Winston Peters: A Political Obituary.

27 September 2008

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In the early nineteen nineties I was living in Kaikohe and regularly attending whakamoemiti at Te Kotahitanga marae just west of Kaikohe.    The economic restructuring of the nineteen eighties  had struck Kaikohe a heavy blow, and political allegiances on the marae were shifting from the New Zealand Labour Party to New Zealand First, the party of Winston Peters.   The transition was helped, or even driven, by the fact that the Peters clan were well respected “locals” (Jim Peters was principal of Northland College, Wayne Peters, like Winston, was prominent in Northland rugby).   The Peters family were  kith and kin to the morehu.   They were recognised achievers.   And Winston had stood up to the faceless  “money men” in Auckland and Wellington who had turned their world upside down and sold them down the river under the auspices of the Labour government.

"Peters the political outsider"

There was also a subconscious realization that Winston, contrary to the appearance created by his manners, his dress, and his long association with the National Party, was something of an outsider in the New Zealand political establishment.   Two decades later, his outsider status is unmistakable.    Peters has never enjoyed the support of the moneyed classes, the movers and shakers of corporate New Zealand.    Even now, it is clear that his affluent backers were outsiders like himself.    The support of people like Simunovich and the Vela brothers has little to do with “big money”.   Rather it is an expression of the century old Ngapuhi-Dalmatian alliance, which has always been implicitly directed against the way those of  British ethnicity dominate commerce and politics in this country.   Even Bob Jones and Owen Glenn, however wealthy they may be, are maverick individuals who have never been part of the inner circle of financiers and politicians.    Peters was a provincial politician, an “outsider” within the National Party and an outsider to the business establishment.   He never enjoyed  the political support of the incestuous network of bankers, elite lawyers and professional directors who hail from King’s College, Auckland Grammar School and Christ’s College who run the New Zealand economy on behalf of foreign capital.    But he was smarter and more capable than his  adversaries, and on the strength of that carried our dreams and aspirations for a future in which we would no longer be beholden to a class of people who lorded over us, but not through merit.

There had always been reservations.   Personally, I had to suffer Peters allegiance  to the British crown, the imperial system, and the colonial institutions of government.   But I accepted that the only way in which an outsider such as Winston could make any headway in the New Zealand political establishment was by embracing, rather than challenging, its core values.   I also had to suffer his expressions of prejudice against other cultures, for which there seemed to be no such excuse of political necessity.   But I really began to lose faith in Peters when he returned to the National fold as part of the Bolger government.   To many of us it seemed a betrayal, a turning back at a time when we were looking to him to lead the way forward.

Something else has happened in the political life of Winston Peters over the past two decades.    The antipathy of the political establishment and news media towards Peters has assumed extraordinary proportions.    And it is hard to see quite what is behind it.    There is nothing of great substance; a host of allegations but nothing proven.    The media hang in like a pack of pig dogs, snapping and biting but, so far, failing to bring him to ground.    So what is the explanation?

New Zealand First "a socially conservative and nationalist party..."

On the political level, the “Business Herald” has put the question with respect for New Zealand First: “Is there a place for a socially conservative and nationalist party in New Zealand politics?”.  APN, the publishers of the Herald, believe that there should not be such a place, for the simple reason that APN is socially and economically liberal and ... Australian.   The New Zealand mass  media is divided up between two Australian media empires (Fairfax and APN), and neither of them want to see any serious nationalist sentiment in this country.   “Socially conservative” and “nationalist” go in tandem, just as the economic and social liberalism of the past two decades have gone in tandem with the process of globalisation.    The ideas of “choice” and “freedom” have the same logic and the same consequences whether applied in the economic or the social arena.    Among those consequences are the diminution of social restrictions and responsibilities, and the dilution of the bonds which hold together social entities such as family, community or nation.

Within New Zealand, the National Party has become socially liberal and the Labour Party economically liberal, to the point that liberalism is now the defining ideology of the regime as a whole.   Among the minor parties, ACT is a “pure” liberal party, the Greens and to a lesser extent the Maori Party are socially liberal.     All, except the Maori Party and New Zealand First, tend to instinctively put “global” interests (which of course include the global interests of New Zealanders) before New Zealand’s national interests.   In this political milieu, New Zealand First, with its “socially conservative and nationalist” sentiments is the odd man out.

