Winston Peters plots a path as Kingmaker

NZ First leader Winston Peters shares a laugh with his brother Wayne (centre) at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters holds the balance of power, but there was a tinge of disappointment at his election night event in Russell, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

Outside the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, as the sun set and boats bobbed on the water, there was a street sign that acted as an omen for the night to come.

There was no left turn to Labour, with National holding firm and keeping the flow to the right.

But Winston Peters has always charted his own course, and NZ First’s performance gave the veteran a chance to proclaim that “all roads lead to Russell”.

The setting for NZ First's election night event, stunning scenery aside, was low-key: the Maori Volcanics showband entertained a small crowd as the election results were displayed on a projector in the main room.

There was some black and white bunting, a few balloons - “keeping it pretty basic”, a run sheet for the night stated.

With most of the NZ First MPs in their own electorates, the room was fairly short on star power without Winston.

Tracey Martin was in attendance along with former Labour MP Dover Samuels, but most early attention fell on Jenny Shipley, the former Prime Minister who sacked Peters from her Cabinet in 1998, as she dined in a separate room.

The wattage increased when Peters made a surprise early appearance: usually waiting until late in the evening to reveal himself, this time he was in at 6.30pm to talk to his brother Wayne and field questions at an impromptu press conference.

Revealing his planned fishing trip on election day was called off after hitting a snag - he attended to “domestic duties” instead - he mingled with guests and did a number of live interviews before heading away for some peace and contemplation.

Defiance and disappointment

In his absence, the drinks flowed and guests watched the TV screens as results rolled in.

Barry and Christine Goodey happened to be in Russell on holiday, and were keen to share their appreciation for the Gold Card with Peters as Barry marked his 65th birthday.

“He’s worked hard, he’s relentless - he hasn’t stopped, he’s gone for it and gone for it,” Christine said.

There was just one snag, Barry said: could Winston get the Gold Card to cover the Paihia to Russell ferry?

Peters took to the stage shortly before 10pm, a decision made out of necessity more than desire: the last ferry back to Paihia was set to take a large chunk of his crowd with it.

“We hoped we could have done better, and we'll do better than those polls are showing right now as we trend upwards.”

It was a speech that mixed defiance with a sense of disappointment, a reflection of the party’s kingmaker status but also its diminished return compared to 2014.

With immigration the hottest of topics in the last year or two, a third-term government and an ailing opposition, the stage seemed set for NZ First to shine - but at 7.5 per cent it was perhaps a case of what could have been.

And with confirmation of the loss of his Northland electorate to National’s Matt King, Peters was what Newsroom’s Tim Murphy called “a kingmaker without a kingdom”.

Thanking voters who had “stayed rock solid” for NZ First, he said: “We hoped we could have done better, and we'll do better than those polls are showing right now as we trend upwards.”

At fault was what he called a First Past the Post campaign in an MMP system, with Peters clearly harbouring a grudge after being shut out of the leaders’ debates.

It wouldn’t be a Peters speech without a dig at the media, as he sarcastically thanked them for their attendance.

“We took a bus in the winter cold freezing months from Kaitaia to Invercargill and coast to coast, and we barely saw any of them - anyways, better late than never.”

Power in the balance

Yet as he noted, NZ First still holds what he called “the balance of political responsibility”.

“We have been strong enough and honest enough with our supporters to make it home and to have not all the cards but we do have the main cards - we’re not going to squander that opportunity.”

He counseled patience during negotiations, aware of the flak he copped in 1996 after weeks of talks, and reaffirmed a pledge to make a decision public by the return of the writs on October 12.

Perhaps with former colleague Richard Prosser’s recent outbursts on his mind, Peter also sent a stern warning to members of the party to stay in line during what could be sensitive negotiations.

“To all my colleagues out there watching tonight, please don’t circumvent or foreclose on the right of your party and your colleagues to collectively decide what we must do in the future.

“Don’t make comments that will embarrass the party, don’t make comments that mean the party’s democratic processes aren’t followed.”

Fighting his way through a media scrum as he stepped down from the podium, Peters proclaimed that was his final speech for the night.

He held true to his word, reappearing shortly before midnight, but only to sip on a glass of wine and chew the fat.

As for where he may lean in negotiations, Peters gave nothing away - although it’s unlikely he would have been impressed with Greens leader James Shaw’s public push for NZ First to side with the parties of the left.

With a round of interviews on Sunday morning in Russell before Peters heads to Whananaki - perhaps to get in that spot of fishing - he will spend the next few days, or weeks, plotting the best course for himself and his party.