The political strategy of Winston Peters

Written By: - Date published: 7:21 am, September 29th, 2017 - 13 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, labour, national, nz first, Politics, winston peters - Tags:

We are right in the middle of a balancing point. The New Zealand political order is in a formless and non-functioning state, yet when I walk outside our entire society is functioning as before. It can take a lot for national-level politics to actually affect the daily lives of people.

In a coalition government, the necessary compromises make that task even harder. For all parties but especially minority parties to affect any change, they need resolute strategy.

Good strategy corresponds not only to your objectives, but also to the way people work and the way the world works. That’s the fundamental Machiavellian proposition. Do what works. Don’t do what sounds nice but doesn’t work.

We rarely if ever in politics get to the heart of that proposition: How do people work? Mentioning Machiavelli, we might get images of long declamatory speeches from movers and shakers clothed in yards of sumptuous brocaded cloth.

Not here.

MMP feels like it has done away with our capacity to have any kind of strategy at a national level. This is so wrong, because on the contrary, MMP government puts high pressure upon every component to operate with the precision and designed purpose of a photocopier, page after legislative page, and all components know how they are essential for it all to continue.

Without a layman’s awareness of political philosophy, it is difficult to develop coherent strategy that gives such coherent political purpose. Agreement about values or philosophical principle are not necessary. For even if we disagree on philosophical propositions, active awareness of them exposes baseline shared interests. The debates around the formation of the Treaty of Waitangi disagreed over philosophical premises and conclusions. But they found sufficient agreement in a few important things. The Treaty of Waitangi is not as inspiring as it could be – there is for example no great optimistic preamble as there is to the U.S. Constitution. But once those gathered at Waitangi had thrashed those common interests out, they could begin the difficult process of compromising. Consequently, for all its flaws, our Treaty has been proven to deliver one of the best ethnically integrated countries on earth. A pretty good strategy benchmark for an MMP negotiation, in short.

Now take this little excerpt from an apology issued by Airbnb last year:

At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.”

That’s a good example of political philosophy driving business strategy. But there are competing philosophical options. What if people are not fundamentally good? What if any person really can’t belong to any community? If wrong, the strategy is corrupt, and entire success in doubt.

From what I am observing, Winston Peters is setting out the textbook questions and answering them as he goes in a refreshing manner: how should people interact with one another? How do they actually interact with one another? How do we account for the difference?

He’s not delivering an exercise in mere civility. The political philosophy he is displaying seeks to describe politics from the ground up, since it deals with mandate and the processes to exercise mandate, of law, rights, ethics, and morality.

Inside this little existential window, we have a moment to re-inform in our minds that space which asks: how should we deal with each other? And: how should we deal with each other if we are to have a common conception of what our place should be like?

Here’s a quote from U.S. Undersecretary of the Army Patrick Murphy.

Most Iraqis want what we do: peace, security, good-paying jobs so they can feed their family, and they like to play sports, too, like soccer, just like we do.”

In what way are those true? In what way are they not? What evidence confirms it?

Interrogating our political philosophies, and expanding the set that we can draw from, may help us better evaluate our expectations of ourselves, our allies, and our enemies.

It gives us a moment for those on the left, for example, to note that class is not the only source of our problems. Equality of power and wealth does not make terrible problems go away. They keep on coming.

But of those several options, we only hear two of them used regularly to explain human political behaviour: interest and class. So I have a pretty clear sense that Winston’s party represents something far more interesting than interest and class: it’s a layering of very complex realms of nostalgia and loss, regional belonging, how tensions between between city and country undercut the concept of inevitable progess, of pressured social stratas with precise cultural markers, of very complex Maori identity formations, of the deep social meaning of the 1950s and 1960s to current New Zealand identity – and he embodies it all intuitively and succinctly in who he is and how he works with people.

That kind of person would celebrate election night and strategise the results on the beach of the oldest settlement in New Zealand, the earliest sustained meeting ground of Maori and European: the Duke of Marlborough Hotel in Russell, Bay of Islands.

What Winston Peters is doing in these interregnum days is enabling us to revisit political philosophy, and it is a powerful practise for the strategist. It helps us keep in touch with the long national and global game (and by game I mean the capacity to identify and disrupt patterns of broad causality at speed). Revisiting and refining political philosophy helps us do what works because it helps us identify the ways that people work, together.

The 4th century Roman biographer and political philosopher Plutarch wrote:

The life of a contemplative philosopher and that of an active statesman are, I presume, are not the same thing.”

To a degree. Statesmen, busy public servants that contribute to developing national strategy, don’t have to be philosophers.

But Winston Peters is showing that in order to be more effective, they need at least a working knowledge of political philosophy. He is making us focus on how people work. He is giving all sides the time to think deeply and seriously on such topics, because without it the foundations of our strategy may be skewed or altogether false, and in particular without it an MMP government will fall. Skewed strategies may then lead us to places inconsistent with the core values of our nation. This is the rare moment to name them. And ignorance of political philosophy within strategy will miss the purposes for which strategies were created in the first place.

Winston Peters is showing us that revisiting and refining political philosophy helps us do what works because it helps us identify and describe the various ways that people work. It’s a good moment to watch and learn.

13 comments on “The political strategy of Winston Peters”

  1. North 1

    I don’t accept that Peters is going to burn his legacy of decades as a New Zealand political phenomenon to install the arrogant born-to-rule crooks who only weeks ago sought to destroy him.