The curious thing about the political isolation of New Zealand First, and the intensity of the hostility towards Winston Peters, is that neither the party or its leader are real moral conservatives, and neither are they thorough-going nationalists in the proper sense of the word.   Theirs is a rather gentrified social conservatism.   You drink, but you don’t fall down drunk.  You gamble, but you don’t lose your shirt.   You try to be civil to gays, but you don’t chase photo opportunities at the Big Gay Out.    This is a far cry from the kind of social conservatism that drives nationalist movements in Iran or Lebanon, for example.     And New Zealand First’s  “nationalism”, like the nationalism of virtually all the other parliamentary political parties, is just a variation on British nationalism.    Maori are able to participate in this quasi-nationalism by virtue of the status of “British subjects” given to them in the Treaty of Waitangi, and British immigrants like Peter Brown can slip seamlessly into the Party, as can those who have served in the Queen’s military forces, such as Ron Mark.   But it is sobering to observe that the National Party itself   could not provide a home for "socially conservative and nationalist" Maori like Winston Peters and Ron Mark.   Maori may be "British subjects" but they are not British.

The racist foundations of "New Zealand nationalism"

“Official” New Zealand nationalism has always equated to support for the British empire and pride in the British race.   A Labour Party Prime Minister justified New Zealand’s entry into the Second World War not with a paean to democracy but in the words “Where Britain goes, we go; where she stands, we stand”.   A later National Party Prime Minister labeled Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest (along with the Sherpa Norgay Tenzing) as “a triumph of the British race”.    Attitudes have changed over the past fifty years, and it is unlikely that any future Prime Minister would employ such racist or imperialist  phraseology.   But the fundamental reality is unchanged.  New Zealand remains a nation subordinate to foreign powers, perhaps more so now than at any time in the last five decades.   In this climate, Winston Peters economic nationalism is more than an anachronism: it is an embarrassment to the political establishment, and a particular affront to the Australian government and Australian capitalism.

Nationalism doesn’t have to be negative.   It doesn’t have to be directed against some other race or nation.   In fact a purely negative expression of nationalism can not endure.   People will only go on supporting a national entity when it provides them with a true sense of community.  They need to believe that the nation will give them moral and material support, care for them in old age, and impart meaning and value to their lives.

Winston’s  “nationalism” most obviously finds positive expression in the way he champions the interests of the aged.   There may be a large element of political opportunism, but the fact remains that way in which it cares for its aged people is a litmus test for the  well-being of any social entity.   There are the occasional snide remarks made about Peters’ grey constituency, but that is as far as it goes.   Within the existing political system, appeals to interest groups are  deemed to be a legitimate political strategy, and no one in the political firmament has the audacity to suggest that the aged or the young should be denied the right to a political champion.

A history of economic nationalism in New Zealand

A more worrying issue for the regime as a whole, however, is Winston’s economic nationalism.  That is nothing new.  It was in fact the guiding principle of the New Zealand economy for four decades after the end of the Second World War.    There was a tacit agreement that New Zealand state would sponsor a programme of industrialisation, which would give depth and breadth to the New Zealand economy without unduly compromising the commercial interests of Britain, in particular.  New Zealand was to be a nation for itself economically, while remaining subordinate to the United Kingdom and the United States in military and geo-political matters.    The policy was essentially bi-partisan.   It was initiated by a Labour Party government, but adopted with some enthusiasm by succeeding National Party governments.   Anachronistic as ever, Winston Peters remains true to this vision of a nation state which seeks to control its own economic destiny while leaving the big decisions about war and peace to outside powers.

But the National, Labour, and ACT parties have done an about turn.  They now concede that outside forces (specifically global capital and the “international community”) can dictate both the economic and the geo-political direction of the New Zealand state.   This decision is deemed to be “pragmatic” and “realist”.   And it is certainly true that New Zealand’s attempt to combine economic nationalism with political colonialism was doomed from the start.   (Even more so  the Lange government’s brief ill-fated attempt to combine political nationalism with the open borders of economic globalism).   “Mix and match” approaches to economics and politics are unsustainable in the long term, or even in the relatively short term.   Economic autonomy is not possible in the absence of political autonomy, and political autonomy cannot endure without economic autonomy, as David Lange discovered to his cost.

New Zealand First’s form of New Zealand quasi-nationalism is politically doomed.   But it will not die of itself.   It needs to be put down, and the ones that have stepped forward to do the job are the two Australian media empires who control the New Zealand mass media.

It’s not about Asia.   It’s about Australia.

The negative side of “New Zealand First” nationalism is its supposed “anti-Asian” stance.   That should not surprise.   New Zealand’s official nationalism, the nationalism of the regime, has always been a variation of British nationalism, and for most of the short history of the New Zealand state it has been anti-Asian, often virulently so.   New Zealand fought wars in Korea, Malaya, Indonesia and Vietnam to maintain British imperial interests in the region, and ostensibly to prevent the movement of Asian populations into New Zealand and Australia.   If Peters is a racist, he is certainly no more racist than his mentors, the widely respected Keith Holyoake, or the widely reviled Robert Muldoon.    Even the current crop of cabinet ministers and parliamentarians, well schooled in the language of political correctness, have a basically exploitative attitude towards Asians.   Despite all the talk of “cultural diversity”, when push comes to shove the politicians of the beehive value Asians for their money and their votes.  In that respect some of the country’s “respected” politicians are only one step removed from the bag snatchers of Manukau City.

