Fletcher Tabuteau was once mistaken for Winston Peters’ security detail - now, he’s filling in for him on the world stage. Tabuteau spoke to Sam Sachdeva about racking up the miles as an undersecretary, working in the shadow of Peters and Shane Jones, and his aspirations for higher office.
If filling in for Winston Peters as party leader and on the world stage wasn’t enough, Fletcher Tabuteau also nabbed his old office.
When the Deputy Prime Minister relocated to the Beehive after taking up his ministerial warrant, his old Bowen House haunt opened up and Tabuteau stepped in.
It’s a considerable step up for someone who was mistaken for Peters’ security during the 2015 Northland by-election, and was in hindsight perhaps a sign of things to come.
In February, Tabuteau replaced Ron Mark as New Zealand First’s deputy leader - a role that might seem like a mixed blessing given the shadow Peters often casts over his caucus.
“It’s an interesting relationship that Winston has with the media, and the media has with Winston, and it’s traditionally been difficult for anyone else to come out from that,” Tabuteau acknowledges.
He believes that’s starting to change, with three New Zealand First ministers given time in the spotlight, but says the deputy role is “certainly not about making my own name”, or positioning himself to replace Peters.
“Truly, Winston is in charge and he deserves to be the leader of New Zealand First and he keeps performing like he does, it’s a moot point and it’s truly not something I would contemplate in terms of leadership.”
Focus on the future
That's not to say he isn't thinking about the future: part of the reason he stood for the deputy leadership was to show there was a place in the party for youth - “albeit with a lot of white hair”.
In addition to supporting Peters and the New Zealand First caucus, Tabuteau's deputy role has included work on the party's structure, ensuring it keeps current members happy while bringing new demographics into the fold.
"We’ve been around for 25 years but the objective is to make sure we’re around another 25 years, and that’s got to be about messaging and the broader appeal of caucus members to different sectors in society, making sure we do our job and connect."
Tabuteau has a long history with New Zealand First for someone in their 40s, having been a member since the party’s creation in 1993, when he was only a teenager.
His uncle, Tom Gear, is a close friend of Peters, but the MP says it was his parents who turned him onto politics.
“They loved what Winston was saying, what he represented...it was the unsexy stuff, the battle that we have constantly with what we would call the common sense policy.”
The former economics lecturer describes himself as "slightly right-leaning", although has occasionally ended up placing himself closer to the left, such as with his member's bill to strip controversial investor state clauses from future trade deals (now Government policy).
"That’s always what’s appealed to me with New Zealand First, it’s that difficult balancing act between extremes in ideology and political thinking."
Pushing the Pacific reset
On top of deputising for Peters at a party level, Tabuteau fills in for him in his role as undersecretary for foreign affairs.
With the Deputy Prime Minister juggling foreign commitments with affairs closer to home, that has meant a lot of travel: to date, he’s been to Papua New Guinea, Palau, French Polynesia, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Myanmar.
One priority is helping Peters with his Pacific reset - a fact illustrated by the “Pacific-centred” map hanging on an office wall, placing the island nations at the heart of the world.
Tabuteau says the ultimate goal is putting our Pacific “cousins” in a position for greater self-determination and less dependence on foreign aid.
“They don’t want to be reliant on aid indefinitely, so if we get the fundamentals right now and ensure aid is focused in the right areas, then less and less will they be reliant on us and more and more will they be able to trade with us.”
And what of China, whose splashing of cash in the Pacific has caused concern in other countries?
Tabuteau has already picked up some diplomatic skills from his boss, avoiding any direct criticism while alluding to concerns about the quality of aid projects.
“What I’m trying to do in the Pacific, and what the minister’s trying to do, is ensure the money coming in is used for the right things - what is it that needs to be done that’s going to help with real infrastructure needs.”
From Tahiti to Taranaki
Tabuteau has also been racking up the miles as undersecretary to Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, albeit in Taranaki and Bluff instead of Tahiti and Bogota.
One of his responsibilities has been reviewing the previous Government’s regional plans: deciding whether to carry them forward, what they should look like under the current Government and how they fit in, if at all, to the Provincial Growth Fund.
“I can’t think of an exception where that hasn’t been carried forward or will be carried forward,” Tabuteau says, although he rejects the suggestion that National was not as neglectful of the regions as suggested during the election campaign.
“It’s a nice place to start, but let’s be very clear - to my knowledge there was never any financial quantum assigned to any of those plans...as far as I was concerned back then, it was [Steven] Joyce making nice noises.”
Acting as the understudy to Peters and Jones, neither of whom could be described as shrinking violets, must provide some interesting lessons in terms of political leadership?
“I’m not going to be a Winston Peters or a Shane Jones, but there’s always lessons to be learned from your elders.”
“You can quote me on that, that I called him an elder,” he adds while chuckling - something “Matua Shane” will no doubt appreciate.
Tabuteau is “absolutely” keen to follow the pair into the ministerial ranks, although he acknowledges the strictures of the coalition agreement make that a difficult proposition.
He offers mild protest when asked for his dream portfolios - “Should I really be saying this?” - before settling on his current work, or something related to his business background.
Tabuteau's chances of being a minister may be tied to New Zealand First's electoral performance, which in turn could depend on its ability to choose National over Labour in future.
Tabuteau believes the party has not tethered itself to left-wing parties as a result of its coalition choice.
“Alignment with any political party I don’t think is necessarily about the political ideology, it’s about being kind of lost in the broader message as a small party and making sure we communicate effectively.”