Winston Peters is handing over the reins to Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday night after six weeks in charge of the country. His last post-Cabinet press conference as Acting Prime Minister ended with neither a bang nor a whimper, but something far more in character with his stint in power, as Sam Sachdeva writes.
Comment: Was it an act of the sartorial subconscious acting up?
Winston Peters took to the stage of the Beehive theatrette after his last Cabinet meeting as Acting Prime Minister, sporting a red and black tie - perhaps a nod to the fact he will soon be back to sharing the limelight with - or ceding it to - Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern returns from her six weeks’ maternity leave caring for baby Neve as Wednesday becomes Thursday, with Peters setting midnight as the precise time for the handover of power.
In all honesty, it’s been a fairly boring six weeks, despite some claiming there would be anarchy once Peters took over the throne.
Asked for the highlights from his time in charge, he instead chose to start - predictably - with a jab at the media.
“The misses were when I had to read so much comment from journalists about the disaster that was about to befall them.”
He’s not wrong about hyperbolic pearl-clutching in some quarters, but the truth is Peters was never going to blow the whole thing up (convenient as it may seem to say so now).
Sticking to the basics
For all his faults, Peters is no fool, and running amok while Ardern was on leave so early in the Government’s term would have created a fatal sense of instability (had the world been introduced to Neve in 2020, his approach may well have been different).
It helped that the major announcements over the six-week period were firmly in New Zealand First’s wheelhouse, including the launch of a defence policy statement taking on China and the $2.3 billion purchase of new military aircraft.
Other self-proclaimed “hits” - the coming into effect of the families package, nurses’ pay negotiations, and the first reading of Reserve Bank amendment legislation - were already in train and easy enough to oversee.
Peters said the Government had “remained stable and fully functional” in the last six weeks, pointing to internal polls as proof - a curious move from someone who has previously derided polling as “junk science” and “crap”.
Of course, a keen psephologist like Peters could distinguish the polls worth listening to from those who “should be up under the fair trading legislation”.
“As somebody who’s got a political science degree and has been in politics a long time, I know when polling's been done properly and when it's not,” he said.
Not that he was willing to share the findings with the media to provide any proof: “If you want to pay for them then I’ll tell you what they say.”
More heat than light
Peters’ sparring sessions with the media have often produced more heat than light, with journalists often left scratching their heads over what if anything to write about following a press conference.
Take for instance this July 2 response to a question about Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis’ supposed confusion over prison numbers.
“He was completely across the detail, but if you’re talking about the telephone book versus sort of the Yellow Page directory, you can be talking about two different things if you were looking for the right phone number, so to speak.”
Then there was his evasion last week of a question about Donald Trump’s tweet threatening Iran, by questioning the authorship of the tweet itself.
“It sounds like him, and it probably is him, but I’m not going to come here at a press conference and start responding to it when I don’t know for a fact.”
It’s no surprise then that Peters’ last press conference in charge ended on a similarly random note, albeit after provocation from a reporter who asked whether whisky should be sipped or swilled - a reference to National Party president Peter Goodfellow saying his party had “dodged a whisky-swilling, cigarette-smoking, double-breasted and irrational bullet”.
“Have you asked him whether he’s going to repeat his comments again, because I wish he had the courage to do that and let’s see whether he does or not, but what is not going to
happen here is someone like him thinks he’s going to have a free hit at Winston Peters.”
Peters went on: “If he wants to open his mouth again, I’ll tell you why he shouldn’t be president of the National Party.”
Was that a threat? No comment, only that ubiquitous grin as he strode off stage, either counting down or clinging to his last days in charge.