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Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand © Junki Asano / Shutterstock

Winston Peters: From Populist Maverick to Elder Statesman

Winston Peters’ New Zealand First has been a textbook case of how to combine populist rhetoric and nativist discourse in the service of political mobilization.

Some 20 years ago, I coedited a book on The New Politics of the Right. The focus of the volume was on the adoption of populism by the radical right, in Western Europe and elsewhere in established democracies. One of the chapters addressed the rise of radical right-wing populism Down Under — Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia and Winston Peters’ New Zealand First. In fact, Hanson and Peters represented the epitome of radical right-wing populism, that mélange of anti-establishment/elite resentment and good old nativism with a positive spin.

In both cases, the target was immigrants from East Asia, reflecting growing popular concerns about the rising influx of migrants from the region. Immigration offered rich pickings for a gifted populist — which Winston Peters clearly was — such as mobilizing resentment against refugees seen as exploiting New Zealand’s generous welfare benefits; rich Asians acquiring real estate in Auckland, in the process rendering living increasingly unaffordable to “ordinary Kiwis”; and Asian investors investing in, and buying up, prime New Zealand assets. Under the circumstances, Winston Peters’ party’s name was as much name as it was political program.

Peters founded New Zealand First (NZF) in 1993 following his resignation from the National Party — his long-standing political home — after openly criticizing its economic and monetary policies. The party’s breakthrough came in the landmark 1996 parliamentary election. With more than 13% of the vote, NZF received 17 seats (out of 120) in New Zealand’s Parliament, which prevented both major established parties — National and Labour — from gaining a parliamentary majority. Peters exploited his position as a kingmaker, entering a coalition government with the National Party, where he served as deputy prime minister and treasurer. Disappointment over Peters’ performance in government, which fell considerably short of the expectation raised by his rhetoric, resulted in substantial loss of support in subsequent elections, which NZF never came close to regaining. At one point, the party even fell below the country’s electoral threshold of 5%, suggesting that NZF was on its way out as a relevant political force.

Yet in last year’s election, Peters — at 72, way beyond retirement age — returned to the political limelight. With neither the National nor the Labour Party securing a majority of the vote, NZF once again was in a position to play kingmaker. This time Peters chose to enter into a coalition with Labour (with outside “confidence and supply” support from the Greens), headed by Jacinda Ardern, and was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. When Ardern took maternity leave, Peters assumed her responsibilities as acting prime minister, if only for a few weeks. By all accounts, he did a reasonably good job, portraying the elder statesman (which he certainly is) and largely avoiding putting his foot in his mouth.

Political Puzzles

From a Western European perspective, New Zealand politics is somewhat puzzling. In Western Europe, (nominally) left-wing parties have so far been adamant in opposing any deal with the radical populist right. A notable exception is the Austrian Socialists (SPÖ), who have formed coalitions with the Austrian populist right (FPÖ) on the regional level. Even more unthinkable would be Green support — in whatever form — of a government that includes the radical populist right.

Skeptics might object that this is a moot point: Winston Peters’ NZF should never have been included among the list of radical right-wing populist parties. This, however, would be wrong. In fact, NZF has been a textbook case of how to combine populist rhetoric and nativist discourse in the service of political mobilization. Particularly in the first decade after founding the party, Peters built up a solid reputation as a scathing critic of New Zealand’s political establishment and cultural elite. Some of his landmark speeches should be included in any future populism reader — if for no other reason than their entertainment value. In true populist manner, Peters attacked the elite not only for ignoring the will and opinions of ordinary people, but also for its detachment from reality and disrespect for those “below.”

Winston Peters’ popularity and continued success at the polls stems to a large degree from his ability to “stick it” to the elites and, at the same time, ridicule them. An excerpt from a speech from 2002 is paradigmatic. Charging that New Zealand’s political elite shared “an internationalist-global view,” he mused:

“These people regard being patriotic as being hopelessly old fashioned and parochial. Their ideal is to have a villa in Tuscany, a time share in Wanaka and a job with a United Nations Agency blaming the developed countries for all the ills of the world. These masters of the universe never see themselves or their children as having to compete with the waves of immigrants they are allowing into New Zealand. The trouble is that ordinary Kiwis do not live in this rarified world. They worry about their job security — and their children’s prospects. They worry — rightly — about the huge economic, social and political consequences of mass immigration to our small society.”

