Not McCarthy, Stephen Levine

Winston First: The unauthorised account of Winston Peters’ career
Martin Hames
Random House, $29.95
ISBN 186941 2575

A Whitcoulls shopping guide giving front-page billing to Ruth Richardson’s Making A Difference perhaps inadvertently placed it right alongside a book titled The Hot Zone. Billed as “The Terrifying True-life Thriller”, the slogan seemed equally valid for either work. Indeed, without much of an indigenous New Zealand tradition of gothic horror, it seems likely that Stephen King’s response to The Hot Zone ‑ “One of the most horrifying things I’ve read in my entire life” ‑ would be more likely to emerge from New Zealand readers come face to face with a book of political biography.

Into this twilight zone, formed from fear and fatigue, come works of political argument and self-justification on a now more or less regular basis. Once more the weary veterans of the political wars come forward, one after the other, each with their own grim tale to tell. Whether it is David Lange, Roger Douglas or Ruth Richardson, the script is invariably the same: there is heroism and cowardice, commitment to principle undone (at least for the moment) by callow betrayal.

In such an environment may now be found, too, a work on Winston Peters: not his “life and times” so much as “a life observed”, and by one who likes very little about what he sees. According to his publisher, the author of Winston First, Martin Hames, worked for Jim Bolger during the Prime Minister’s two years as leader of the Opposition. Then, with National in office, Hames served as an economic adviser for three years to Ruth Richardson, not one of Peters’ admirers.

Richardson’s Making a Difference includes this frank personal assessment: “I had always disliked Peters, thinking him from my first acquaintance to be a person almost wholly interested in self-promotion.” Abhorrence at first sight was to ripen in due course: “This dislike had now deepened into a total contempt for the man and his operating methods…”

Hames also has a cameo role in Richardson’s memoir. She recalls him as “much more” than a mere economist. While personally reserved, he would become fiercely assertive across the whole spectrum of economic and social policy. Politically he was no shrinking violet either…”

Winston First is consistent with Richardson’s assessments of both Hames and Peters. Hames has produced a work of fierce assertiveness and he views Peters with contempt but also with some concern. For Peters emerges in these pages as a lightweight yet sinister figure, a person with the capacity to threaten the stability, progress and indeed the democratic character of New Zealand society.

This is not, therefore, a dispassionate book; nor is at an academic analysis. Fast-paced and lively, Hames does his best to develop and embellish images of Peters as an embodiment of dark forces at work in the land: “…did one part of him, even then, feel drawn to the black arts of the demagogue?”

There is, admittedly, some psychobabble: “The Narcissus myth tells of an individual trapped in his own self-absorption, lacking empathy towards others, worshipping his own image even as it brings him to ruin.” And so, while it is “beyond the present author’s competence or intention to assert that Peters has a narcissistic personality”, the very next sentence virtually does just that: “Many of the traits of narcissism are readily recognisable in him”, including “his obsession with his personal appearance, his love of the television cameras”. These sorts of comments, of course, share at least a spiritual link with the attacks and characterisations made by Peters which Hames finds so deplorable ‑ a reminder that biographers often develop affinities with their subject matter.

Hames sees Peters as a populist politician and for that reason one to be regarded with the utmost misgivings. Peters’ polar opposite is Richardson: “Whenever they were in the same room the air crackled with the animus they had for each other. Both were proud, fearless and pugilistic characters but there the resemblance ended.” Was this conflict about anything other than personality? Hames thinks so.

“Richardson loathed Peters because she saw him as a poseur whose populist ambitions were a real threat to her policy agenda. Peters loathed Richardson because she sought to cut him down to size and because her style of conviction politics was totally alien to him.”

This book takes “conviction politics” to places where no New Zealander has gone before. Here is Peters (according to Hames) at work at the highest reaches of government, bestride the centre of power, at the cabinet table itself: “Peters … slept a good deal of the time.”

Whose fault was that? “In Peters’ defence cabinet meetings were boring. Bolger’s style of chairmanship would have driven a saint to distraction… But Peters was the only one who actually slept. Nor did he even give himself time to get bored. A minister who sat near him recalls that in most meetings he ‘fell asleep the moment he got there and woke up in time for morning tea’.”

