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John Armstrong's opinion: Winston Peters and NZ First are goners come election night

So goodbye Winston Peters. And likewise farewell New Zealand First. Come election night, Peters and his pals are goners. No question; no caveats; no qualifications. And, moreover, most deservedly so. Furthermore — if people are to be brutally honest — most thankfully so.

Winston Peters. Source: 1 NEWS

No-one should shed any tears when the numbers fail to fall in Peters' favour in sufficient numbers to save him and his shrinking band of disciples from eviction from Parliament.

There instead ought to be relief that a political parasite is no longer around to feast for free off New Zealand's Body Politic.

While expressing certainty that the demise of Peters' party is imminent, should New Zealand First somehow defy political gravity and retain a presence in the House, the next government is currently overwhelmingly odds-on to be a Labour one — either in coalition with the Greens or by means of a confidence and supply agreement with the latter.

Labour's patience with Peters has expired. Jacinda Ardern won't need him on board for her second Administration to function effectively. She won't want him on board.

Peters is now persona non grata. He is also sleepwalking his way to irrelevance.

This week witnessed a brief reawakening of the Peters of old in the form of his belligerent tongue-lashing directed at the Serious Fraud Office. Given his status as Deputy Prime Minister, this ugly and self-serving interlude amounted to political interference in the judicial system. Its purpose was to push New Zealand First to the top of the news bulletins. It was designed to inject life into the party's feeble election campaign. 

On that score, the tactic was a conspicuous failure.

It has long been a maxim of New Zealand politics that Peters can never be written off; that no matter what the opinion polls might be indicating, there is only one poll which counts, specifically the one which closes at 7 o'clock on the evening of October 17; that the subsequent count of votes cast for New Zealand First is always much higher than the findings of the plethora of opinion polls conducted prior to the official ballot.

The latter assertion is just plain wrong. With the notable exception of the 2011 election when the polls failed to pick up a late surge in support for Peters' outfit, the findings of voter surveys have been pretty much in sync with the tallies registered by that party at the ballot box. 

There is no reason why this election should buck that trend. To the contrary, there are numerous factors now in play which explain why voter backing for New Zealand First has been crumbling as fast as the tablets of stone upon which those maxims were supposedly indelibly inscribed.

It hardly needs repeating that a political party rating between 1 and 2 per cent in the polls is in deep trouble. It is worth noting why those factors cumulatively make it near impossible for Peters to turn around his party's deleterious state of affairs in the two weeks left until election day rolls around.

Firstly, it is not just the fly-by-nighters whose voting behaviour is only consistent in being inconsistent who are seeking salvation elsewhere.

Those who have long been loyal to the New Zealand First cause are either planning to jump ship or not to vote at all — or can no longer vote.

In contrast to say the Greens, whose catchment is the younger segments of the populace, New Zealand First's voter base has become a happy hunting ground for the Grim Reaper.

Those adhering to Peters' view of the world are quite literally dying. They are not being replaced. As time passes, his fulminating against policies of a free market or neo-liberal bent strikes a chord with ever fewer voters.

In a similar vein, Peters has increasingly been rendered as irrelevant by the issues which were his bread and butter being resolved or removed from the political agenda. It is difficult to have an argument about immigration, for example, when, as now, there isn't any.

In order to fill the gap in what is already an uncoordinated policy programme, Peters has resorted to making empty promises which he is never going to be in a position to keep— such as whether the Bluff aluminium smelter remains in operation.

The same duplicity applies to his listing of items as bottom-lines for post-election negotiations. Frequently, they end up not being on the table during such talks or not being bottom-lines at all even if they do.

Then there has been the fiasco of the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund. It has failed to deliver jobs in the numbers that Shane Jones flagged in his role as the minister in charge of this behemoth. The Opposition swiftly and accurately slammed it as being a "slush fund" of epic proportions. Jones did not argue the toss. As long as this mega exercise delivered votes in the regions, he didn't care. It hasn't. That is because New Zealanders expect a more subtle defence of pork-barrel politics than a character as rambunctious as Jones was likely to offer. That plus they don't like to be bribed with their own money.

