Winston Peters’ New Zealand First cavalcade fetched up in Opotiki yesterday afternoon (27/09/2023) at the Senior Citizens’ Hall. Former NZ First MPs, suited, looking like security, hovered as the grey horde entered. One of them anxiously recorded the attendance total on the back of an envelope. He would have been most pleased: a full house, 100+, standing room only.
Peters was on the sodden lawn outside doing a to camera when I arrived. Richard Harman, so veteran he was in the politics business before Winston, was stalking him on this leg of the tour – he was hovering outside with one of the suits. Chatted. Harman politely conceded some of The Working Group election debates had been good. And some of the mainstream debates had been woeful.
A couple of old schemers from the local Maori Trust Board (who are now ensconced with the government-orchestrated Post-settlement corporate Iwi entity) then arrived. “The Kaumatua are here,” said one of the suits. “The corrupt kupapa are here,” I echoed under my breath before greeting them both warmly.
The population of Opotiki is over 60% Maori, but most, three-quarters or more, of these olden folk gathered are Pakeha. Very old, Biden shuffle old; and very white, mole map melanoma white. The two of the three people under 50 (not an exaggeration, I was the other one) – teenagers, presumably dragged there by their great-great-grandparents – made excuses to go to the toilet early, loiter in the foyer and then escaped outside. They are four generations of winnowing inheritance from obtaining the fruits of Winston’s utopian era of New Zealand: land ballots, Maori Affairs houses, CMT, DDT and full employment. These historic places are barely accessible to my Gen X memory, but they are so far gone they must be unimaginable to Gen Z and the millennials. Reinstatement is impossible even if they were desirable.
But we all love nostalgia and Winston was able to convey every contemporary issue through these historic interludes of homilies and anecdotes. We are entranced. He has but the briefest of notes on the lectern and he hardly glances at them. I’m not sure what his stump speech is, but launching straight into how Corin Dann is a dick might well be part of it regardless of whether he had been interviewed by him that morning or not. So typical Winston – slam the media and keep slamming them like Joe Pesci had someone’s head in a car door – it never gets old and by the looks of it neither does Winston.
The speech lurches from one topic to the next. Observe the entire arc of delivery: he defines the problem, goes back in time a hundred years, maybe just fifty, describes the bucolic idyl that was New Zealand that (somehow) never had the problem, recalls an incident involving Muldoon, says what NZ First did or tried to do or thought about doing at the time the problem arose, blames the current government and every previous government that didn’t involve him for that problem, pauses and lowers his voice for the punchline – only NZ First can fix this problem. It’s a partially coherent, partially mythic with Holyoake notes. The technique draws applause mechanically and reliably like a grandfather clock striking a chime.
Winston banged all the pots and pans that a toddler could if he ran loose in the kitchen. Media bash, academics bash, Maori bash, bash, bash, bash.
Aotearoa isn’t the name of New Zealand, we spent a fortune marketing “New Zealand” therefore Aotearoa cannot be used, it’s all woke. The white guy with a number one in front of me nodded vigorously. Winston had taken the precaution of inoculating himself just prior by asking the Maori in the audience about their waka and the relationship to the Mataatua so that he could claim his tribe from up North had saved them (more or less). Only a master can achieve such a feat. Trash talk his own race to his own race and then get a standing ovation – it is a sight to behold.
Winston used the term handbrake. He was selling that as a positive. Were people buying it? The crowd was supportive but tepid in their responses and took a while to synch in, however by the end he had turned from opposition firebrand to statesman, the townsfolk beguiled to the point they were leaning in to catch every word. Hammering those chimes: dependable, experienced.
The meeting is over, and he’s mobbed instantly. I grab him for an interview, it would have to be quick. The women were swarming him. Rock star type swarming – quite unreal.
He’s short. Not his figures, costings and the deficit, but his stature. He’s a midget. I’ve met him before, but it was surprising realising I had been filming his hair and not his face the aim was so off. I had to pan down to find him. Circus grade short. He projects as a giant granite-jawed goon – a double-breasted, pin-striped gangster hanging off the running board with a tommy gun – yet he’s teeny, tiny, wee Winnie armed with speech notes and a book by Apirana Ngata. The only ones Winston could hope to see eye to eye with at the UN would have been the pygmy delegation.
He can dredges up a classic short man anger vibe, on cue, but his laughing, self-satisfied humour is far more indicative of his character. The career trajectory suggests cocktails and cabarets as Foreign Minister is more his style than partisan squabbles and machinations at home.
As for the interview… rote bluster not worth recording. Harman had stuck his microphone in and would have been equally disappointed. When I ask about will he call Hipkins he replies, yes – “if he can tell me what a woman is!”. My jaw slackens, eyebrows twisted in disbelief. His smile is a mile wide, his laughter roars. He can play silly buggers and yet hold the balance of power. I let him go before his girlfriends riot.