Sunday, November 26, 2023

Brian Easton: Peters as Minister

A previous column looked at Winston Peters biographically. This one takes a closer look at his record as a minister, especially his policy record.

1990-1991: Minister of Māori Affairs.

Few remember Ka Awatea as a major document on the future of Māori policy; there is not even an entry in Wikipedia. The impression is that Peters left the writing to officials as was not greatly interested in it. We shall see a repeated pattern of his not being a policy wonk.

I am not sure about Peters’ vision for Māori in New Zealand. He is proud of his Māori heritage as well as his Scottish one. (He is not fluent in te reo; English was the language in his childhood home and he was not allowed to speak Māori at his primary school.) The right wing account of Māoridom is not well articulated; attempts to explain it are drowned by cries of ‘racism’, not all of which are justified. I am confident that Peters does not support the views of the majority on the left. He has specifically rejected the He Puapua report and co-governance.

1996-1998: Treasurer (And Deputy Prime Minister)

Peters is not remembered as a great minister in charge of the Treasury; his deputy, Bill Birch, did the grunt work. I am told his approach was ‘legalistic’ rather than policy-focused. My impression is that he does not have a grasp of the technical side of economics – just the political side. His limitations are illustrated by his failed retirement scheme.

During the coalition negotiations in late 1996, Winston Peters asked me to prepare a proposal for a contributory retirement superannuation scheme as a part of NZF entering government. His one requirement was that it had to be implemented within the three years of the electoral cycle. My advice was based on the 1974 New Zealand Superannuation Scheme which had been implemented within three years with much of the work already done. Peters’ scheme – the one I advised on – was adopted as a part of the coalition agreement with National under Jim Bolger.

When Peters became Treasurer he asked Treasury to design an earnings-related contributory scheme. The available papers suggest that the officials did not look at the scheme in the coalition agreement. Instead, they latched onto Douglas’s neoliberal scheme set out in Unfinished Business.

It was dreadful scheme. Some people – more of them women – would have made contributions throughout their working life and received not an extra cent in retirement support (they would have actually got less because the Treasury proposal cut back the level of the non-contributory scheme by indexing it to prices rather than wage changes). The Treasury proposal went to a referendum in 1998; it lost heavily.

It was Peters rather than Treasury who suffered. The trashing of his pet scheme weakened his political position. Peters’ original scheme would have been popular. Michael Cullen introduced it as Kiwisaver in 2005. Woe betide any politician who tries to abandon it. (When Treasurer Peters introduce the Treasury proposal to Parliament in 1998, Cullen pointed out it was far from the scheme agreed in the coalition document.)

Shortly after his death, Cullen’s name came up in discussion with a nurse of Asian ethnicity. She became effusive because her family had used their Kiwisaver funds to purchase their home. I said I had a small role in its development – I meant ‘small'; I kept the remembrance of the 1974 Labour scheme. She thanked me three times.

Perhaps the course of politics would have been different had a ‘Kiwisaver’ type scheme been offered to the voters in 1998 instead of a neoliberal one. Perhaps the strengthened Peters would have survived as Treasurer and NZF would have returned in the 1999 election – possibly it would have joined the Labour Government.

(Almost as an aside, I recall thinking when neoliberal Jenny Shipley toppled Bolger, that ‘they are out to get Peters’, who got on very well with Jim. Peters made a tactical error which led to his downfall – he interpreted the coalition agreement legally rather than politically. But my guess is that they would have got him anyway, especially after he lost the referendum.)

2005-2008: Minister of Foreign Affairs

By all accounts Peters was a successful Minister of Foreign Affairs. He liked the job of putting New Zealand first, listened carefully to briefings, while ministry officials were comfortable with his redirection towards the Pacific and delighted about his ability to extract additional funding.

There is a revealing story on the wider policy front. In 2003 the Court of Appeal ruled that iwi might (sic) have a limited claim to interests in the foreshore and seabed. The Clark-Cullen Labour Government decided that legislation was needed rather than leaving the matter to the tortuous processes of the courts. Its preferred solution was blocked by a lack of parliamentary support. (National opted out; according to Chris Finlayson, the Key-English Attorney General, who was not in Parliament at that time, their thinking was muddled.) Labour depended on New Zealand First, whose support came, according to Michael Cullen, at a ‘heavy price', including the loss of ‘a lot of high moral ground'.

Peters’ objection seems to have been that the original Labour proposal created a new legal principle to which, as a legal conservative, he objected. Ironically the New Zealand First shaped legislation led to the formation of the Māori Party (Te Pati Māori) – a nice example of very unintended consequences.

(Cullen thought that National's replacement 2011 Takutai Moana Act (supervised by Finlayson) was closer to what Labour wanted in 2004 than what could be negotiated with New Zealand First. Even so, when that bill was passed, Labour voted against it. The Court of Appeal has just raised serious objections to the Takutai Moana Act which will have to be sorted out by the Luxon Government. Peters will be involved again.)

2017-2020: Minister of Foreign Affairs (and Deputy Prime Minister)

Ministry officials were so pleased to get back Peters after the harrowing experience of his predecessor, National’s Murray McCully (after a brief interregnum by Gerry Brownlee). Labour’s Nania Mahuta, who took over after him, was not liked as much either.

An authoritative history of the first term of the Ardern-led Government is yet to be published. I shan’t be surprised if it shows Peters’ experience was a key element in stabilising the new government which consisted largely of ministerial neophytes. However, on his account, there seems to have been a breakdown in consultation and trust by 2020, presumably as the parties headed towards the election. Will this pattern be repeated in the Luxon-led government from 2023?

In summary, generally Peters has been a reasonable but not outstanding minister showing very good political skills but mediocre policy ones.

Brian Easton is an economist and historian from New Zealand. He was the economics columnist for the New Zealand Listener magazine for 37 years. This article was first published HERE

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