NZ First leader Winston Peters comes out of hibernation

Winston Peters has always been quite particular about dates and times, which is why he says that at 3 pm on Sunday August 15 he issued a press statement about the “imminent Delta disaster”, packed a bag and headed up to Whananaki, Northland, where he has been ever since.

Two days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called a snap press conference to announce a nationwide lockdown in response to the first case of community transmission in six months – Delta in a Devonport man -and which Auckland has yet to eliminate.

Peters had no inside information.

But from his home in Auckland, like everyone else he was watching New South Wales succumb to Delta. And amid speculation it would arrive in New Zealand soon, he had a firm belief it already had. He happened to be right.

From Whananaki in recent weeks, Peters has been emerging from political hibernation. Barely a day goes by when he isn’t on social media and he explains it with a flick or two.

“You can stand by and you can put up with, how shall I put it, political spin and dulcet compliance by the Fourth Estate for only so long before you have to realise that people need a more clear, a more transparent and more honest message than that,” he tells the Weekend Herald. “So that’s why I’m doing it.”

“And as usual, the usual trolls are out but I’ve got news for them and it’s all bad -I’m not going away.”

It’s an interview by Zoom and we’ve got only 15 minutes before he has to head into town.

Since the election almost a year ago in which his New Zealand First Party was vanquished, disappearing from Parliament, Peters has largely lain low.

He spoke at his party’s AGM in June, declaring “we are coming back”, but he didn’t stick around to explain who the “we” was. However, maybe he didn’t really go away.

“Well, I had a decent holiday for a start, and reconstructed my life, and the freedom has been unbelievably great. To be free from all those 18-, 19-hour days and what-have-you, it’s all so great. But I’ve never not had an interest in politics.”

He immediately segues into the cost of the now-canned $785 million cycle bridge next to the Auckland Harbour Bridge and his public questions about the grossly underestimated cost of light rail in Auckland.

Peters’ other issues have been about gangs, Labour’s Three Waters plan to create four entities including iwi co-governance to manage drinking water, wastewater and stormwater, which he labels “apartheid by stealth”, and the Māori Party’s bid to change the name of New Zealand to Aotearoa.

Peters also defended the philanthropy of Wellington businessman and New Zealand First donor Troy Bowker during the firestorm after Bowker accused animator Sir Ian Taylor of “sucking up to the left, Māori-loving agenda”.

He has tweeted about his dog Beau, and commented as a former Foreign Minister on Australia’s new alliance with the United States and Britain, Aukus.

But mostly his focus has been on Covid.

And he is sounding less like the Deputy Prime Minister he was to Jacinda Ardern for three years and more like the Opposition politician he is more practised at – criticising, needling and mocking the Government without any sense of previous attachment to it.

Take Ardern’s announcement on Monday setting out the phased freedoms the people of Auckland can have with outdoors activities within alert level 3.

“For all those struggling businesses and workers in Auckland – at least Labour has said you can go have a picnic now,” Peters tweeted. “The ‘plan’ has as much chance of making sense as an episode of ‘Sensing Murder’ … something might happen, sometime, maybe …never.”

It was one of three tweets that day. Another about Covid used his go-to description of Labour these days, “hand-wringers”.

“We’ve been let down by this Govt’s lethargy and a minority who refuse to get vaccinated,” he tweeted. “People need certainty and a plan – not uncertainty and spin. Start with ‘no jabs means no dole and no parole’. We’ve had enough of the hand-wringing.”

His criticism escalated to such an extent last Friday that he tweeted that the figures at the 1pm press conference were “demonstrably false” and there were many more undetected cases in the community. “The question is, why aren’t you being told the truth? Do they think we can’t handle the truth?”

Peters rejects a suggestion that undermining the credibility of the PM’s press conferences reinforces the conspiracy theorists.

“I cannot believe anyone would come to that conclusion,” he says.

“It is not a matter of being a vaccine denier or throwing doubt into the system.”

He simply did not believe there was enough testing being done for them to know how widespread it was.

There is no doubting his belief in vaccination and his passion for Kiwis to get vaccinated, especially Māori in Northland, where he grew up, starting out in Whananaki.

“I know the graveyards up here and so do many Māori who have got any age, the graveyards from the Spanish flu 100 years ago. If anybody doubts you should get vaccinated, go and look at those graveyards, where they never had a defence and they died almost nine to one more than Europeans, and stop kidding themselves. Vaccination is critical now.

