Claire Trevett: Feebates, cycle bridges and Covid-19 vaccines give NZ First leader Winston Peters plenty to rail about but will anybody listen?


It was either a brave or cocky move by Labour to turn up at Fieldays in vast numbers.

It was even braver or cockier for Labour to issue a tweet with a photo of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Fieldays, saying farmers were”the economic backbone of NZ through Covid, and will continue to be as we secure our recovery”.

Judging from news reports, the farmers were too busy stocking up on new utes to read this tweet about their efforts.

Four days earlier Labour had announced it was going ahead with a feebates scheme, which would make farmers fork out more for their utes so people buying Teslas and urban runabouts could get $8500 discounts.

The headlines by yesterday noted a stampede in Auckland to order electric cars before the July 1 rebate kicks in – and a big rush to buy utes at Fieldays as farmers try to beat the fees, which kick in from January.

Add in the rural sector’s woes about labour shortages, shipping delays, climate change and water reforms and it is little wonder Ardern took a phalanx of MPs with her to Fieldays- to protect her.

One person who will have been watching all of this from afar is NZ First leader Winston Peters.

It is safe to say if Ardern was sending a postcard from the land of Government to her old buddy Peters it would not say “wish you were here”.

Labour has made the most of its freedom from Peters by pushing through a vast array of measures, large and small, that were blocked by NZ First – from Maori wards to feebates.

Peters has not spoken publicly since the election.

But Peters’ Great Silence (or great sulk) ends this weekend, when he will speak at the NZ First AGM.

He has stayed silent through great provocation from the Labour Government. Even when Labour reversed a promise to give Peters’ beloved SuperGold card holders free annual doctor checkups and eye tests, there was not a mutter, not a murmur from the man.

But is also safe to say that Peters has been keeping a list of all of these grievances against the farmers, the seniors, the humble hard-working New Zealanders. It is also safe to say he will air them .

He has already given a sneak preview. He would not be interviewed by New Zealand media, but went to Australian media and gave Ardern’s Government a tongue-lashing for the pace of the vaccines rollout.

It will not have escaped his notice that while Auckland’s rollout is bogged down in delays and senior citizens are being told they will not get a booking until August, the Prime Minister yesterday managed to get her own in Auckland.

This week delivered Peters more bounty in the form of the feebates scheme.

Peters had scotched that in 2019. Now the farmers face paying an extra $5800 for their utes he can say “I told you so”.

The farmers will be his key targets. In 2020, NZ First tried to get the farmers to vote for them instead of National saying they would serve as the check on Labour’s intemperate urban socialist urges.

Lo, farmers did not vote for him and along came Climate Change Commission recommendations to cut livestock numbers, rules for their paddocks, and fees on their utes.

Last week delivered Auckland’s cycle bridge while long-awaited roading projects in the regions were either scotched or downgraded to “safety improvements”.

There are certainly things for Peters to make noise about.

On the cycle bridge alone, the Government should be vulnerable.

Since 2018, the Government has made three announcements of a cycle bridge across the harbour with great fanfare but without the necessary groundwork. The costs of each option have gone from $67m to $360m to $785m with not even a brick to be seen.

What should concern the Government is that the biggest difference between the first and the third bridge is not the cost or the design.

It is that in 2018, people believed the Government would actually deliver the promised cycleway.

Nobody seems to believe the 2021 bridge will ever see the light of day.

Peters will be jostling to be one of the ogres under that cycle bridge.

The big question the weekend presents is whether he will still be the ogre come 2023 – and whether he can stage yet another comeback.

If voters are missing him, they clearly don’t realise it. In the polls since the election, NZ First has flatlined.

Has that been because Peters has been out of sight and so out of mind? Or is because people have decided NZ First has reached the end of its useful life and the recipe Peters has relied on for decades has lost its resonance?

At the moment, Act is hogging NZ First’s space courtesy of a cunning reposition by its leader David Seymour to become more centrist and campaign on the issues that niggle middle New Zealand.

NZ First last came back from the brink in 2011 after it was sent packing by voters in 2008. That was a decade ago.

If Peters decides he’s done, the party faces the existential question it has always faced: can it survive without him if it is struggling to survive with him?

In 2023, Peters will be 78. In response to that, Peters would undoubtedly point at the example of Joe Biden, who is 78 now.

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