Which Winston will step up for coalition talks?

10:01 pm on 7 October 2017

Opinion - "Which way will Winston go?" is the question that's bored a nation to tears. Perhaps a better question might be: "which Winston will turn up?"

NOT FOR GENERAL USE Election 2017 leader profiles - Winston Peters

Like his namesake Winston, Mr Peters can be described as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Look back on RNZ's live coverage, read a full wrap of the outcome and take a deep dive into the results.

I've yet to meet a politically engaged New Zealander without an opinion of Winston Peters.

The striking thing is how varied these are. Depending on who one listens to, he's a maverick, a rebel, a trouble maker, a dilettante, a conspiracy theorist, a racist, a patriot, a dinosaur, a master of MMP, infuriating, Quixotic, predictable, unpredictable, a political genius, a self-promoter, a master of political theatre, a clown, a principled enemy of corruption, a dodgy dealer, an arch-manipulator, a statesman …

Perhaps he's all or some of these things, often at the same time. Four Winstons in one day. To borrow the famous quote from his namesake Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma … dressed in a pinstripe suit.

Whatever he is, some glitch in New Zealand's political matrix has rendered him, on and off, pivotal to the formation of governments. That a nation should find itself so consistently at the mercy of such a mercurial political life form bears more examination than it usually gets.

If there is an internal logic to proportional representation, what does it say about us that a workable parliamentary majority has so often come down to the great imponderable that is Winston Peters? That every three years or so we collectively roll our eyes at the coalition negotiations and discuss them as if they were a game of chance or a reality TV show?

If New Zealand First was simply a conventional centrist party peddling the usual middle-of-the-road orthodoxies, we might accept its role as the great decider. Except it isn't. As Guyon Espiner's almost Dadaist pre-election interview with Peters demonstrated, trying to decode his policies, let alone his intentions, can be a fool's errand.

One is forced to conclude that, for some obscure reason buried deep within the nation's political id, an element of the absurd has been baked into our system, and we're not entirely averse to that.

To which Peters himself would undoubtedly sneer some typically acidic dismissal of what passes for journalism and political commentary in this country. That too has become part of the script, part of the mock-combative narrative that sustains both his own myth and the media's need for characters and cliff-hangers.

The trouble is, the less seriously we take Winston, the less seriously he seems to takes himself. The grinning put-downs, grumpy side-shows and generally graceless antics we've witnessed since the election only serve to undermine the notion of prudent due-process he pretends to hold dear.

So let's hope he is as concerned for his legacy as some say he is, and that he now takes the opportunity presented to him as seriously as more than half the country did when they voted for change.

Because there will be no great legacy available to him for propping up a government clearly past its use-by date, no matter what little wins (or baubles of office) he extracts in the process.

But to play the role of elder statesman in a young, progressive government at a time when the need for economic, environmental and social reform has never been greater, and when our parliament needs to demonstrate genuinely proportional, effective coalition rule - that is what real legacies are made of.

Again, the question is less which way Winston will jump than which one is the real Winston.

* Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011.

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