  2. roy cartland 3

    Your tone suggests a bit of a philosophy shift, much like what the Guardian is claiming in the UK:

    This is the long game, the hardest thing to do in politics, but the worthiest. Like the Greens it’s changing minds and values, not just managing the immediate.

    If you’re right, it could be the beginnings of the change NZ desperately needs.

    • Carolyn_nth 3.1

      I do think we are going through a difficult period of change. There’s no way of telling whether it will result in a good change of direction for the many.

  3. Carolyn_nth 4


    A very “learned” piece, and nothing much I can relate to what NZ First is currently doing. Fine words but…..

    In the interregnum, the spinners keep spinning, the dirty politics practioners continue with their dirty deeds, the mainstream media is milking it all for arresting headlines, and amidst it all is a lot of scaremongering and game playing.

    Finding any coherent philosophy among all that – apart from the right will use any nasty, ruthless measures they can, because winning and gaining/maintaining power is all to them.

    Negotiations take time. For the rest of us, it’s watch our back time – NACT plotters and spin merchants never cease their plotting and spinning.

    Better to spend the time going fishing. And working on building stronger left wing flax roots networks, campaigns…. and a movement.

  4. cleangreen 5

    I know Winston and his word is his bold.

    He will get his main planks done before anything else.

    He wants to keep NZF well to fight again antil the country is fixed from the national nine year wrecking ball.

  5. AB 6

    “So I have a pretty clear sense that Winston’s party represents something far more interesting than interest and class: it’s a layering of very complex realms of nostalgia and loss, regional belonging, …, of pressured social stratas … of very complex Maori identity formations, of the deep social meaning of the 1950s and 1960s to current New Zealand identity”
    Well Winston has always operated out of a sense of NZ as ‘a people’, which is something more than a nation. But he also realises that if “Interest and class” get out of balance, then that “people” will eat itself, scrabbling over each other like rats in a hole. That’s why he likes to castigate “elites”. I don’t think this insight is peculiar to Winston, it’s pretty common currency among the left.
    What we can credit him with is a sense of a “people” that is somewhat more muli-faceted than others have. That’s because he is quite a lot older than any other political leader and has adult memories of the world before 1984, and he spans two cultures (Maori and Pakeha) as well as the urban and rural experiences.

  6. N.Z.F. has stuff it wants to do.

    Denis O’Rourke might be out of Parliament, but if New Zealand First’s “Railways of National Importance” programme goes ahead, you can thank him for conceiving the idea as a direct counter to National’s “Roads of National Significance”.

    If the Fighting Foreign Corporate Control Bill is revived and passed, thank Fletcher Tabuteau, the author of the Bill of Parliament which National, A.C.T. and United Future shot down at the first reading.

    Darroch Ball had a job and training bill that National, A.C.T. and United Future shot down at the first reading for youths not in jobs or schooling. It was not perfect, but no one else had such a Bill of Parliament ready to go. So unless you know of another Bill of Parliament that is going to do better, thank Darroch.

  7. Pete 8

    The mantra of New Zealand is nothing like, “At the heart of our mission is the idea that people are fundamentally good and every community is a place where you can belong.”

    The mantra is, “I am here for me and the only ones I trust are those who are like me.”

    • patricia bremner 8.1

      Rubbish Pete. A small self indulgent group are like that.

      The balance of Kiwis still rush to help others, contribute to go-fund pages, look for the best in others, and value their families.

      We still believe we can make a difference. And we will.

  8. mike 9

    Very good Advantage and timely. The complete Peters news conference, including the questions, bears out your points. Sneering and fashionable gossip just don’t cut the mustard, as he eloquently shows.

  9. Thinkerr 10

    And maybe, just maybe, Winston’s reputation as having learned at the Muldoon school of politics will teach us that, despite many (prhaps many, many) faults, Robert Muldoon’s reputation has been worsened, in order to prop up neoliberalism as a beneficial alternative to the perceived horrors of semi-interventionist policy & strategy.

    Muldoon wasn’t perfect, but more & more I’m thinking how hard it must have been to be King Canute and stopping the tide of neoliberalism.

    Winston, too, says he is no fan of neoliberalism. I hope, whichever choice he makes gets us as far from neoliberalism as possible, and as quickly as possible. We need to get this country moving again, working, earning export dollars, paying fair taxes on our earnings, instead of cutting back on the things this country needs to make more tax cuts.

    • North 10.1

      God……you make me love Winston AB @ 6……and as far as it goes, with two votes for him in my (closer to 70 than 60) life to date, yeah I do. By-election and last week (electorate only). Well…….not to go overboard with the love at least I discern in him some planks, New Zealand planks, that I’m pretty much comfortable with. Unlike Key whom I knew as a fake from day one. On every metric. Served less time as PM than did Helen Clark. Could have served as long I guess but his naughty little ‘dick……head’ manners got in the way. That needs to be the subject of sweeping coloured lights from the Sky Tower. It will be one day. Hilarious how a guy can be whipped into line when faced with the choice of forking out or not forking out $25 mill’, or whatever half amounted to.

      Meantime I think Winston’s gonna go with Labour/Greens. He likes adrenalin that boy and why would he do his swansong with a bunch of fetid dirty politics bastards whom only weeks ago tried to kill him ? Looking back he was a consummate Minister of Foreign Affairs when in pact with Helen Clark. I mean we never threatened to declare war on North Korea did we ? Like Key.

      Good New Zealand governance can accommodate a Winston.

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