John Armstrong: Peters has not put a foot wrong since stepping into Acting PM role

To make an assessment of a politician's performance is surely tempting the fickle finger of fate to subsequently prove your verdict is badly astray.
And never more so in the case of Winston Raymond Peters.

For, the time being, the Jeremiahs who forecast his six-week stint as Acting Prime Minister would mean the end of civilisation as we know it are having to eat their words.

Peters has not put a foot wrong during the two weeks since Jacinda Ardern gave birth and the veteran MP took on his temporary role became Acting Prime Minister in her absence on maternity leave.

The Peters Show could not be described as a tour de force. Not yet anyway. At times, he has appeared unusually subdued, even hesitant. It is if the cloak of authority, which comes with the job of prime minister, is within reach, but not yet grasped.

When he has been on public display, he has been assured, capable and competent, even if somewhat less than electric.

The latter change may be the result of him turning down and tuning out the rhetoric in his language in deference to the highest office in the land being under his care, if only briefly.

Such responsibility engenders caution.

If he has seemed restrained, he has consequently looked relaxed. He has been in particular good humour. He has clearly made a pact with himself that he not allow himself to be riled by the media.

When it comes to that most vital of prime ministerial chores, namely effective and ongoing political management of policy, personnel and unforeseen problems, he has doused some minor political conflagrations before they got the opportunity to become a problem.

The Opposition has failed to land a hit on him both inside and outside Parliament's chamber.

He has not hesitated in coming to the aid of Labour MPs who have been under the Opposition cosh, even though he is not technically obliged to help members from New Zealand First's coalition partner.

All in all, Peters has offered glimpses of what might have been had he stuck with National and waited for the job to fall into his lap, rather than jumping ship and forming New Zealand First.

His handling of one thing which has come to his attention has stood out above everything else, however.

That thing is Australia's despicable detention and deportation to New Zealand of criminals and those perceived as likely to become criminals even though they are residents of Australia, but have made the mistake of not taking out Australian citizenship or who thought they were Australian citizens.

Peters played some clever politics this week by highlighting Australia's blatant and inexcusable breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

He clinically exposed the Australian Government's hypocrisy in pretending to do one thing to impress an international audience while actually doing quite the opposite to mollify its domestic one.

His prize for coating Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues with embarrassment is likely to come in the form of some kind of retaliatory strike on some aspect of his work as New Zealand's foreign minister.

Australia has something of a track record in punishing New Zealand when it thinks its partner in the trans-Tasman relationship is getting too big for its boots.

Neither do Australian politicians take kindly to being outmanoeuvred by their New Zealand counterparts.

Not that Peters had to think too hard to do that. His smart move was to let the facts speak for themselves, rather than him launching a verbal diatribe in Canberra's direction.

The facts are that the said United Nations convention stipulates that minors should never be locked up in an institution, such as a detention centre, which also houses adult inmates.

Yet Australia's border protection service had done exactly that by incarcerating an unnamed 17-year-old who holds New Zealand citizenship in a Melbourne immigration detention centre and — perhaps worse — had been doing so for the past four months.

It is to Peters' credit that he has demanded that Turnbull's administration "live up to" its obligations as a signatory to the United Nations convention and forthwith remove the teenager from the facility that has been housing him.

The tough regime brought into play three years ago has seen more than a 1000 people with New Zealand citizenship who have fallen foul of the law - along with others deemed as likely to join the criminal classes - being deported to a land which they most likely left during childhood and with which they no longer have any links.

That process is both unjust and inhumane. It imposes a further sentence on many offenders who have already served time in an Australian jail. It imposes intolerable pressures on those locked away in detention centres far from their families, leaving them all fearing for their future and potentially having to pick up the pieces of their lives in a foreign country.

This is not the side of the law and order argument where you would normally expect to find Peters and New Zealand First.

However, he has provided by far the strongest denunciation of Australia's warped thinking.

Unlike the feeble response of New Zealand’s previous National-led Government to Australia's introduction of this crude means of cleansing itself of criminals, Peters has displayed both the guts and the gumption to go where National feared to tread.

Likewise, Ardern should be given much credit for confronting Turnbull over the other half of Australia's double dose of moral bankruptcy - namely the treatment of asylum-seekers detained in offshore processing centres such as that on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

That she got no take-up of her offer for New Zealand to take up to 150 refugees was not her fault. She simply ran into a wall of Australian arrogance and obduracy.

In order to avoid ending up at a similar dead end destination, Peters has taken a rather different tack by trying to shame Canberra into rethinking the fairness of the policy.

Far more than likely, it won't work. It might instead only result in the hastening of the issuing of a deportation order on the young person in question in order to remove the source of the embarrassment.

Regardless, the incident is an indictment on Australia's human rights record. By coincidence, Australia currently has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. There is fat chance of such a scenario unfolding, but it would be intriguing to watch Australia, the prosecution, tackle Australia, the defendant, on the charge of arch-hypocrisy.

Never mind. Australia may yet pay a price for resorting to using such an unseemly mechanism in order to export its problem residents.

Despite the huge power imbalance in the Australia-New Zealand relationship, there is more than a hint in Peters carefully-crafted remarks and Ardern’s earlier hounding of Turnbull on the matter of asylum-seekers, that New Zealand is no longer going to play the role of doormat.

It cannot afford to do so. Being close to Australia in other than geographic terms risks being seen to be condoning that country’s atrocious behaviour.

To avoid being so tarred by association, New Zealand’s interests on certain matters at certain times might be better served by putting as much distance between Wellington and Canberra as is possible.

Source: 1 NEWS