Opinion: Winston Peters starting to look like he's ready to hand over to Shane Jones

Job done, Winston Peters is no longer Kingmaker. Not until the next time, that is.

Source: 1 NEWS

Given he will be closing in on the ripe old age of 76 by the time the next election rolls around, there is unlikely to be a next time.

When it comes to anything which involves Peters, it is however advisable not to rule anything out.

Note the example of the other Winston —Winston Churchill. He did not vacate the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party until he was 81. Moreover, he remained in Parliament for a further nine years after that.

In Peters’ case, however, the coalition agreement with Labour signed on Tuesday by New Zealand First’s founder and one-and-only leader looks as much a thinly-disguised succession plan as the blueprint for a new and reform-minded government.

The new Foreign Affairs minister, and Deputy PM, follows Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the ceremony at Government House. Source: 1 NEWS

That is radical stuff. 

Again, trying to second-guess Peters on the basis of a few clues lurking in an eight-page document is a game for the foolhardy.

But the fact is the longer Peters refuses to confront his eventual departure from Parliament, the more cataclysmic a change of leader is likely to be for the party.

New Zealand First is now only a couple of percentage points away from oblivion. It is not inconceivable that whoever takes over from Peters may have to go cap in hand to National and plead for an electoral deal to keep the party in Parliament.

That would be over Peters’ dead body. But even he cannot ignore the relentless and unforgiving ticking of the clock.

By importing his close friend Shane Jones into the ranks, Peters flagged acceptance he will have to reconcile himself to the inevitable. As to when ... well, the coalition agreement offers some pointers.

In fact, some parts of the agreement only make sense in the context of leadership succession.

To cut to the chase, what earthly purpose is there in Peters once again grabbing the plum job of Foreign Minister, a portfolio which has no connection to the daily lives of New Zealand First voters, both actual and potential?

That appointment seems to be more about status and seniority than Peters being serious about mounting a reform-heavy offensive on “irresponsible capitalism”.

If he was serious about tackling the latter, he would have ensured he was allocated such portfolios which offer the means to make a difference on that front.

Regardless, for all Peters’ fighting talk, his engaging in combat with the ghosts of neo-liberalism does not add up to a survival strategy for his party once he has gone.

For any voter under the age of 45, Peters is merely reviving matters of ancient history.

He might well argue that capitalism must regain its human face. But Sir John Key got their first.

Key’s adherence to the notion of “caring conservatism” along with Bill English not deviating from that modus operandi once he took over as prime minister is the prime reason why National won more than 44 per cent of the vote in last month’s election.

The best hope for the long-term survival of New Zealand First hangs on it building its core support in New Zealand’s less affluent towns and provincial cities. 

It is difficult to see how jetting around the world in the capacity of Foreign Minister helps the party to meet that objective.

Those who have long had little time for Peters will take a one-dimensional view of his return to the role he enjoyed while propping up a Labour-led government between 2005 and 2008.

His critics will regard his appointment as a victory for vanity — Peters’ vanity. They will see it as confirmation of his preferring the baubles of office rather than the responsibilities.

Peters was sensitive to such accusations during his earlier tenure in the portfolio.

The New Zealand First leader addressed the media after taking on the Deputy PM and Foreign Affairs roles. Source: 1 NEWS

He then sought to dispel the popular notion that the conduct of foreign policy amounts to little more than sipping cocktails and munching canapés on a circuit of global and regional talkfests.

He painted a much more mundane reality of too much time wasted in aeroplanes and airports followed by endless meetings in hotel suites monotonous in their sameness.

That is a fair point. But it raises a far more pertinent one. A foreign minister spends as much if not more time outside their home country as in it. 

During his previous time in the job, Peters could do little to help his colleagues as they were picked off by opponents during his frequent absences from Parliament.

Left rudderless, New Zealand First drifted on stormy seas in directionless fashion.

That experience was proof that the roles of party leader and foreign minister are not compatible.

That Peters has again opted to undertake both roles would thus seem to be a huge strategic blunder — one which is so obvious that it beggars belief that a politician of Peters’ calibre seems hell-bent on making it again.

There may well be method this time in this apparent madness, however.

His return to the Foreign Affairs portfolio may be the clearest indication yet that Peters has come to terms with his political mortality.

Holding the balance of power offered Peters the opportunity to script his eventual exit from politics on his terms with his dignity very much intact while at the same giving his party some, albeit slim, chance of surviving his departure.

When he tires of treading the boards on the international stage, Peters can guarantee Labour will have some juicy diplomatic post such as London or Washington ready and waiting for him to fill.

All that and the obligatory knighthood — presuming Labour is still handing them out.

Even more crucially, such a scenario would give Jones, as Peters’ preferred choice as successor, some space and time to convince the New Zealand First faithful he is the only option willing and available to transform something which is still very much an idiosyncratic personality cult into a well-oiled modern political machine.

That is not going to be easy. 

In handing Jones the regional economic development portfolio along with control of — to give it its full name — a new Regional Development (Provincial Growth) Fund which will get an annual top-up of a cool $1 billion, Peters has given Jones a head-start in both regenerating the party as well as heading off other challengers touting themselves as the replacement for Peters.

The most notable of those is Ron Mark, the current deputy leader. 

Mark wanted the Defence portfolio. Peters will have been delighted to give it to him.

It is a portfolio where the minister only gets a chance to talk when things go wrong.

Mark has sidelined himself. That is to Jones’ advantage. The onus is on the last-minute recruit to the party stepping up a few gears and making the most of what Peters has handed to him on a plate.

It did not take long for the regional development fund to be given a much less attractive soubriquet of “pork-barrel”.

It gives Jones huge power. It gives him the opportunity to have a significant impact on people’s lives — and thus underline New Zealand First’s continued relevance.

The big political risk is the fund ends up being seen as nothing more than a taxpayer-provided slush fund subsidising the survival of a party which is way past its use-by date.

As for Peters, there is a very opportune moment for him to retire from domestic politics not that far down the track.

New Zealand First celebrates its 25th birthday next July. What better time to bring the opening era in the party’s history to an end while ushering in a new one.

It is the logical means of dealing with the party’s leadership dilemma — and in a positive fashion which is almost always absent from such personnel changes.

Peters and logic are not infrequently very uncomfortable partners, however. So don’t put any money on it happening.