In a political career of seemingly infinite milestones, Winston Peters is about to encounter not just one but two new significant ones.

He will become Acting Prime Minister for at least six weeks when Jacinda Ardern crosses the threshold of her maternity unit.

And in the middle of that period, he will mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of his New Zealand First Party.

Despite attempts from Ardern and the Beehive to downplay the potential hazards of "Winston in charge," it is a crucial time for Peters to damage or enhance his party's reputation.

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It is important enough for the party to postpone its birthday celebrations until September, lest they become a distraction, or are seen as indulgent.

It is an opportunity for Peters to dispel the narrative of the politician with the reverse-Midas touch, who has had a premature departure from every Cabinet in which he has served.

"We are going to be the image of stability and rock-solid steadiness," he told the Weekend Herald.

But he would be different. "I'll be different because I'm different. It's axiomatic. I can't be the same as the Prime Minister."

His sentiment has been echoed by Ardern who says she has absolutely no concerns with Peters at the helm because he had done so on many occasions before.

"The only thing that's different is the length of time," she said.

New Zealand First has postponed its 25th birthday celebrations until Peters' term as Acting Prime Minister has been completed. Photo / Northern Advocate
New Zealand First has postponed its 25th birthday celebrations until Peters' term as Acting Prime Minister has been completed. Photo / Northern Advocate

But the length of time is the huge difference from his previous stints, in this and the 1997–98 period, and is the reason the arrangement is attracting so much scrutiny.

Senior New Zealand First minister Tracey Martin says Peters and Ardern have a strong relationship now and that will continue when he is Acting Prime Minister.

"If anyone thinks Winston Peters is going to cut her out of any major decisions then they don't know Winston Peters and they don't know this relationship," she said.

"He knows he's just holding the seat until she comes back and I have no doubt they will be in constant contact with each other during that time because that's how they are. They are in constant contact."

Peters and Ardern had barely known each other when they began coalition talks in October last year, expect that they were opposites in terms of experience.

If anyone thinks Winston Peters is going to cut her out of any major decisions then they don't know Winston Peters and they don't know this relationship.

"They got on so well across the table during negotiations," said Martin who was present. "There was just this mutual respect. There was no dicking around, no flattery or anything like that. It was just straight conversation."

Ardern had not come in with a predetermined view about Peters because she had not known him, said Martin.

The respect and courtesy is evident in Cabinet meetings as well, explains Martin.

"Winston respects the role of Prime Minister so whoever is in it, they are the Prime Minister. So he never interrupts her in Cabinet. If he wants to say anything about something, he will give her a small indication.

"When Jacinda is talking about decision-making, she will always turn to him and say 'and did you have anything to add that Deputy Prime Minister?' ''

One of Peters' jobs will be to chair the Monday Cabinet meetings. Photo / Mark Mitchell
One of Peters' jobs will be to chair the Monday Cabinet meetings. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Under the rules, Peters does not need to be sworn in as Acting Prime Minister – and nor will he move to the Ninth Floor of the Beehive although he will be assisted by Ardern's staff and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Jacinda Ardern outlined Peters' role in a letter of expectation in May, which somewhat understated the challenges.

It sounded like a breeze: chairing Cabinet and Cabinet committees, engaging with officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet; overseeing the Government's policy programme; answering questions in the House and responding to media inquiries, OIAs and other correspondence and attending official engagement.

What it didn't say but is understood is that Peters' biggest challenge will be handling the unexpected, that he will have to be the Government's public face for any natural disaster; a blunder by a minister or a Government department; a tragedy; a controversial Cabinet decision; a scandal involving a Government MP; tensions between coalition partners; or an intractable problem.

Assurances that Peters will naturally rise to the challenge as the country's leader were undermined by Peters himself when he lodged legal proceedings to sue his own Government and top public servants over its use of information about his overpayment of superannuation.

Not only did he choose to file proceedings in the week that Ardern left the Beehive, he did not give her a heads-up that he would be doing it. It raises questions about the other reason Peters is magnet for attention, his unpredictability.

Ardern and Peters in Niue this year on the Pacific Missions. Peters is not planning any overseas travel while Ardern is on maternity leave. Photo / Michael Craig
Ardern and Peters in Niue this year on the Pacific Missions. Peters is not planning any overseas travel while Ardern is on maternity leave. Photo / Michael Craig

Peters may have the professional public service and a wealth of political advisers to support him in his role but there is no accounting for his personal idiosyncrasies which could create or exacerbate problems.

That will hinge on whether, on any given day, we see the pleasant, charming and sensible Peters in operation, or the impatient, intolerant, belligerent, and derisory Peters.

Added to a rather messy start to his turn at the helm is his handling of his own Shane Jones. No soon had Ardern distanced herself from Jones' attacks on Fonterra chairman John Wilson than Peters weighed in behind Jones, almost certainly not abreast of Ardern's position. A breakdown in the so-called constant communication.

National Party leader Simon Bridges is downplaying the potential for mayhem and meltdowns under Peters.

It is evident that Bridges doesn't want to set low expectations for Peters' performance.

That would look like he wanted Peters to fail, and that would not be in the interests of the country.

"His time as Acting Prime Minister is not going to be entirely bad or as good as people might think at either end of the spectrum," says Bridges.

"But I do think there will be some flashes in the pan where, Winston being Winston, will want to capture the headlines and show who's the boss at least for the moment."

It may be a case of wishful thinking. As another National MP joked: "We don't want it so chaotic they are desperate to get Jacinda back. We want a medium level of dysfunction."

We don't want it so chaotic they are desperate to get Jacinda back. We want a medium level of dysfunction

National has a strategic choice over the next six weeks with Peters in charge.

