Winston Peters talks to political editor Audrey Young about the 25 eventful years since he formed New Zealand First.

Q. Do you remember the moment you wanted to form your own party or did it just evolve?

A. We remember thinking we have to form a party as early as late 1988 when we saw that, despite our campaigning to change Rogernomics, there was a cabal in the National Party that was doing its best not to do that. Then we went to 1990 and campaigned on changing Rogernomics and threw that out the door virtually on election night because by the next day we were doing a deal with Fay Richwhite with respect to the BNZ and it became very obvious right then that they weren't going to change.

Q. Is there anyone you could not have done it without like [president] Doug Woolerton or [lawyer] Brian Henry?
A. All those people including the ones on the ground who worked so hard for us, for example a former Victoria Cross winner Jack Hinton and his wife, Molly, were campaigning for us in Christchurch in 1993, door knocking and putting pamphlets out. He had his feet all blistered and he took his shoes off and went bare feet. He went one side of the road and the wife the other side of the road. That was the kind of commitment we were getting from people.

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Q. What do you recall about the actual launch at Alexandra Park raceway?
A. I recall that we had to pick a place where we could get enough people in it was very, very difficult because we couldn't get the right venue given the number it became who were going to turn up. I recall some of the warm-ups like having the best shearer in the world, David Fagan, shearing sheep out in front of the crowd to let them know that this had a serious provincial or regional facet to it.

Q. What is the secret to your party's survival when so many other small parties have failed?
A. Well this might come as an ironic statement but it is the calibre of the people that formed it and stuck with it all round the country.

Q. But in fact you've had quite a few disaffected MPs over the years, not just in 1998 so there's a lot who haven't stuck with it.
A. Well they walked in with the easiest ride to Parliament that anyone will ever see and forgot who put them there. They got bought off by the Prime Minister seeking to undermine the coalition.

Q. Why do you hate New Zealand First being called the Winston Peters party?
A. Because it is not. Never has been. That is the politics of character assassination and denigration which is common and we see it all over the place. It is the language of someone who can't say anything in terms of putting up a sound argument against you policies or your political programmes so they resort to character assassination. It's that simple – excepting they have the difficulty 25 years on, what do they say now?

Q. Where do you want to be in five years' time?
A. We'd want to be in Government in five years' time.
Q. Including you?
A. I thought you meant 'we' the party. Where I am doesn't really matter. What matters is the party is there and strong and is doing the things in line with its 15 founding principles and is going stronger than ever. You'll have noticed that the field of competition has got smaller.

Q. But they are not your competitors that are dropping by the wayside, are they?
A. A number of them are constructions of the other parties to try to beat off New Zealand First and that's failed.

Q. Have you said you are definitely standing next time?
A. I have never, this far from an election, said I'm going to do anything like that. I've just got on doing the job I'm doing at the time.

Q. How is the party different today from 25 years ago?
A. We are a party now in minister Ron Mark, in Tracey Martin and Shane Jones, I dare say myself. People like Fletcher Tabuteau, Darroch Ball, Jenny Marcroft people who have experience right there, and Clayton Mitchell, those sorts of people, Mark Patterson, all seriously solid.

Q. You've named the whole lot.
A. They are all rock solid. We have never been in better shape in terms of the qualities I am talking about.

Winston Peters - at his desk in the Beehive - says being Acting Prime Minister has not been a career highlight. Photo / NZ First
Winston Peters - at his desk in the Beehive - says being Acting Prime Minister has not been a career highlight. Photo / NZ First

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I'm proud of the fact we never got deterred by the serious challenges including facing huge corporate money, that we never got deterred from doing what we set out to do in the end. Either they were going to change as political parties or we'd start a party to change them and the outcome. And I'm proud of the fact we stuck at it and did it. That was an enormously costly experience but that's not the point. We did do it.

Q. What is your biggest disappointment?
A. The biggest disappointment is that when attacks came that we could have fended off we just didn't take seriously the environment we were in, in terms of the likelihood of that happening. It always surprises you when attacks like that come and probably always will but I suppose that would be a disappointments. When you are looking at it forward, you've always got to have a keen ear to what's coming up behind your back to try and take you out.