“Northland is in a special type of lockdown of its own, it’s sad to say, and also our vaccination rates are not what they should be given this significant Māori population here, so a massive campaign should have been put in place a long time ago to get to the people.”

Peters is willing to do anything he can to improve Northland’s vaccination rates and offered his support and help to the Rugby For Life group that is promoting vaccination across Northland.

He also rejects a suggestion he could have done more while in Government to better prepare New Zealand for Covid.

“We didn’t have a vaccine in 2020. We were getting ready to get it but at no time when I was in Government did we have the armaments, the tools to finish the job.

“It is not a criticism – it is a statement of massive disappointment that the crisis they saw in my view was handled in a very tardy and careless way without any sense of urgency.

“The reality was we had a brilliant 2020 where the Prime Minister showed some serious leadership when we didn’t have a vaccine.

“But the moment we had a vaccine in March, a super plan needed to be put in place to roll it out and including testing with the right testing technology, not the wrong one.”

He said areas such as Hawke’s Bay and Wairoa had been successful in vaccination rates for Māori, the reason being the right people had been involved.

“They went to their leadership in those areas and said, ‘look, can you help us?'”

On Wednesday Peters issued a press statement after revelations by the National Party’s Chris Bishop that Pfizer wrote to the Government in June 2020 seeking a meeting about its vaccine with a view to delivering it in late 2020, a meeting which happened six weeks later.

Peters had not known about the Pfizer approach, called the delay inexcusable, and said it was responsible for the plight Auckland was in now.

Ardern needed to explain why it had not been treated with urgency.

The criticism by Peters is not that surprising – he and Ardern were never close and there were hints of disgruntlement from New Zealand First last year, especially over the economic effects of hard lockdowns.

And Peters is now saying he agrees with the likes of epidemiologist Larry Brilliant in believing that elimination is “ridiculous”.

“As they say, there is nothing so difficult as to get off your high horse gracefully but the zero Covid outcome was never going to happen,” Peters now says from the distance of opposition outside Parliament.

Peters is watching the Opposition through a different lens, including the contest between Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins and Act leader David Seymour, who is more popular as an alternative Prime Minister in most polls.

Peters says Seymour has greater unity in his party because he had so many new MPs with no experience with him.

The National Party had so cannibalised itself “it is awful to watch, actually”.

It had no direction or leadership and was marking time until it changed its leader.

“Judith Collins’ greatest problem is she doesn’t seem to be charitable about her best people around her and that is a great failing,” he says – but doesn’t identify who.

“If you’ve got good people around you, promote them as hard as you can to the highest place you can. She doesn’t do that and I think that she’s in deep trouble.”

The other major area of concern is the economy, says Peters.

“What I am concerned about is the lack, in my view, of how serious our economic circumstances are as a country,” he says.


Where to get a vaccination in Auckland – without a booking

“We have got so many good people leaving, who have left, the very people we need. We are so unprepared in the IT area of training young people to step up into an IT world.

“We’ve got the people, we’ve got the skills but I’m concerned about the apathetic attitude about the state of our economy when we should be very concerned about it.”

Commodity prices were good at the moment but they wouldn’t always be great.

“Then you’ve got huge transportation problems coming and a lack of preparedness to expand on the added-value, high-wealth creation, export-leading industries that are going to make our country strong again.

“And every week we are whacking up billions of dollars in more debt on a lockdown that looks like it could go for not just two more months but two-and-a-half to three months.”

It is clear the Government has no plans to use Peters in the way former elder statesmen are sometimes used post-politics. That is probably because it has no idea if Peters is post-politics.

His refusal to entertain questions by the Weekend Herald about his own future might suggest that either he does not know either or that he wants to exit before the 2023 election, but in his own way, in his own time.

He told ZB’s Mike Hosking in June that New Zealand First would decide if he would lead it into 2023 – “God willing I’m fit and motivated.”

Peters is clearly still motivated at present to participate but he is appreciating the distance as well.

“The great thing about not being in politics, in a way, is you can see things from a different perspective. Every article you read is not based on ‘how does that make me look?’ or ‘how does it make my team look?’ or ‘how does it make my enemies look?'”

It’s been 45 minutes – time for him to make that shopping list and head into town.

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