Prime ministerial maternity leave feels dangerous. It feels like things could go wrong at any moment.

We all know all it would take is one tanty. One moment of Winston Peters losing his cool at the media.

It's happened before. It could happen again. We're all on tenterhooks.

Every media interview is a cliff hanger. Every person tuned in waits. Holding their breath just a little. Or smirking in anticipation. Judging the tone, the language, the jousting. What did the interviewer just say? How will Peters respond? Will this be the one where he finally snaps?


Thus far, Peters has resisted the temptation to take an interviewer's question and shove it back down their throat as far as it'll go.

But can it last? The stakes are high. He's doing several interviews every week. Surely his composure can't last.

If a journalist is going to rile him, now's the time. And they're trying. The game of Baiting Winston has begun.

The most obvious example of it was TV3's breakfast show firing Peters. They handed him a two-week suspension from the programme's weekly Prime Minister's slot.

On the face of it, you'd have thought he deserved it. He'd failed to turn up to a pre-arranged live interview.

But it's more complicated. The show wanted him on air at 6:40am. His diary told him 6:50am. He turned up at 6:43am, ready to go on air. The show knew he was there, standing by. They fired him anyway.

"Unreliable" and probably on the turps the night before. One of the hosts guessed that's why Peters had failed to turn up. Ha ha. Bit of office banter. On TV. About the Acting Prime Minister. Ha ha.

In the same week, Peters has been the butt of a number of other jokes and suggestions, mostly about whether he claims the Government's winter energy payment. The suggestions are that he's either too old, too careless or too wealthy to know whether he receives $20 a week to help pay his pensioner's power bill.


Slow news week.

Before his stint of maternity cover started, Peters knew he'd be baited. He knew the media would resort to playing the schoolyard taunt. He took advice on whether to continue the Prime Minister's weekly interviews. The advice was yes. So he adopted a game plan. Play it cool.

Truth is, Peters has to take some responsibility for this schoolyard game. He was jousting with the media before most of the current lot graduated high school. He printed off a giant NO sign, banned journalists from trips abroad, mastered the art of dodging questions with crafty answers, cut press conferences short, and always flashed an "I know more than you do" smile. The latter is like cake to a child.

But that doesn't absolve the media. Winston Baiting isn't productive. And it's not clever.

It gets us nowhere. It means we end up talking about things that don't matter - like whether Peters was late or not - instead of things that do matter. Like a nurses strike. Or petrol tax. Or whether we're facing another Winter of Discontent. Or whether the Government should proceed with a second year of free tertiary education. Or whether we should roll out median barriers across all of the country's state highways so that we don't lose more people in crashes like the one outside Waverley.

The most disappointing thing about Winston Baiting is the media's inability to respect the office. Members of the media may not like Peters himself. They may want to fire him several times over. But right now they are not interviewing Peters. They are interviewing the Acting Prime Minister.