Winston Peters attempted to turn his misfortune of scandals into his party-saving force in 2008. He went into the campaign having been stripped of his ministerial posts since August when the Serious Fraud Office commenced investigation into alleged unlawful donations to his party. He had also received a parliamentary censure as well as hours and pages of negative media exposure for his political finance dealings. In the end, Peters was possibly helped by the fact that the Serious Fraud Office cleared the party of fraud going into the campaign and then leading up to election day the Electoral Commission announced that it would not prosecute for failing to declare donations in 2005, 2006 and 2007 (Gower, New Zealand Herald, Oct 25).
Naturally Peters campaign strategy revolved around a relentless wielding of this controversy to show potential supporters that democracy was under threat from the perennial elite forces that New Zealand First had always railed against – big business and media interests. Campaigning as a suspended minister – albeit still with the privileges that it afforded – meant that he could once again play the outsider and underdog (Armstrong, New Zealand Herald, Oct 11).
The ‘media versus Winston Peters’
The ‘media versus Winston Peters’ theme was an ongoing one, with Peters’ crusade providing ongoing public entertainment in the form of conflict. Peters declared in his opening television address that the election would ‘be fought over foreign media barons deciding New Zealanders' future’. He spent much of this address giving a monologue against the ‘foreign-owned news media’ and other shadowy forces working against him and the nation, and then at his campaign launch, Peters spent ‘around half of his speech a passionate tirade against the media’ (New Zealand Herald, 5 October 2008).
Non-cooperation with political journalists then ensued. Lashing out at various journalists in the gallery and on the campaign trail kept Peters on the television screens. He also showed reluctance to appear on television at times, first, refusing to join the minor party leaders’ debate on TVNZ7, stating that he did not consider his party to be ‘minor’. He then declined to appear on the Sky News' Campaign 08 episode that was dedicated to New Zealand First, stating the host Bill Ralston as being the problem. Additionally, when a New Zealand Herald journalist inquired with him about his decision, Peters hung up the phone. When a Radio New Zealand multi-party debate on foreign policy was held, the suspended Foreign Minister declined to take part. Then when the Herald came to publish its Q&A feature on New Zealand First, the party leader refused all co-operation with the Herald.
Ruled out of contention by National
New Zealand First’s biggest strategic campaign problem was National’s decision to banish it as a governing partner, as denied the party the strategic possibility of holding the balance of power between the two main parties. National’s maneuver pushed New Zealand First into a corner where it was essentially tied to the sinking Labour Party, with National arguing that ‘a vote for New Zealand First is a vote for Labour’.
Without John Key’s risky strategy, Peters might have been able to campaign on ‘keeping National honest’. Yet New Zealand First’s whole orientation towards the National Party was problematic. Just as the Alliance had struggled to retain support in the late 1990s when Labour was perceived as moving leftwards, National’s shift back towards the centre meant that ideologically New Zealand First had less reason to exist. A moderate, populist and more nationalistic National Party left little ideological space for the party that had broken away from National in the 1990s because of its perceived extremism.
New Zealand First’s response was to tack left on economics. It also sought to rely on selling its deliverance of policy over the previous term, especially for his elderly constituency. And as well as touring retirement villages and speaking at numerous Grey Power meetings, Peters targeted the racing industry by attending race events where he emphasized to a normally appreciative audience that his reforms as Racing Minister had injecting around $32 million a year into the industry.
Fighting media predictions that the New Zealand party was over, Winston Peters had to fight against a sense of demise and not allow the predictions of commentators to become self-fulfilling. When legendary crooner John Rowles opened the party’s election campaign launch at the Waipuna Hotel in Mt Wellington, he was sure to rework the opening lyrics of his cover of My Way, from the original, ‘And now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain’ to ‘And now, the time is here, and so I face the rising curtain’ (Gower, 2008a, New Zealand Herald, 6 Oct). However, this election campaign really was the party’s swansong.
Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008, edited by Chris Rudd, Janine Hayward and Geoff Craig
Published by Pearson Education, 2009.
More information here.
Table Of Contents
1. Introduction: Mediated Politics - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward, Chris Rudd
2. Party Strategy and the 2008 Election - Bryce Edwards
3. The Election Campaign on Television News - Margie Comrie
4. Leaders’ Debates and News Media Interviews - Geoffrey Craig
5. ‘Vote for me’: Political Advertising - Claire Robinson
6. Newspaper Coverage - Chris Rudd and Janine Hayward
7. The Maori Party and Newspaper Coverage - Ann Sullivan
8. Online Media - Peter John Chen
9. Conclusion: Don’t shoot the messenger? - Geoffrey Craig, Janine Hayward and Chris Rudd