Q. Are you talking about 2008 or 1998?
A. I'm talking about 1998 – they did their best to try and get rid of us – and 2008 again. There were many times where we were in enormously difficult circumstances because these attacks were coming and you couldn't afford to leave off and be retrospective. You had to keep your face on the future.

Q. How important has litigation been in your political story?
A. It has been critical otherwise they would have got away with it and they would have won.
Q. What specifically?
A. Before I even got going, I was facing all sorts of defamation cases from at least seven parties involving millions and millions of dollars and we knew that we had to confront them and they had all the money in the world but what they couldn't face was discovery, that we had to mount a case against them all, and put in a request for discovery and that's what shut them down and there are numerous examples like that.

Q. Has been Acting Prime Minister been a career highlight?
A. No. I know the commentariat will find this hard to believe but it was never my objective to start a party and be the Prime Minister and I said so and stuck with that because in the end, what was more important for me was to actually make a change to the country and continue to make a change to the country and to reshape politics in line with the very centrist philosophy that we have. And it shows today.

Q. You have gone into every election saying you could go with either party. Do you imagine you will go into the next election with that position?
A. This was never a discussion that I came to by way of conclusion myself. This was always a serious caucus discussion as to how we would do it. And it will be when we come to the 2020 election, the same discussion because each caucus is different.
Q. I find it hard to believe you could step away from the Coalition next election and say you will go with anyone. How did you celebrate on Wednesday?
A. We had no time to. I was in Riverton and Invercargill overnight so we've put that off until some other time. We all over the country at the moment and we couldn't stop off when we have got a serious regional programme that we are all working on at the moment.

Q. Is there anything else you want to say about the last 25 years, the first 25 years?
A. We were very much driven by the Frank Sinatra song about finding ourselves flat on our face and getting back up and getting back in the race. It's a song called That's Life.
It goes: ' That's life, I can't deny it, I thought of quitting but I just can't buy it.'

Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern sign the Coalition agreement between New Zealand First and the Labour Party on October 24 last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern sign the Coalition agreement between New Zealand First and the Labour Party on October 24 last year. Photo / Mark Mitchell

WINSTON PETERS - NZ FIRST MILESTONES

1979:

Winston Peters is elected National MP for Hunua. Loses the seat in 1981.

1984: Peters wins Tauranga electorate for National.

1990: Is appointed Maori Affairs Minister, but sacked by Jim Bolger in 1991 for criticising leadership.

1992: Expelled from National Party caucus for challenging the party's direction.

1993: Peters resigns from Parliament forcing a byelection in Tauranga in February which he wins as an independent. Launches NZ First on July 18 at Alexandra Park raceway.

1993: Wins Tauranga in general election and Tau Henare win Northern Maori and becomes deputy, ushering in the first two NZ First MPs.

1996: Party wins 17 seats in first MMP election, including all five Maori seats. Enters coalition with National, led by Jim Bolger, with nine NZ First ministers and Peters as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

1998: After a coup against Bolger in 1997, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley sacks Winston Peters and he ends the coalition. Eight NZ First MPs defect to stay with the National Government.

1999: NZ First gets 4.3 per cent but Peters keeps his Tauranga seat with just 63 votes and the party survives with five MPs.

2002: NZ First secures 10.4 per cent of the vote and 13 seats including Peters' older brother Jim.

2005: Peters loses Tauranga to National's Bob Clarkson but gets 5.7 per cent Party Vote and 7 MPs. Enters confidence and supply agreement with Helen Clark's Labour Government with Peters as Foreign Minister.

2008: Peters stood down from ministerial roles during investigations into donations. Privileges Committee sanctions Peters for failing to declare donation from Owen Glenn. National leader John Key rules out a deal with Peters. NZ First gets 4.07 per cent in election and is out of Parliament for three years while National governs.

2011: NZ First gets 6.6 per cent in the election, and returns with 8 MPs. Brendan Horan is later expelled for a dispute over his mother's will, but stays in Parliament as an Independent.

2014: Party returns to Parliament with 8.66 per cent and 11 MPs but no electorate seat. National gets third term.

2015: Peters wins Northland byelection, thereby gaining an additional list MP, taking the total to 12.

2017: Peters loses Northland but party returns 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, Peters as Deputy PM and Foreign Minister, and three other NZ First Cabinet Ministers.

2018: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern takes six weeks off to have a baby, leaving Peters as Acting Prime Minister.