There have been famous photographs taken of public figures asleep in public places: on a dais, for instance, “listening” to a speech. These candid, somewhat intimate shots are amusing, even charming: but they tend to be of the elderly. This picture of Peters at work is probably the most damaging material in the book. It sits in ironic counterpoint beside the portrayal of the cabinet as “the central organ of government”, the site of political and administrative leadership, developed by Elizabeth McLeay in The Cabinet and Political Power in New Zealand.

Hames is not content, of course, to leave Peters asleep while policy is made all around him. Here is his regard for Peters when conscious: “Even when he was awake Peters rarely said much at cabinet, nor was his input regarded by his colleagues as being of very high quality.”

Hames finds Peters defeated, in a sense, by his own success. Gaining extraordinary heights of personal popularity, Peters overreaches: appointed to National’s front bench while in opposition he is demoted, given a cabinet position he goes too far and is sacked. But Hames, too, takes things to their outer limits and then, still not satisfied, goes just that little bit further.

Hames is not content to categorise Peters as a populist, although this provides further opportunity for the political gothic: “For a time [Peters] stuck to the broad rhetoric of populism ‑ thundering against the forces of darkness”. Indeed, Hames goes so far as to state that “populism has been an element of most fascist movements”, even noting that “Hitler was a populist” (though adding that “there was also much else to his political make-up”). Instead, Hames finds it useful to consider Peters as “a New Zealand McCarthy”, a person who “brings an ugliness to the political scene not remotely matched by any other member of Parliament”.

There is surely a loss of perspective involved in looking at Peters and seeing in his place Joseph McCarthy. A small library can be devoted to what many books describe, with little exaggeration, as “the McCarthy era”. Is there now, or has there ever been, a Peters era? A book on McCarthy’s miserable career is titled Nightmare in Red. Have we had a “nightmare” in any colour for which Peters can be held responsible? A summary of the McCarthy period calls it “the grimmest time in recent memory”. Is Winston Peters guilty of anything which could legitimately be described in such lurid terms?

McCarthy’s politics of hate and division saw people dismissed from their jobs, unable to get work, disgraced, humiliated, pauperised and imprisoned: and for what? Here was a new crime, “unAmericanism”, born of hysteria, intolerance, malice, prejudice, ignorance and fear. Not that there weren’t causes for which it was a good thing to be “unAmerican” about. In the 1950s it was all too American for black children to be forbidden by law to attend school with white children in the states of the American south. It is not difficult to recall seeing two water fountains (“white” and “coloured”), three public toilets (“men”, “women” and “coloured” ‑ as though only whites came in two sexes), dingy hotels and restaurants whose condition was summarised and explained by the sign “coloured” in the window.

Was it safe to speak out against these and other diseases of American society? McCarthy’s strange contribution was, for a time, to jeopardise “the land of the free” (an attractive ideal, one which seemed worth fighting for) while turning “the home of the brave” into anything but. A few years after the Republican Senator from Wisconsin had fallen from power it was still possible to see, to feel, to sense his legacy. People thought twice ‑ even three times ‑ about signing petitions. Years later one might be asked, under oath, to justify that youthful signature. Who knew what crime one might later be accused of? Here was the opportunity to become guilty before the offence had even been invented! And, the Bill of Rights notwithstanding, there was no right to remain silent before investigators when asked to justify and defend one’s political views.

There were other pressures, too, still lingering in those post-McCarthy days. Do you want a job? Would you like this scholarship? Do you think that you would like to attend that university? Well, then, sign this oath of loyalty: to the United States, to the constitution, to your home state. Even into the 1960s teachers were being dismissed from positions for refusing on principle to swear that they were loyal. Students sometimes demonstrated on their behalf; rarely were they successful.

It must be a sign of a lingering sense of national insignificance ‑ a form of New Zealand insecurity which seemed to have been waning ‑ that Hames conceives of his bête noire as a McCarthy rather than simply as a Peters. If only McCarthy had been nothing more than that! If only it were not absurd to summarise Joseph McCarthy as the American Winston Peters!

