Peters, as he was known then, was definitely on the conservative wing. He knew what he had been taught and didn't trust new theories. He liked the country he grew up in and saw no reason it should change. He didn't like the new Maori thinking either.

To read the NZ First manifesto for the recent election was to like wandering into a museum. There were policies to revive manufacturing, restore export tax incentives, change the Reserve Bank to take its focus off inflation and manage the exchange rate, block foreign ownership of land and some assets, direct the NZ Super Fund to buy back privatised assets and issue a great deal of orders about pricing and investment and development to airports and seaports, to KiwiRail and to banks and financial services.

There was also some uncharacteristic environmental and energy planks written for the Greens, and plenty of handouts for horse racing and more benefits on the super gold card. Doubtless I will get free doctor's visits I don't need.

It has been galling to watch good people such as English and Ardern pay respects to Peters. "Respect" has been their byword since election night. Truth usually gets distorted when he is on the scene. The truth is, MPs on both sides of the house have always had more respect for the other than for Winston Peters.

Now he gets to choose our government. I'll be on leave in Australia next week, I hope I'll want to come back.