Huck Finn in the Beehive, Colin James

The Demon Profession
Michael Laws
HarperCollins, $29.95
ISBN 1 869502 57 4

Winston Peters emerged from obscurity in the 1980s on the strength of attacks on Maori social services organisations like Maccess. His surge in 1996 was on the backs of Asian immigrants. But Peters is not racist. He lacks the malice or boorishness for that. The attacks were just handy vehicles for personal advancement.

And look where they got him: Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. But look behind the tactics. Peters is self-indulgent and vague. That is not to say he does not tirelessly do what he does do. He schmoozes, he fires up crowds, he late-nights with an energy that burns off aides half his age. But he does not do detail. And so he makes mistakes, lots of them and some very big ones. While he scores occasional brilliant tactical successes, strategically he is inept. He is laden with huge legal bills and damages as a result. Worse, he has repeatedly wrecked his career.

In Michael Laws’s book there is a revealing description of Peters’ first fall in 1989. After an outrageously disloyal speech by Peters (in which he named an alternative opposition front bench to Jim Bolger’s lacklustre official one), speechwriter Laws arrived for work to find Peters waiting for him instead of being at the weekly MPs’ caucus meeting. Peters told him “stiffly”, “with a mixture of shock and dangerous resignation”, he had been sacked as employment spokesman. Laws talked him out of also resigning his Maori affairs speakership because by retaining that “he could still comment on just about everything”. Peters’ mood swung from depressed to jubilant. He would show them: “my God, ‘they’ had made a mistake ‘Just like MacArthur, Laws, I’ll be back’. And with that he commanded me to draft a suitable press release before preening and readying himself for the media onslaught.”

This is the emotional, egocentric, impulsive boy Peters has never outlived. In March this year he was asked by a child at a school what had been his “favourite thing at school”: “swimming and fishing” at the nearby beach was his answer. His hero, he said, was Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s charming and irrepressible mischief-maker. No wonder Peters could not hang on at the top.

That episode is not in Laws’s hyperventilating book, but there are dozens of other revealing passages. Many are about Laws himself and some are seductively self-deprecating, but those are not a good enough reason for reading – especially not for buying – this book. Laws is a gadfly and a particularly obnoxious one who would brazenly expect civility from parliamentary colleagues he had crossed – he relays a marvellous vignette of Jenny Shipley glaringly wishing him a nasty end. He will probably be in and out of our politics for years yet, perhaps decades. But in the final analysis Laws is of tangential consequence. It is his role as Peters’ brilliant pageboy that makes his book a useful and often revealing aid to our understanding of one of the more impactful of the populist movements that come and go through our electoral system.

These movements are shaped by what they are against or, more accurately, what the beleaguered and benighted take them to be against. Peters, a man of what Laws calls “cowboy ways”, thrived at this game. He has been, as opportunity presented itself, against socialists, against sickly white liberals, against profiteering or gullible Maori who did silly things with public money (except, until his party split, Tukoroirangi Morgan), against all other politicians for being held in low regard by voters (so he stood up for the “forgotten people”), against the leadership of the National Party when it was sleepwalking to victory in the lead-up to the 1990 election and again when it perpetuated and intensified Rogernomics, against foreign companies, against Asian immigrants (when there were too many of them) and, back in opposition, against Maori MPS who are too warrior-like.

Peters’ overweening mistake was to let himself be propelled into providing a vehicle for people excited by his slippery rhetoric, to convert grievance-holders into a movement of real people doing real things. Far from the “tens of thousands” of members of this movement Peters claims slaved to put New Zealand First MPs into office, however, Laws makes it clear there was little organisation and no strategy, just a higgledy-piggledy assemblage of misfits and gold-diggers. Contrast that with the Alliance, which, with all the difficulties of a new party, made doubly problematic by being a five-party confederation, nevertheless was quickly professionally organised and structured and has worked to a defined strategy; Peters dithered before forming his party in 1993, too late to corner the populist backlash then against National, and has always shrunk from disciplining recalcitrant, warring or disloyal party members.

Instead, as Laws tells it, it fell to Laws to write policy, assemble a campaign and devise a means of ensuring an almost respectable list. Peters did have a notion that he was centrist or, rather, wanted to appear centrist. But he lacked the academic rigour and skills to put a centrist gloss on his admixture of slogans. Laws had already been on that job: the 13 founding principles of the party he hoped Mike Moore would form in 1995 ranged from the family unit to the liberty of the individual, equality of opportunity, an open and competitive economy and polices to protect the weak. The Moore party was, Laws says, a “centrist Frankenstein”.

The New Zealand First “policy” in 1996 was a brushed-up version of this. Junking the outpourings of the ill-assorted amateurs who held portfolio responsibilities, Laws toned down the foreign investment policy, slashed social spending promises to an arbitrary $1.6 billion to demonstrate fiscal responsibility, honeyed the economic policy into something resembling rationality and pieced together a health policy vaguely like Labour’s. “Economically conservative but normally progressive,” Laws called that, aimed at enabling New Zealand First to perform a swing role between National and Labour.

But policy wasn’t the point. Except on the environment, where the policy was essentially a rehash of blithely positive answers to the questionnaire sent to all parties by the environmental umbrella group, ECO, the published policy was never much more than bullet points, delivered as parts of Peters’ speeches. The point of New Zealand First for its followers was not policy but an outlet for their rage at the trashing of the post-1945 policy settlement (a closed, regulated economy, guaranteeing jobs) by Labour and National, to which was tacked on anti-colonial grievance by Maori leaders too blinded by Peters’ brown skin and charm. New Zealand First was, above all, anti-systemic.

So New Zealand First was doomed to disappoint most of its supporters the very moment it joined the system by going into government – as it had decided it would do in 1994 (before Laws joined in early 1996, so not in his book). Opposition is where New Zealand First’s supporters were, only transcendental deliverance would balm their grievances. When Peters chose after all to be in government and then chose National in defiance of .his supporters’ clear preference for Labour, his party was doubly doomed.

Laws is instructive on that choice. Peters, he claims, had a “psychological, even primal attachment to the National party and a peculiar sense of familial longing for his former colleagues”. That he got agreement for National is an example of his curious style of making his case through others (more recently seen in the sacking of Tau Henare as deputy leader in July). One senior New Zealand First MP told me shortly after the coalition decision that he thought at 5.30pm on decision day it would be for Labour, another said later he thought the same as late as 6pm. But Peters played three trump cards: bringing in the more National-leaning council to take part in the decision, demanding to be Treasurer, which Labour couldn’t concede, and sanctification of “stability”, which Labour allegedly couldn’t provide because the Alliance refused to join.

That “stability” looks hollow now. To the dispassionate observer it looked hollow at the time. Laws, anything but dispassionate, says the party’s long-term health required the choice to be Labour.

Peters made two important self-destructive mistakes. He thought he could be Treasurer without the nous or the graft, when everyone knew he would be outsmarted and outworked by Bill Birch, as he was. And he had the illusion, shared by even some National hard-heads, that he could provide the centre part of a permanent centre-right coalition with National. But he had never been in the centre in the first place, only populist. Having already been thrown off the front bench in 1989, then out of the cabinet in 1991, then out of the National caucus in 1992, it was an even greater delusion to think he could be part of a workable coalition.

The undoing of Laws as a self-styled political analyst was to have thrown his lot in with such a failure. Read him for the tittle-tattle. But for strategic analysis find yourself a grown-up.

Colin James is a political columnist who writes for the New Zealand Herald.

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