Opinion: Former racing minister Winston Peters knows a thing or two about playing the odds and hedging his bets.
He’s shrewd, calculated and he doesn’t like losing.
Which is why his emphatic ruling out of Labour in a bombshell interview with Audrey Young over the weekend is so incredibly telling.
He’s run the odds and he’s certain enough that Labour has no chance of winning and that the party is so poisoned that he’ll benefit from bashing it.
It’s rare that I feel sorry for Winston. Pity isn’t an emotion he’d like to elicit either but I did feel for him during a sit-down interview with him and Jacinda Ardern, together, on a couch in her office a few years ago and I asked about how difficult the decision was to go with Labour.
He talked with genuine thoughtfulness, compassion and remorse about the fact that to choose either side - Labour or National - is to alienate and lose half of his base. And Peters genuinely cares about his voters. Mostly because they determine his political fate but there is a very genuine mutual respect there.
Which is what makes this weekend’s revelation so profound.
For the first time ever Winston Peters has chosen a side before election day.
He’s never unequivocally ruled out a major party like this before.
He’s banking on what he sees as a sure bet - that the rot has set in for Labour, the Prime Minister’s popularity is waning, he wants the votes back that he a) lost to Labour in its COVID-19 2020 landslide and b) that he lost when he chose to form a government with Labour in 2017.
The right-leaning New Zealand Firsters, the conservative orphans who found temporary shelter with Act - he wants them all back.
Audrey Young told me that question to Winston about ruling out Labour was the last question she asked in the interview. It’s a question often asked of him but one you might not bother with because it always gets the same reply - that we’re fools for thinking he’d ever break the habit of a lifetime and disrespect voters by pre-judging the outcome of the election or potential coalition negotiations.
The fact that after nearly 50 years in politics he’s now finally answering could be seen as the last gasp of a drowning man or a final political masterstroke in a decades-long career of political masterstrokes. Perhaps both.
We won’t know definitively which, until this time next year but I’d put good money on a not-insignificant bump for New Zealand First in the next round of public polls.
And either way, this goes down as a seachange moment in New Zealand's political history.
Turns out the old dog does have some new tricks after all and he’s using every last one to make a comeback in 2023.
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