John Armstrong: Will 25 years of Winston Peters' mischief, mishaps and mayhem as NZ First leader have a swansong beyond 2020?

So much for Winston Peters' first 25 years in the job.

The big question now is what mixture of mischief, mishaps and mayhem will be unleashed by him during his next quarter century as New Zealand First's leader.

Only joking. Well, not entirely.

The notion that the 73-year-old might serve for another 25 years as leader is well and truly in the realm of the utterly ridiculous. But don't let him hear you saying that.

As much as Wednesday's anniversary of the official launch of Peters' party back in 1993 focused on something in the past, it was entirely predictable that it would draw attention to questions regarding the long-term prognosis for New Zealand First.

The questions were ones which Peters was at pains to deflect, namely when will he step down as leader, when will he quit politics altogether and —most crucially of all — how long would New Zealand First survive as a going concern without him at its helm.

The party's marking of its birthday was accordingly somewhat subdued — less celebration and more like commemoration.

In the interviews he gave this week, Peters played a dead bat to questions about his eventual stepping down as leader and ultimately his exit from Parliament and the National political stage.

Those asking the questions had been around the political traps long enough not to waste precious interview time in the vain hope of getting meaningful answers.

When the no small matter of his political longevity was broached, it was clear he had determined that he would be dragged into a slanging match.

The last thing Peters would have wanted to happen is for the anniversary to to turn into an informal referendum on how much longer he should remain New Zealand First's one and only leader.

The tactic worked. Such a debate has not occurred.

There was further reason why Peters broke his habit of a lifetime and instead made a special effort to avoid saying or doing anything which might have provoked unwanted argument.

Peters' handling of last year's coalition negotiations impressed no-one and angered many.

There was great indignation that a minor party which captured a paltry 7.2 per cent of the vote compared to the 44.4 per cent and 36.9 per cent registered by National and Labour respectively was dictating the course and detail of the coalition talks.

Peters' reward for using the system to his party's gain —as he was perfectly entitled to do — was to be put on notice by those who saw it as somehow unfair and undemocratic that he had once again ended becoming the kingmaker despite his party coming perilously close to falling below the 5 per cent threshold.

Peters' soon-to-end stint as Acting Prime Minister has served as an opportunity to seek redemption. He has not wasted it.

Boasting about New Zealand First's policy gains both current and past would have jarred with the business-as-usual mood he has sought to create during the weeks that he has been the face of the Government.

He has also left the clear impression that he will be the one calling the shots in his party for as long as he deems he is fit in mind and body to do so.

The blunt question which demands an unequivocal reply both from Peters, his parliamentary colleagues and New Zealand First's wider membership is what age should be the retirement age for a politician, assuming there should be one at all.

In that vein, Peters might observe that his famous namesake, Winston Churchill, was prime minister until he was 81 and did not leave Parliament before making it to his 90th birthday.

Peters will only be able to resist relinquishing the monopoly rights on decision-making that he has enjoyed by virtue of his being both the founder of New Zealand First and sole reason for the party's existence for as long as he has continuing pulling power when it comes to winning over voters.

That power will inevitably wane as he ages and his core support among the elderly literally dies off while, at the same time, he becomes irrelevant to more and more voters who will regard the battles he has fought as ancient history.

If Peters is serious about New Zealand First having a future, it is incumbent upon him to transform the party into a modern institution which is seen to be democratic rather than just claiming to be so.

The days when Peters could afford to run the party as a political fiefdom are numbered.

The longer the party remains a personality cult, the greater the likelihood of its members simply walking away.

Peters does not need to be told all this. He understands the unwritten tiles of politics better than anyone.

But that does not mean he will necessarily follow them.

He will have no truck with speculation about him not continuing as leader. To do so would only undermine and diminish his authority.

Even the mere flagging of the possibility that he might be prepared to contemplate not standing for Parliament again would leave him weakened.

It is quite likely anyway that he has yet to determine when he should quit politics.

He is on-record as not ruling out a life post-politics. But that was said from the unfulfilling vantage point of Opposition.

He has since found himself in a position of power and influence, the levels of which are higher than he has ever enjoyed during previous stints on the government benches in Parliament.

He appears to be in rude good health. His energy seems boundless. There is no obvious reason why he should not have one more chance to lead his New Zealand First troops into the battle of an election.

Ironically, if the opinion polls are looking terrible for New Zealand First, a rekindling of the Peters' magic might be the only means of saving the party from oblivion.

Ultimately, trying to anticipate what he will do is a guessing game — and thus a mug's game.

The only thing that can be guaranteed is that he will keep the country guessing for as long as he can get away with doing so.

New Zealand’s third-largest political party is celebrating its 25th birthday. Source: 1 NEWS



White House rejects Putin idea for Ukraine referendum

The White House today rejected a Vladimir Putin-backed effort to hold a referendum in eastern Ukraine on the region's future, distancing itself from the idea in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's controversial summit with the Russian leader.