It could use the six-week platform to magnify its attacks on Peters.

But that could also backfire on National, especially in the House where Peters has the ability to bat away most incoming fire from the Opposition with a verbal flourish.

That happened on Tuesday this week, after Peters forced Justice Minister Andrew Little to cancel a Cabinet paper on the Three Strikes law. Peters and Little went into the House looking split and divided; and they emerged a unified and visionary team.

Bridges has decided that underplaying its focus on Peters is the wiser tactic than overplay.

"We won't go out of our way not to attack New Zealand First when we see them doing the wrong thing. If there are really stupid things that go on, we'll be in there but we are not going to go out of our way on that."

Problems between coalition partners are probably the least likely issue to cause Peters a problem.

Greens co-leader James Shaw sees no emerging issues for Peters.

"My sense is that he will want the ship to sail nice and smoothly. Why wouldn't you?" said Shaw.

Now aged 73, Peters was aged 52 in 1997 when he first served as Acting Prime Minister in the National-New Zealand First coalition Government. Photo / NZ Herald
Now aged 73, Peters was aged 52 in 1997 when he first served as Acting Prime Minister in the National-New Zealand First coalition Government. Photo / NZ Herald

There had been an expectation that there would be a fractious and difficult relationship between the Greens and New Zealand First.

" Actually it is running really smoothly and given our history, I could say, hand on heart that our relationship is as good as it has ever been in all of history.

"We have got to make it work, and so we do."

Notwithstanding the Three Strikes debacle, the level of co-ordination between the three parties in this coalition is more integrated than in previous coalitions.

Because New Zealand First and the Greens are such large parties, compared to National's partners, the three chiefs of staff are in touch continuously over issues and policies from the outset.

They have also had several months to plan for Peters taking over the reins from Ardern and how to control the flow of information so that Peters' workload is not doubled.

There are few observers who disagree that Peters' greatest vulnerability will be in his presentation to the public through his dealing with the news media.

Engagement with the media has become a vital part of the Prime Minister's role in which Helen Clark, John Key and Jacinda Ardern appeared almost daily.

Peters will be running post-Cabinet press conferences, doing Ardern Tuesday morning broadcast media slots and the daily stand-ups on the way to the House.

This week he toyed with the idea of dropping the weekly post-Cabinet press conference.

"I'm thinking about that," he told the Weekend Herald. "I want to see whether or not we are going to have some manners in this place for a change, rather than what is going on here now ...

"I think if there is going to be a change, we'll think about it. I'm taking advice from my staff and my media specialists."

Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon was one those in the National Party who believed Peters would be Prime Minister one day - together here in 1989 in the Glendowie College hall. Photo / NZ Herald
Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon was one those in the National Party who believed Peters would be Prime Minister one day - together here in 1989 in the Glendowie College hall. Photo / NZ Herald

Being Prime Minister one day has been an integral part of the Winston Peters political story, from even before he was expelled from the National caucus in 1992. Former National Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon saw him as future Prime Minister.

His ambition for the top job is not a matter of wild speculation by the news media.

As the Weekend Herald detailed last year, New Zealand First negotiators in 1996 raised with both National and Labour the possibility of Peters having a stint as Prime Minister, directly with Helen Clark for Labour, and in the formal negotiation talks with National in the presence of many witnesses.

Both approaches were instantly dismissed.

Peters as Prime Minister had always been a possibility for this term of Parliament. If Andrew Little had not stepped down as Labour leader and his party had continued to decline and New Zealand First had risen, anything was possible.

It was a possibility that Peters never dismissed when asked about.

Becoming Acting Prime Minister for six weeks is not part of the Peters' dream. But it will bring opportunities he has not encountered before in his long political career. Whether he turns it to gold depends largely on him.

WINSTON PETERS' MILESTONES

1975 National candidate for Northern Maori in 1975 against Labour's Matiu Rata.

1979 Elected National MP for Hunua after taking electoral petition against Labour candidate Malcom Douglas. Loses Hunua in 1981.

1984 Won Tauranga

1990 Maori Affairs Minister

1991 Sacked as minister for criticising leadership.

1992 Expelled from National Party caucus.

1993 Feb Won byelection in Tauranga as independent. Launched NZ First in July. In the election, Peters won Tauranga again and Tau Henare won Northern Maori.

1996 Party took 17 seats in first MMP election and held the balance of power. Nine got ministerial posts in coalition with National. Peters became Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

1998 Coalition ended when National PM Jenny Shipley sacked Peters from Cabinet. Eight NZ First MPs defected from NZ First, allowing National to govern without Peters.

1999 Election NZ First came in under threshold with 4.3 per cent of party vote in election but Peters kept Tauranga by 63 votes. The party survived with five MPs.

2002 Election: Party rebounded with 13 seats and 10.4 per cent of party vote.

2005 Election: Peters lost Tauranga but party scraped in with 5.7 per cent of the vote and seven MPs and held the balance of power. Peters made Foreign Minister outside Government in confidence and supply agreement with Labour.

2008 Stood aside as Foreign Minister while Serious Fraud Office investigated political donations to New Zealand First. Privileges committee censured Peters over non-disclosure of donation by Sir Owen Glen. Party voted out of Parliament at election.

2011 Party makes comeback to Parliament with 6.59 per cent and eight MPs.

2014 Party returns to Parliament with 8.66 per cent and 11 MPs.

2015 Peters wins Northland byelection and gains additional list MP, taking total to 12.

2017 Party returned to Parliament with 7.2 per cent and nine MPs holding the balance of power. Chooses Labour-led Government with Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, and Peters as Deputy and Foreign Minister, and three other party Cabinet ministers.