Why do so many voters refuse to believe Winston Peters when he promises not to work with Labour again? Senior political correspondent Audrey Young, who has covered the New Zealand First leader since the 1990s, explains the troubled history of his campaign pledges.
Winston Peters says New Zealand First will not go into coalition again with Labour and, in a more sweeping promise, that his party “will not return Labour to power.”
That is a stronger promise because it means not only will the party not support Labour on confidence and supply, but it will not even abstain on confidence and supply if it means allowing Labour to govern.
So why is there so much doubt about whether Peters can be trusted when it comes to the age-old question: “Who are you going to go with?” or the 2023 version of the same question: “Who are you not going to go with?”
In a Taxpayers’ Union - Curia poll last week, 1000 voters were asked whether they believed Peters’ promise not to work with Labour again. Fifty-five per cent of respondents said no, 27 per cent said yes and 17 per cent were unsure.
The answer lies in the perception he has created in the past, specifically in 1996, 2005 and 2017 when New Zealand First did post-election deals, and one instance in which he broke a promise.
In the 1996 campaign, the first MMP election, Peters said he wanted to get rid of the National government but he also clearly left the door open to a National-New Zealand First government because the question that dogged him throughout the campaign was “Who are you going to go with?”
He would not answer it and as one of those reporters covering it, we were always looking for signs in his speeches as to whether he was leaning one way or another.
After the election, New Zealand First held the balance of power and conducted parallel negotiations with National and Labour similar to those in 2020.
Right up to the announcement, it was not clear which party the caucus would vote for, but after choosing National with Peters as Treasurer, many in Labour and the Alliance believed it had been pre-determined.
The 2005 post-election arrangement is often cited as the one in which Peters broke his word.
After two terms in Opposition, he was dogged during that campaign about whether New Zealand First would go with Helen Clark’s Labour government or Don Brash’s National Party.
In the end, 10 days before the election, Peters gave a speech setting out his party’s position. It was that the party would not go into formal coalition with Labour or National, it would not be in government and it would sit on the cross-benches, but that it would not oppose confidence and supply if it was in the interests of stability.
“We genuinely don’t care about the baubles of office,” he said.
In his words, he did not want the Greens to be holding Labour to ransom or Act to be holding National to ransom. And he said under a constitutional convention, he would let the biggest party try to form a government first.
So what happened? The party did not go into a formal coalition with Labour and it did give Labour confidence and supply – shutting out the need for Labour to do a deal with the Greens.
But Peters also accepted the role of Foreign Minister outside cabinet, which he called “outside government.” That was a creative definition of “government” because anyone who is a minister is, in practice, part of government.
Supporting Labour was not a broken promise, but accepting the role of Foreign Minister was - so much so that his fellow MP, Doug Woolerton, resigned as party president in protest.
However it set a precedent for future arrangements in National in which senior MPs of support parties would sit outside the cabinet as ministers and have the freedom to criticise the Government in all but their own portfolio areas.
In 2017, the so-called constitutional convention Peters had previously referred to about letting the biggest party try to form a government first was disregarded.
New Zealand First again held the balance of power and conducted parallel negotiations with National’s Bill English and Labour’s Jacinda Ardern.
Many in National believed that Peters would favour National because it had been a credible government in office for three terms and had polled highest and Labour in Opposition had torn itself apart and had just elected its fifth leader in six years.
Sensing a preference within New Zealand First for Labour, some of us warned before the election that the biggest party might not be the one that led the next Government.
The prospect of working alongside a new and inexperienced and grateful Labour Government would be easier for New Zealand First than working as a partner to a seasoned fourth-term National Government. Labour offered a better deal, including making Peters Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister again.
The inexperience of National leader Christopher Luxon would suit Peters for the same reason.
Luxon is fond of saying that New Zealand First has not gone with National in 27 years which is true.
But this election is also the first time in 27 years that New Zealand First has specifically ruled out working with a party, Labour.
He mostly cites Labour’s “separatist” policies for Maori and the fact that it didn’t share the completed report He Puapua with him – “nobody gets to lie to me twice”.
But the relationship between New Zealand First and Labour became strained in 2020 when Labour effectively took over government during the Covid-19 pandemic. And instead of campaigning in 2020 as a successful partnership in a crisis, Peters campaigned against a popular Labour Party as though he were an Opposition MP.
His party was voted out altogether and last year he made the decision to rule out Labour in 2023.
Labour has since made a virtue of necessity by ruling out New Zealand First, saying it had been chaotic working with the party in Government. But if New Zealand First had not ruled out Labour first, it is unlikely Labour would have closed off the option altogether.
National repeatedly says that “no one believes” Chris Hipkins’ assurances that he won’t work with Winston Peters and says Hipkins would call Peters for a deal post-election if NZ First holds the balance of power.
That is tantamount to suggesting Peters would not honour his pledge not to work with Labour. But Peters is not rising to the argument. Both he and Hipkins have repeatedly said they won’t work together.
National wants to have a cleaner coalition with Act only, and it is effectively campaigning against New Zealand First while reserving the right to work with the party if required.
When Peters released his party’s manifesto last week and social media commentary pointed out it contained no pledge about not working with Labour, he issued an unequivocal tweet saying “New Zealand First will not return Labour to power”.
Can you trust him to keep his word? You’ll have to be the judge on the basis of past experience.