Curiosity overcame me last Friday and I went to see Winston Peters speak at the Baptist Church in Hastings.
I’ve never seen him perform in person before. I was not disappointed. He was worth far more in entertainment value than my gold coin admission.
I’ve been to two other political events in that venue. In 2007, HB Today sponsored a local candidates’ forum. All the Hastings Council candidates attended, and maybe a few Regional Council contenders as well. Anyway, there were as many candidates as voters in the hall.
Then I saw John Key speak there. He was already PM as I recall. He got a bigger crowd, but not a full house.
On Friday, virtually every seat was taken for Winston Peters, with most of the crowd grey and white-haired. Peters was moved to point out that most politicians could fit their audience into a phone booth (remember those?).
Peters is an enviable politician … in the sense that he has all the qualities that can endear him to an audience.
A great speaking style, charming and seemingly (but only seemingly) unrehearsed. Simple, emotional language. Great story-telling. Sharp wit. Ceaseless humour. Charismatic.
And, a very keen sense of what buttons to push … and who and what to demonize. If you’re an older New Zealander afraid that something good and treasured about the past is slipping away, and those in power are letting it happen (maybe even abetting it), then Winston is your man, hands down.
From exorbitant milk prices to Chinese investers and immigrants, rapacious Telecom, Don Brash and the ACT branch of the National Party, and more, Winston knows who’s out to get you!
Peters also has a gift that only the most special politicians possess … being spectacular at posing a problem or failure or threat, with the audience not aware until they get home that no credible solution was offered. But by then they decide it was so entertaining, and he so nailed the problem, that the lack of any solution that can withstand real scrutiny is forgiven. This works for Peters because although he’s policy vague, he communicates his values very clearly and unmistakeably.
The best politicians communicate values, not policies.
Peters reminded me of an old boss of mine, Ted Turner. In the days when he was trying to save the world, I accompanied Ted to many speeches. Ted had earned, deservedly, the moniker of Mouth of the South. He could insult any gender, class, race, sexual preference, religion, or belief, anytime … sometimes by accident, sometimes to make a point.
But he’s also a passionate environmentalist and nuclear disarmer. And he can quote Greek and Roman poets at length. So audiences didn’t know what to make of him.
Time after time I sat in the back and watched the same scenario unfold … always to a full house. He would start by offending much of the audience with outlandish comments unrelated to the subject at hand. You’d hear some muttering; a few people might even leave. Then he’d warm up to the subject (saving the world from self-inflicted extinction), he’d rip into the political establishment and the lunacy of certain public policies, and by the end get a standing ovation.
I’d love to see a Turner-Peters debate. Winston Peters isn’t quite as good. But he’s up there. I haven’t seen any other national politician, any other party leader, come close.
Time after time, you find yourself thoroughly enjoying his skewering of Key (everything is ‘aspirational’, as in never to be achieved) and other Nats, Brash, Roger Douglas, Telecom, Australian banks. Then he’ll tap emotionally into Kiwi pride. Then he’ll lambaste some awful policy or dire trend, usually with humour. You chuckle, and might realize that he didn’t actually offer an alternative. Then he’ll say something a shrewd hair’s width shy of racist, and you shudder.
Through all of this, he doesn’t hold back … like what he says or not, there’s no mistaking his passion. And passion is what most politicians keep out of view as they strive for the palatable and not to offend.
So, I haven’t swooned over Winston Peters. Plenty of room for disagreement over values, policies and ethics. But I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed.
If you haven’t seen the Peters performance in person, you’re really missing out.