Thursday, May 17, 2012

Kate Belgrave on Winston Peters

The 47th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the July 1996 issue and is a Kate Belgrave interview with Winston Peters: connoisseurs will enjoy the emphasis on “accountability” and, yes, “integrity”. Thanks to Toby Manhire for jolting me into action at lunch yesterday.

“Politicians,” says Peter Dunne, reflecting on some of the turns life has taken over this last while, “will always be politicians. They will work out the best ways round any situation.” In a number of ways it is a surprising comment, remarkable for both its great honesty and irony. So often nowadays both seem to have been lost. It can be hard still to believe in our way of doing things, and even harder to see the point.
Perhaps this explains Winston Peters’ extraordinary rise this year. Words like truth and fairness do strike chords, even among the cynical. Perhaps he is the exception. He is charismatic, he is clever, and his calls for justice just might take him all the way. It has to be said he seems different from the rest. Which is why it is kind of nice to be in the Bowen House elevator and heading for the offices of New Zealand First, where the air is fresh and the morals are fine and they tell God’s truth all of the time. Okay, so not everyone’s white, but they’re making an honest effort to clean things up, smoking out the gooks.
“Accountability and integrity,” says Winston incisively, tapping the afternoon’s inaugural gasper on the edge of his ashtray and gazing through the smoke that trends upwards from it. “Accountability and integrity.”
He holds my gaze steadily as he allows these words to sink in. Perhaps a little concerned that they won’t, he repeats them now and then throughout the afternoon. “Accountability. Integrity. Integrity and ac­countability. Integrity.”
As you listen to him speak, it really does become easy to see why he is so able to inspire an audience, and bring people to their feet. It is also possible to see why half the correspondents who walk out of here with an hour’s fluff in shorthand conduct the journey in tears. Getting to the point via the language is where the job lies. He is very good at his end of it, which is why keeping a grip on a chat with Winston is kind of like following those little dots which dance about in front of your eyes – up, down, left, right, then round and round and round.
There is also the fact that Winston is an emotions man. He isn’t really out there to ram the hard news home. This may be partly because he tends to be short of hard news, but it may also be because he knows that even in this callous day and age, the truly meaningful interface doesn’t have much to do with the facts. Getting along is generally about positioning, and Winston thus changes his – and therefore your – entire personality whenever he senses he has got on top of the one you’d thought for years was a winner. “Emotions” is the word, and Winston has a grip on them all.
It is thus rather unfortunate that the one first up today seems to be “cross”. Winston’s mouth is tight, his eyes are narrowed and his vowels harsh and clipped. He glares across his desk. He assumes an unlovely scowl. One wonders if it would be a good idea to ask Winston if he is a bigot. One decides it probably would not.
He is muttering about the “worst type of fascist”. He is getting worked up about “ownership”. By the time he’s hoeing into “a more accountable democracy”, a person is thinking of maybe an afternoon movie – when suddenly, things turn around.
Either the little white fan putting away in the background causes the smoke clouds to part for an instant, or the vision of Act’s Rodney Hide, which forever dances without its shorts before Winston’s eyes, effervesces – whatever, he has noticed that his audience today is a girl. True, the harsh bulbs inside Bowen House aren’t doing this girl a million lighting favours, but our man today is not hung up on skin tone. He’s looking for a woman’s depths, which shine in all kinds of lights.
Winston’s slow grin begins, the ill-will leaves his eyes, the smiling confidence replaces it, and a person is reminded that even though Winston may be a number of miles off his rocker, and is possibly booked to leave it entirely, he can be very charming. Extremely charming, in fact. He lights another cig, relaxes in his chair, and addresses himself to exuding a little of the sexual energy that has been reeling them in for years. Pretty soon, the afternoon is cracking along. From a information-gathering point of view, it’s as hopeless as it ever was, but it’s all conducive to a cheery dialogue.
The passing years, you see, are not making unkind inroads into Winston. One suspects it’ll be a bad day when they do – “I’m not that old, “ he says in a wounded voice when the subject of his political longevity comes up – but there’s no need to panic yet. The suits are great, the hair’s all there, the fags have yet to turn him into a weatherboard, and the hits just keep on coming.
Each one better than the last. Barring a yet-unforeseen turning of the world on its ear, Winston, Tau and the lads could rack up a fairly meaningful score in October. “Why?” I hear you scream. “What the hell is wrong with everybody?” Sex appeal, nice threads and paranoia: agents Scully and Mulder of The X-Files are riding high for these reasons, and Winston’s riding high too. True, the script is guilty of the occasional hole, but in the end it’s all about keeping the bigger picture in mind, and forgiving your heroes their gaps.
It must be. This very morning, our champion of accountability and integrity scored another coup by stamping out of Howick, where he’d been invited to speak to the United Asian Association Friendship Club, or something along those lines. For the sake of argument, let’s just call them You Poor Bastards. Winston couldn’t recall the name off the top of his head, but this happens. They do all look the same.
Winston isn’t usually too bad with names – Chas Sturt and David Henry, the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, are a couple we’ll all take to our graves – but further details about anything at all are not immediately to hand. Winston today is a friend not a fighter, and when a man is feeling warm, you require a lorry to stop it. He even laughs when, sinking to new lows to get a rejoinder, I ask if he’s a liar. “Heh heh heh,” he chuckles. “I’m insulted.”
Hide aside, this goodwill extends to many. It certainly embraces a number of creeds – Winston professes to be a great fan of “the miracle of Asia”, and he has “the greatest respect” for the people who brought it about. “I never actually mentioned Asians” is his catch-cry on the Asian immigration issue, and he repeats it today with that warlike sincerity he uses to such effect.
But somebody introduced and under­scored the word Asian in the immigration discussion this year, and at the time Winston struck me as the kind of guy who might collaborate on a list of suspects.
Some people blame Winston for the immigration chaos. Others blame the media. Some blame Asians. Winston blames Them. You know – Them. All They want is a consumer population. They don’t really mind what it looks like, as long as it’s out there, shopping.
They, of course, are the National Party, and more specifically, Jim Bolger. Both come in for an extended shafting, the details of which you already know. Anyway, the point perhaps is not Them but Us – the increasing numbers of us who are turning up in the polls, wanting to vote for Winston and this mad, shifting ideal that is so potent but indescribably difficult to grasp.
For Us, Winston says, the argument’s about ownership, space, and the lies They tell – and we’ve been here before, too. He grins as the phone rings. Of course there is more, but I get chucked out before it is forthcoming. Pity, this. The next 10 minutes could have been useful. The person on the phone is Michael Laws.

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