Perhaps Peters' biggest lapse has been to ignore or fail to wise up to his party, which has long sold itself as anti-establishment, becoming part of the establishment. Not that long ago, Peters would have been scathing of a political donation-channeling device such as the New Zealand First Foundation. Now he is defending it on the grounds that it is a replica of a similar entity created by National. 

The party that was the voice of "hundreds and thousands of forgotten New Zealanders" has become the voice for the racing industry plus a few fishing companies.

Little wonder the party's share of the vote is crashing through the floor.  

The party vote for New Zealand First has slipped below the 5 per cent threshold on two previous occasions. 

At the 1999 election, its vote registered at just above 4 per cent. Thanks to Peters retaining his hold on the Tauranga electorate, New Zealand First accordingly maintained a foothold in Parliament.

It was a different story in 2008. The party again fell short of the threshold. On that occasion, however, Peters was no longer the MP for Tauranga, having lost the seat at the previous election. 

The leader and his then six fellow MPs were out of the House for the following three years, before staging the aforementioned recovery in 2011 which saw the party back in Parliament with eight MPs after capturing more than 6 per cent of the party vote.

This time, however, New Zealand First's rating has drifted down to a much lower pegging such that casting one's vote for the party is now of huge risk of ending up on the pile of wasted votes and counting for nothing.

There is another potential headache which no-one in the party seems willing to address even though were it to gain traction it could prove to be calamitous.

The question that the relative few still contemplating awarding their party vote to New Zealand First ought ponder is whether Peters intends staying on as party leader for the whole of the next parliamentary term or quite possibly even longer. Or whether such a vote ends up being an unintended endorsement of Jones as heir apparent.

Peters will have enjoyed his 78th birthday by the time the 2023 election gets into gear. Accordingly it cannot be ruled out that the veteran MP might prefer to quit politics before then.

The prospect of Jones leading the party into the 2023 election might be sufficient to dissuade voters from backing New Zealand First in the current contest.

So devoid of popularity is Jones that he does not register in the preferred prime minister ratings in the 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll despite having a high profile as a Cabinet minister.

Right now, however, the thorny matter of leadership succession is the least of the party's problems.

One thing is for sure though. The Peters of 2020 has so far been a shadow of his former self. 

His body language speaks of someone not enjoying himself and wishing he was somewhere else.

So far his campaign has been aimless, directionless and notably lacking in vitality. New Zealand First's entreaty to "Back Your Future" is as naff a slogan as you could get.  The media coverage of Peters' campaign has been perfunctory and spasmodic. Rather than him talking about what he would prefer to talk about, he has often been limited to a brief sound bite reacting to some remark, statement or announcement made by one of the other leaders. Not only has he failed to set his campaign alight, he has failed to set the agenda.

When he has tried to do so — as for example by means of a speech on the Ihumātao imbroglio — he is panned for trying to exploit the division created by that most intractable latter day land dispute for selfish political gain. 

Pushing such buttons might be regarded as an indication of just how desperate his party is getting. 

While that is no doubt the case, the speech was a carefully argued appraisal of a hugely vexed matter. Similarly, he presented a highly cogent argument last week urging voters to "take out insurance" by voting New Zealand First and thereby blocking Labour and the Greens from running rampant in government and implementing a radical left-wing policy programme.  

The trouble is that no-one is listening any longer to what Peters has to say.

During previous election campaigns, he has had the benefit of being cast as the underdog — a status which can give a leader major momentum.

But not this time. In 2020, Judith Collins has secured that prized advantage. 

Peters has found himself left in her wake and instead auditioning for the role of Yesterday's Man. Unfortunately for him and his party, he is making a rather good fist of it.