Russia's ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said the two leaders had discussed the possibility of a referendum in separatist-leaning eastern Ukraine during their Helsinki summit.

But Trump's National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said agreements between Russia and the Ukrainian government for resolving the conflict in the Donbas region do not include any such option and any effort to organize a "so-called referendum" would have "no legitimacy."

The back-and-forth came as the White House outlined the agenda for a proposed second summit between Trump and Putin — in Washington this fall — that would focus on national security.

Moscow signaled its openness to a second formal meeting between the two leaders as criticism of Trump over his first major session with his Russian counterpart kept up in the US.

Trump left the White House for his New Jersey golf club for the weekend. Once he got there, he returned to Twitter to complain about news coverage of Tuesday's meeting.

"I got severely criticized by the Fake News Media for being too nice to President Putin," he tweeted. "In the Old Days they would call it Diplomacy. If I was loud & vicious, I would have been criticized for being too tough."

A White House official said the next Trump-Putin meeting would address national security concerns they discussed in Helsinki, including Russian meddling. The official did not specify if that meant Russia's interference in US elections.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning, said the talks would also cover nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran and Syria.

One stop Putin almost surely won't make is Capitol Hill.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to make clear that Putin wouldn't be invited to address Congress if he visits Washington.

She said Trump's "frightened fawning over Putin is an embarrassment and a grave threat to our democracy."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a sunnier view of the likely second get-together.

He said at the United Nations he was "happy that the two leaders of two very important countries are continuing to meet. If that meeting takes place in Washington, I think it is all to the good. Those conversations are incredibly important."

It was not clear whether such a meeting would take place before or after the November congressional elections in the US.

A White House meeting would be a dramatic extension of legitimacy to the Russian leader, who has long been isolated by the West for activities in Ukraine, Syria and beyond and is believed to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election that sent Trump to the presidency. No Russian leader has visited the White House in nearly a decade.

US officials have been mum on what, if anything, the two leaders agreed to in Helsinki during a two-hour, one-on-one meeting. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said Friday he had yet to be briefed on the private session.

The Russian government has been somewhat more forthcoming.

"This issue (of a referendum) was discussed," Antonov said, adding that Putin made "concrete proposals" to Trump on solutions for the four-year, Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 people. He did not elaborate on what Putin's solutions would be.

The move may be seen as an effort to sidestep European peace efforts for Ukraine and increase the pressure on the Ukrainian government in its protracted conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.

In a sign of support for the Ukraine government, the Pentagon said today it would provide $200 million in additional training, equipment and advisory assistance to Ukraine's military.

Trump tweeted Friday that he looked forward a "second meeting" with Putin and defended his performance at Tuesday's summit, in which the two leaders conferred on a range of issues including terrorism, Israeli security, nuclear proliferation and North Korea.

"There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems ... but they can ALL be solved!" Trump tweeted.

In Moscow, Antonov said it is important to "deal with the results" of the first summit before jumping too fast into a new one. But he said, "Russia was always open to such proposals."

The White House is still trying to clean up post-summit Trump statements on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Trump's public doubting of Russia's responsibility in a joint news conference with Putin on Tuesday provoked withering criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats and forced the president to make a rare public admission of error.

Then on Friday, the White House said Trump "disagrees" with Putin's offer to allow US questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference in exchange for Russian interviews with the former US ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Trump initially had described the idea as an "incredible offer."

The White House backtrack came just before the Senate voted overwhelmingly against the idea.

Trump’s failure back up claims from US intelligence agencies came as he met President Putin in Helsinki.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Source: 1 NEWS

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$500 million Hawaiki Cable between NZ, Australia and US open to digital traffic

The $500 million fibre optic deep-sea cable connecting New Zealand with Australia, the Pacific and the United States, is open to digital traffic.

The 15,000 kilometre Hawaiki Cable will improve New Zealand's international connectivity and mean faster, better internet for consumers and businesses.

The cable was first mooted back in 2012. Construction began in 2016 and took 27 months to complete.

It will deliver 43 terabits of additional capacity to the Pacific region, meaning it's a faster, bigger internet connection to the rest of the world.

Hawaiki Cable chief operating officer Ludovic Hutier said the cable would also improve New Zealand's resilience in the event of a disaster.

The Hawaiki Cable takes a different route to both of the other cables that connect New Zealand to the rest of the world.

If anything happened to one or both of those cables, the Hawaiki Cable would be available to secure the country's internet connection, Mr Hutier said.

In the Pacific, American Samoa is already connected to the cable. There are several stubbed branching unites that will enable the future connection of New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga.

The Hawaiki Cable. Source: rnz.co.nz