“Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired”.
–Lawrence Jamieson, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The Northland by-election win is arguably Winston Peters’ greatest political triumph to date. Winston has outlasted governments since Muldoon and though repeatedly pronounced politically dead has always defied expectations. Even Labour and Green supporters – who can remember his anti-immigration rhetoric towards Asians and Muslims – have forgiven him and enthusiastically cheered for a Winston victory as a political necessity. Winston’s opponents have repeatedly underestimated him as as a populist, racist demagogue, which defies the complexity of who he is.
Winston is the heir to the Muldoonist mantle of paternalist conservativism. A self-confessed admirer of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, Winston’s conservatism espouses state as a key driver of the free market, state ownership of key assets, hardline law and order policies, and strong restrictions on immigration. This style conservatism appeals to the remnants of ‘Rob’s Mob’ – people who don’t belong in either the neoliberal National Party and socially liberal Labour Party.
Winston’s strategic skill is also evident in his ability to channel populist outrage – often appealing to our worst nature. This is similar to Silvio Berlusconi and Benjamin Netanyahu, with elements of John Howard and namesake Winston Churchill. All have had tumultuous careers of early rapid rises to political power, embarrassing downfalls, being written off, and eventually achieving political redemption – all amid accusations of varying degrees of corruption, racism, vanity, and/ or dictatorial tendencies. Each has had excellent perception of how to appeal to and/ or incite popular outrage. Howard won the Australian Federal Election win in 2001 through demonising asylum seekers. Netanyahu won the recent Israeli election against the odds by uniting the right wing vote through invoking fears of the Arab voter turnout and suggesting an ISIS move into Israel if the opposition won. Winston is the Berlusconi without the money or sexual excess. Netanyahu without the extremism. Howard without the dorkiness. Winston would probably prefer to see himself like Churchill: a man of destiny, perpetual gadfly, with a whiskey in one hand, a cigarette or cigar in the other, and a mental rolodex of apt quips for any occasion.
Yet sensing the growing acceptance of immigration, Winston has channeled ongoing suspicion of foreigners into land ownership and partial privatisation of state assets. This makes him palatable enough for those on the left to vote for him in Northland or NZ First party vote strategically without feeling guilty.
Equally important is his charismatic, caddish charm that the public loves. Winston reminds me of Michael Caine’s Lawrence Jamieson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – the con artist who would comb the French Riviera for wealthy heiresses to charm out of their money under his alias of an exiled Eastern European prince. Something appears amiss, we instinctively and rightly distrust him, we’re inevitably upset when we realise the ruse but, like Fanny Eubanks of Omaha, we can’t deny that he oozes charm, taste and style and that the romance was thrilling. In that regard, the NZ general election in 1996 and the subsequent National-NZ First coalition was a Winston long con. All his subsequent comebacks confirm that not only has he has not stopped being ideologically and publicly relevant, but we’re still captured by his charm and the adventure he provides, despite the chance that he’ll take us for another ride.