The same year, in a speech on immigration, Peters lashed out against “the public arbiters of good taste in our society, the people who decide what you shall and shall not hear.” At the same time, he promoted himself as the advocate of “the right of all New Zealanders to refuse to be cowed into a cringing silence by the dictates of misguided politeness and political correctness” that mandated that any critic of the government’s disastrous immigration policy be accused “of being a racist, a bigot and a scaremonger.”

However, Peters promoted himself not only as impervious to hypocrisy and political correctness, but also as a determined defender of New Zealand’s identity and national sovereignty, particularly with respect to the question of immigration. In response to the growing tide of East Asian migrants arriving in New Zealand in the 1990s, Peters was at the origins of an increasingly racialized immigration debate, which resonated widely among the country’s public. Polls in the mid-1990s found more than 40% of New Zealanders agreeing that there were too many Asians in the country and that, at current levels, immigration threatened to ruin the country.

The passing of time has hardly softened Peters’ nativist take on immigration. On the contrary, ahead of the 2017 national election, Peters lashed out against the major parties’ “lax, loose policies” that “allowed so many people to come here,” and charged that immigration was having a “devastating impact” on the country’s economy. Defending himself against the accusation that his anti-immigration position was racist, he maintained that “by definition” immigration was all “about race” and “ethnicity.” Yet despite strong-worded criticism by his political opponents, both major parties considered him salonfähig enough to engage in coalition talks after the election.

Culture of Reference

In the meantime, Peters adopted a notion figuring prominent in the contemporary rhetoric of Western Europe radical right-wing populist parties — cultural-identitarian nativism. In Western Europe, this is the demand that newcomers wholeheartedly embrace and adopt the host country’s culture in all of its aspects, perfectly reflected in the German notion of Leitkultur — culture of reference. This has allowed the Western European populist right to promote itself not only as the guardian and defender of Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage but also of the heritage of the Enlightenment and, most curiously of all, of liberalism, including, most recently, women’s and LGBTQ rights.

This might sound somewhat bizarre, but makes a lot of sense given the populist right’s most prominent obsession these days — the specter of Islam subverting and subjugating Western Europe via the Trojan Horse of mass immigration. Radical right-wing populist parties present themselves as counter-insurgency movements — similar to the antebellum anti-Catholic Know Nothings in the United States — the last bulwark against Muslim conquest (the “Islamization of Western Europe”).

Winston Peters has made similar claims, starting as early as 2005. His warning, however, had nothing to do with Islam and everything with East Asia. As a result of mass immigration, he charged, New Zealand was well on its way to becoming an Asian colony — a process that would make the country socially and culturally “unrecognisable.” A dozen years later, NZF came up with the solution: make migrants and refugees seeking to enter New Zealand subscribe and commit to “core values” such as respect for gender equality, sexual preferences, freedom of religion and “a commitment not to campaign against alcohol consumption.”


Peters has been in an ideal position to promote himself as the defender of New Zealand identity and sovereignty. With a Scottish mother and a Maori father, he embodies the two ethnic groups that together constitute the New Zealand nation.


The latter demand makes sense given the fact that at the time of the 2017 election, Peters — no doubt inspired by Paulin Hanson, who was elected to the Senate, together with three members of One Nation, owed to a campaign that largely centered on the “threat of Islamization” in Australia — had come to appreciate the mobilization potential of growing popular anxiety over Islam in New Zealand.

In fact, already in 2016, Peters had called for interviewing potential immigrants from countries that “treat their women like cattle” in order to “check their attitude” before allowing them into the country. And although Peters rejected the notion that his proposal was directed against immigrants from Muslim countries, his denial appeared somewhat disingenuous given what was happening in neighboring Australia (which in 2017 adopted a new policy that made it mandatory for migrants to sign an “Australian values statement” before being allowed to enter the country).