Isn’t there enough importance to Peters’ own life and parliamentary career to warrant a thorough critique of his political style? Can he only be approached by (mis)representing him in American terms? Do our nightmares have to be American ones for them to be taken seriously? Isn’t it enough that here in New Zealand on the issues and amid the personalities of our time this ambitious and in some ways quite able figure from Whananaki, north of Whangarei, rose for a time to a position where thousands ‑ no, tens of thousands ‑ of New Zealanders saw something captivating in his smile and his message?

On its own terms, as a New Zealand story, there is more than enough here to intrigue and, perhaps, alarm. As a populist figure, providing a voice for the angry and serving (for a time) as a symbol for at least some of the marginalised, Peters has had the potential to serve as spokesperson for any number of causes. That there is an audience for the Peters style of politics seems undeniable. This is true not only on questions of taxation and finance, the power of the Reserve Bank and Treasury, the influence of corporations and tax lawyers, but on matters more central to the future of the New Zealand polity: race relations and the Treaty of Waitangi.

In this respect Stuart C Scott’s The Travesty of Waitangi, a fixture of the bestseller lists which has already gone through multiple reprintings this year, is surely a major signpost. It offers firm evidence that there is ample raw material on which a homegrown version of populist politics can be based and, indeed, thrive. For here is a book which is in many respects something of a social phenomenon: dismissed by reviewers, snatched up by readers, its author taps into feelings of dismay and disbelief which Peters, too, has long been positioned to exploit.

While some may contend that Hames’ assessment of Peters has been weakened by poor timing ‑ after all, the “winebox” affair has finally begun to lead somewhere ‑ Hames anticipates precisely such a result. “Peters may one day hit the bull’s-eye with an allegation. There is always that chance. It might even happen in the course of the current ‘winebox’ inquiry.” But even such a wayward “success” would leave Hames firm in his judgment of Peters’ career: “a catalogue of waste and misplaced effort”.

Is this unfair or, at the very least, premature? Peters was able to found a political party, New Zealand First, which contested the 1993 election under a considerable handicap (exclusion from any share in televised party broadcasts) and yet took 8% of the vote, held Tauranga and picked up one of Labour’s Maori seats. As an expression of populist resentment the party is much more a cocktail of attitudes, however, than a collection of coherent policy alternatives. Here is Hames on New Zealand First’s employment policy: “Many of its sentences had syntax so tangled they read like clues to cryptic crossword puzzles.” And, again, “There were other sentences the plausibility of which dissolves after a moment’s thought.”

Hames’ account veers towards a particular genre, “the rise and fall of a public figure”, except that, periodically, he sounds the alarm. Clearly his overriding concern is that Peters, though periodically down, seems never to be altogether out for the count. Indeed, if Peters’ appeal is at least in part based on resentment, envy, anger, these are politically powerful emotions which can upset the equilibrium of any country, given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.

All this is told with some verve and, when Peters falters, with some satisfaction as well. Admittedly Winston Peters’ career is difficult for many to place in perspective. There is no doubt that he provokes strong feelings. Voters in Tauranga have returned him to the House with a record majority. At one and the same time he has been one of the most popular, yet also one of the most disliked, of New Zealand’s politicians.

Is Peters “the most negative politician seen in New Zealand for at least a generation?” Is he “the destroyer”, “a chaos politician”, one of the “agents of destruction”? At the risk of identifying with members of the OJ Simpson jury, one feels, at the end of this trial by biography, even with all its “evidence”, that while Peters may be “guilty” of these lavish and colourful charges, the prosecution has perhaps not quite proven its case.

What we are left with, then, is a book about a sacked cabinet minister, set in a small Westminster democracy, far, far away from the land and time of McCarthy and Nixon. Is such a work of any importance at all? Of course it is. Hames has done a service to New Zealanders, followers of New Zealand First and otherwise, by offering an uncompromising and forthright book-length view of one of New Zealand’s foremost political personalities. Peters retains a loyal following and under MMP he may yet regain a place of influence at, near, or around the cabinet table. Judging from Hames’ account, if this does occur, it would be prudent for the rest of us to keep our eyes open, whether or not the MP for Tauranga manages to stay awake.

Stephen Levine is a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington. He is presently programme leader for the New Zealand political change project, a multiyear study of the impact of MMP on the country’s political processes.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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