So even if Peters is “anti-Asian”, the vendetta being waged against him has not a lot to do with  Asia or the Asians.    It actually has more to do with Australia.    The political establishment always talks up “the Anzac tradition” and stresses the common interests of the two nations.   The New Zealand Herald (which is itself Australian owned and controlled) interrupted weeks of hostile coverage of “the Winston Peters affair” to run a feature on the supposedly ever closer political, military, economic, social and cultural relations between Australia and New Zealand.  Trans-Tasman rivalry is made the subject of jokes or sporting contests, which both tend to create an atmosphere of good natured fraternity, rather than outright hostility.    However New Zealand nationalism, even that quasi-British nationalism peculiar to the New Zealand political establishment, will inevitably oppose Australian to New Zealand interests.    That is because Australian capital dominates large sections of the New Zealand economy.   Banks, mass media, insurance companies and a large chunk of manufacturing industry are under Australian control, and they extract profits which are disproportionate to their contribution to the economy as a whole.

The state-owned “Kiwibank” exploits the resulting popular  resentment of  Australian capital in its advertising campaigns.    New Zealand nationalism, therefore, constitutes a present problem for Australian capital, and a potential problem to Australian governments.   The powers- that-be are much more worried about Winston Peters economic nationalism, and this underlying anti-Australian sentiment, than they are about any “anti-Asian” comments that may come out of New Zealand first.

“the progress that Winston Peters has made towards improving relations with the United States has only exacerbated the anger of the pro-American Australian owned mass media.”

At bottom, Australia wants New Zealand to be a client state of Australia, in the same way that Australia is a client (“deputy Sheriff”) of the United States.   New Zealand “nationalists” like Robert Muldoon and Winston Peters, on the other hand, want New Zealand to have direct  relationships with Britain and the US which effectively bypass Australia.   The progress that  Peters has made towards improving relations with the United States has only exacerbated the anger of the pro-American but Australian owned mass media.   The Australians resent Winston for going over their heads to set up direct  relations with the Bush administration.   They want New Zealand to be in the Anglo-American orbit, but as a client state of Australia, not as an independent player.

How, and why, the Australian media want to destroy Winston Peters.

APN and Fairfax want Peters, and his brand of New Zealand nationalism, out of the way for purely pragmatic reasons.    But that does not account for the bias, the rancor and the unrestrained  viciousness of the media onslaught.   The journalists do not like Winston Peters for a number of reasons.   Most obviously because he does not show them the respect they think they deserve.   More importantly, because they do not think he shows their role the respect that they think it deserves.   He seems to regard the media with something bordering on contempt.     Peters is a charismatic politician.   As such he is self-confident and beholden to none.  He does not believe that he needs journalists, and therefore will not suffer them gladly.

For its part the fourth estate cannot abide politicians who are charismatic without having been anointed as such by the media.    The fourth estate wants to shape and direct  the political affairs of the nation, rather than simply report, comment or analyse.   It wants to harangue  politicians, to move them to a “correct” point of view, and to make them defer to the media in the way that the media once deferred to the politicians.   The media witches hate Peters with a passion, because, almost alone among the politicians, he will not play their game.   On September 27 the "Herald" columnist Fran o'Sullivan gloated "Peters' antagonistic relationship with journalists got in the way of him publicly chalking up policy successes".    She is saying in effect that "journalists" were able to block public knowledge of the "policy successes" of Winston Peters.   But this is not just about Winston.  The media campaign against Winston Peters carries a message from the fourth estate to the politicians: "Mess with us and this is what you get".

A politically partisan fourth estate presents a more serious threat to democracy "as we know it" than a politically partisan military or civil service, because, unlike the military and the civil service, the mass media is central to the day-to-day workings of the the democratic process.    But the more the media uses and abuses its power to determine political outcomes, the more irrelevant the democratic system will become.

Winston Peters may lose this battle.    But the fourth estate will not win the war.   If it manages to ensure that there is “no place for a socially conservative and nationalist party in (parliamentary) New Zealand politics”, social conservatism and nationalism will move underground, where it will become more fervent, more intransigent, and more dangerous to the regime.   The connection with Britain, to this point upheld through the parliamentary system, will be broken, and the power that global capital has exercised over this country since the nineteenth century will finally come to an end.