The Maverick Who Could Anoint New Zealand's Next Prime Minister

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(Bloomberg) -- At a political rally in provincial New Zealand, Winston Peters lambasts the two main parties, accusing them of treachery and economic ineptitude.

“This is a darn serious election, but what I’m seeing on TV is like watching the Kardashians -- no substance, all fluff, and tossing money around like an eight-armed octopus,” says the New Zealand First leader, who could be the kingmaker after the Sept. 23 ballot. “There’s a lot at stake, and you need to take out some insurance.”

The 72-year-old maverick, who’s backed both sides of politics in his four-decade career, may again be in a position to anoint the next prime minister as both the ruling National Party and main opposition Labour Party are likely to need his votes to form a government. The wily political operator is refusing to say whether he’ll support incumbent Bill English or help make rival Jacinda Ardern the nation’s youngest premier since 1856.

Whoever he sides with, history suggests he’s likely to extract a high price.

In return for backing a National government in 1996, Peters was appointed deputy prime minister and treasurer. When he supported Labour in 2005, he was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

‘Hard Bargain’

“You would expect that he’ll be driving a hard bargain and trying to get both policy and positions from the negotiations,” says political analyst Bryce Edwards. “Deputy prime minister is the most likely scenario and there might be some big policy concessions, something that can be a legacy, something that will outlive the government.”

Peters, whose populist appeal has seen him compared to Donald Trump, wants to slash immigration and stop foreigners buying New Zealand property and businesses.

New Zealand’s 3.2 million registered voters are choosing between English’s conservative administration that’s overseen eight straight years of economic expansion and returned the budget to surplus, and Ardern’s left-leaning opposition that wants to end child poverty and fix a housing crisis.

Labour had 43 percent support to National’s 39 percent in the latest Colmar Brunton poll, putting it in the box seat to woo Peters, whose party had 9 percent of the vote. But he could equally choose to re-install National, which currently governs with the aid of three minor parties. No major party has won an outright majority since the country introduced proportional representation in 1996.

Crocodile Grin

Knowing that declaring his hand before the election could cost him votes, the parliamentary veteran with a crocodile grin is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“You can ask me but I’m not going to answer those questions,” Peters says in an interview. “That’s for New Zealanders to decide.”

Support for Labour has surged since Ardern, 37, took over as leader last month, suggesting a mood for change after nine years of National and echoing the generational shifts seen in Canada and France. But Peters is a political enigma and it’s impossible to know who he will choose to support.

“You could argue he’s going to be more receptive to dealing with a new government that has reform on its mind,” says Raymond Miller, a politics professor at Auckland University. “On the other hand, you can see by his social conservatism he has quite a lot in common with National.”

Named After Churchill

Born in 1945 and named after Britain’s war-time leader Winston Churchill, Peters was once touted as a future prime minister. His political career has instead been shaped by his outspoken opposition to orthodoxy and the establishment.

He first entered parliament with the National Party in 1978. He was sacked from National’s cabinet in 1991 for criticizing the government and resigned from the party in 1993 to establish New Zealand First.

Since then he has endeared himself to the elderly by defending their entitlement to state-funded pensions and built support on populist platforms, with his nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric drawing comparisons with Trump.

Peters, who has Maori and Scottish ancestry, scoffs at the suggestion.

“I was around long before anybody ever heard of Donald Trump in politics,” he says. But he doesn’t resile from the populist tag: “What idiot in politics wants to be unpopular?” he laughs.

Anti-Immigration Policy

Addressing a mostly elderly crowd in the South Island town of Rangiora last week, Peters harks back to a time when New Zealand was a prosperous, highly regulated country “the size of the U.K. but with the population of Manchester” -- the northern English city of about 2.5 million people.

His main messages are that “the neo-liberal experiment” has failed and that mass immigration is exacerbating social problems. He wants to slash the migrant inflow to 10,000 a year from 72,000 currently. While the record arrivals are fueling economic growth, they are also suppressing wages and exacerbating a housing shortage.

He also proposes adopting a Singapore-style monetary policy so that the central bank can directly control, and devalue, the New Zealand dollar. The Reserve Bank’s focus on inflation targeting is “voodoo economics,” he says.

Peters isn’t without detractors, some of whom claim his criticism of Asian investment and immigration verges on xenophobia or racism. Neither National nor Labour relish the prospect of courting him, and both have already ruled out allowing him to become minister of finance.

But Auckland University’s Miller says if Peters is the kingmaker after the election, he’s unlikely to extract concessions for radical change.

“He tends to be quite pragmatic and moderate when he’s in government, and I don’t imagine that there’ll be much difference this time,” Miller says. “I don’t think anyone has anything to fear.”

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