Sep 7, 2014 Politics
Kingmaker-in-waiting Winston Peters confronts the greenies on Waiheke.
To get to Waiheke, John Key likes to take a helicopter. There was a time when David Cunliffe may have imagined he could walk there, but that’s not working out quite so well. Winston Peters, man of the people, rides the ferry. In an open-necked check shirt and rain jacket, but with suit pants and gleaming black ankle boots. It’s Saturday. You wouldn’t expect the whole suit.
Strangely, he doesn’t ride free. Today, on an election tour to the island to promote the benefits of the SuperGold Card, he’s forgotten to bring his card. He has to pay.
Peters is not expecting to pay for very much, politically speaking, for much longer. Currently riding above five per cent in the polls, he knows his party’s share of the vote always goes higher than what the polls predict. He’ll be back, probably with more MPs than he has now, probably with the power to decide who leads our next government.
He’s in good form. Introduced to the small crowd on the ferry wharf as “the Honourable Winston Peters”, he’s quick with the correction: “Right Honourable.” Quick with the grin too. This grin is amazing: you think of him on TV and you think, hair, but in person you barely notice the hair. It’s all about the face: lines radiating from the eyes, a mouth that cracks open, all lips and insistent gleaming teeth. He’s remarkably handsome and remarkably short, and somehow that combination helps make him remarkably charismatic too. People draw close; you can see them succumbing, happily, to the magnetism.
On the ferry wharf he mentions “that other party”, wrapping the words around an extended noisy chortle, and gets in the digs: “they deny the man on the moon”, “they wonder at the vapour trails”.
He treats Colin Craig as a clown with a bad routine, but the laughs turn to sneers and Craig becomes an unpleasant smell, a personal insult.
Peters arrives at Ostend on Waiheke as the market is winding down: only a dozen or so stalls remain open. But he does a short walkabout then sets up for a speech, and a crowd quickly gathers. They’re older folk, overwhelmingly, with faces and bodies in which time has had its insistent, anarchic way.
He speaks without notes and starts badly, stumbling over phrases – it was the same at the terminal back in the city – before eventually getting into his stride. He trusts himself – start talking and that head full of phrases and ideas will produce them in the right order – but it does take a little longer than you expect.
He asks for a show of hands from people who support some dumb government proposal, and you think he’s being rhetorical, that the point is no one will support it.
But no, he’s looking for a response, and when he gets one he’s away. “That sounds like the Act Party. Am I right?” The smooth-looking young man acknowledges that he is. “I knew it. The moment I hear lunacy I know where it comes from.”
Peters doesn’t like making speeches so much as feeding off his audience, scoring points, demonstrating both his charm and his authority, tempting the crowd to become complicit in his put downs. He laughs and he’s stern, he shares jokes and tells people off. He’s quite irresistible.
He can also get pretty weird. To another man, he says: “You’re a Green supporter. That explains everything. You don’t care about the economy, you care about flies and bees. And trees. Let me tell you, man is more important, and womankind too. It’s in the book. Remember the book? God gave man dominion over them.”
If he wasn’t evidently having so much fun, you’d be tempted to think he was rambling. It’s a Green crowd, but it’s also largely white, elderly and demonstrably not wealthy, so Peters is laying on the ridicule-plus-archaisms-plus-charm. It’s worked for 35 years and he has no plans to change anything now.
He doesn’t mention Labour at all, and most of his attacks on National are historical: in his world Jenny Shipley is the evil queen. Later, in conversation, he berates the National Party’s “right-wing” grouping around Maurice Williamson and Judith Collins. It’s them, inside the party, rather than Act, that he sees as the counterbalance to the Greens on the left.
Which side will he support? He says he really hasn’t decided, and I believe him. He’s appalled at the Dirty Politics revelations, as you would expect – Winston Peters has always been the staunchest and most persistent enemy of corruption in politics – but even that is not a deal-breaker.
He’s smart, engaged, relaxed, ready. He’s 68, and his time has come again.
Photo: Alistair Guthrie.