It is reasonable to suggest that in Western Europe, Winston Peters and his party would be ranked prominently among the radical populist right. But it seems that in New Zealand, political observers sing a different tune from their European counterparts. Thus a prominent New Zealand journalist has noted that “if Winston Peters is our closest analogue of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, then bless him forever.” This is a far cry from the way most radical right-wing populists have been treated by mainstream media in Western Europe.

Capitalism With a Human Face

There are several reasons for the difference in perception. One has to do with Peters’ personality, which is generally perceived as authentic, accessible, affable and entertaining. Second, there is the fact that by now, Peters’ positions on socioeconomic issues to a large extent resemble those once advocated by the traditional left. Thus for the past several years, Peters has been persistently calling for the adoption of a politics of “economic nationalism,” support for which he declared a precondition for joining a coalition government in 2017. In line with this, Peters, once a proponent of deregulation, has turned into a sharp critic of neoliberalism and globalization. Charging that “Far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism not as their friend but as their foe and they are not all wrong,” he promoted himself as an advocate of a “capitalism with a human face” capable of reversing rapidly growing inequality, poverty and deprivation.

And unlike most radical right-wing populists in Western Europe and the United States, Peters rejects the notion that climate change is just another left-wing conspiracy. In fact, as early as 2011, Peters not only maintained that “climate change is happening,” but also that New Zealand should make it a priority “to reduce coal use and substitute alternative sustainable fuels eg wood, geothermal drying, even natural gas in the medium term, and the search for more efficient processes.” This might at least partly explain why in 2017 the Greens would agree to support the Labour-NZF coalition.

Last but not least, there is Peters’ ethnic background. The son of a Scottish mother and a Maori father, Peters more often than not has been primarily seen as a Maori. As Benjamin Moffitt, who has written extensively on populism, has recently pointed out in an email to me, this has not prevented Peters from frequently attacking the Maori “grievance industry” — the assemblage of Maori organizations seeking redress over claims stemming from the various treaties and acts the New Zealand government concluded with the Maori minority. He recently called for the abolition for Maori seats in Parliament (before the NZF parliamentary group voted to retain them) and interrupted a Maori government minister delivering a parliamentary speech in Maori arguing that he should speak English in order to allow all New Zealanders to understand his speech.

What drives these interventions is the notion that the special treatment accorded the Maori minority promotes separatism (what the French call communautarisme) when in reality they should be striving to be treated as equals — with the same fairness and respect as any other New Zealander.

At the same time, however, it could be argued that Peters’ nativism is, at least in part, a response to concerns raised by the Maori minority community. Sociologists have noted that NZF’s upswing in the 1996 election was partly the result of support from Maori voters “who viewed the growing heterogeneity of New Zealand … as undermining the gains they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.” This suggests that the influx of East Asian migrants provoked considerable resentment among at least some parts of the Maori community even as others came out in support of the newcomers.

East Asians, however, were not the only targets of resentment. In 2007, British newspapers reported growing Maori hostility to immigrants from the UK. Charging that there was a secret government plot to prevent the “browning of New Zealand” (as a result of the growth of the non-European population partly stemming from immigration from Asia), Maori leaders called for curbing the number of British migrants entering the country Peters’ sustained nativist discourse undoubtedly found some resonance among the Maori minority.

At the same time, Peters has been in an ideal position to promote himself as the defender of New Zealand identity and sovereignty. With a Scottish mother and a Maori father, he embodies the two ethnic groups that together constitute the New Zealand nation. This explains why some leading NZF officials have suggested that the party should focus on “traditionalist identity politics” in order to broaden its appeal. This would also allow the party to tap into latent sentiments of nostalgia for an earlier age when New Zealand, as a former prime minister recently put it, “had most things right.” Given his age, Peters certainly is predestined to evoke this kind of nostalgia — depending, of course, on his ability and willingness to remain actively involved in politics. Given his energy and stature, this is hardly unlikely.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.