Josh Van Veen: The Vindication of Winston Peters

Josh Van Veen: The Vindication of Winston Peters

An egalitarian spirit is currently being revived in New Zealand, and we should thank Winston Peters for keeping alive that spirit. Josh Van Veen, who once worked with the NZ First leader, pays his tribute.


With New Zealand First receiving less than 3% of the vote, critics are happily writing its leader’s political obituary. It wouldn’t be the first time they have done so, but they are hoping it is the last. To many, Winston Peters came to represent the very worst aspects of political life. 

The right-wing commentator Damien Grant summed up Peters’ politics as nothing more than one man’s desire for adulation and attention. Novelist Danyl Mclauchlan, writing for The Spinoff, has offered a more nuanced account that reaches the same conclusion. 

Indeed, much of Peters’ career has been a pursuit of glory. But the people and causes a politician aligns themself with say a lot about their character. When he launched New Zealand First at Alexandra Park on 18 July 1993, Peters gave a rousing speech raw with emotion. 

The welfare state had been dismantled, the country opened up to foreign control. Many New Zealanders felt humiliated and frustrated. Their voices were ignored by an elite who now governed the country as if it were a multinational corporation. The social fabric of post-war New Zealand was torn, ripped apart by market forces. And Peters was outraged. 

“It is a sense of feeling ‘sold out’,” he declared. 

As someone who got to know Peters much later on, I believe the outrage was genuine. I think it still drives him. Despite growing up in the shadow of war and depression, the young Peters was imbued with a belief in the mid-century “New Zealand dream”. 

When he talks about the days of full employment and social security, it isn’t empty rhetoric. The restoration of that world has motivated Peters for the past four decades. His generation was brought up on the notion that everyone should get a fair go. It angers him to see the most vulnerable of society denied that.

Once upon a time, anyone who worked hard got to enjoy the fruits of their labour but those who fell on hard times were looked after. His mentor Sir Robert Muldoon considered this to be the essence of “New Zealand Liberalism”. It reconciled a belief in self-reliance and independence with humanitarian policies. 

For a long time, that approach worked. But globalisation disrupted our way of life. In the 1980s, the political elite gave up on it altogether. Neoliberalism became the prevailing ideology. Still, memories of the old New Zealand lingered on. Indeed, an egalitarian spirit has been rediscovered in the wake of Covid-19. 

Unfortunately, those on the left who yearn for a more equitable society have no interest in the past. Abstract principles, empirical data, and unassailable logic are the only relevant considerations for making policy. It is no wonder they have failed to inspire.

During the 1980s, competitive individualism got a hold of the national psyche. It drove rampant property speculation and widening inequality. We lost touch with our egalitarian past. Until 2020, most New Zealanders were content with this because they believed it was for a greater good.

But many had been left behind, trapped in poverty, or unable to keep up with the pace of change. They were the “relegated, denigrated and forgotten” who Peters empathised with many years ago and still does. He has remained in politics because of them. 

If we are kinder now, we have Peters to thank for that. He more than anyone else kept the New Zealand dream alive all these years. That is what he meant when he said capitalism must regain its human face. It explains why Jacinda Ardern is our Prime Minister and not Bill English. 

If nothing else, Peters succeeded in restoring hope for the most vulnerable – pensioners, beneficiaries, the working poor. There will never be another politician like him – a man of the 20th century, who understands what made New Zealand “God’s Own Country”. An individualist at heart but egalitarian in outlook.

Ironically, it was Peters’ success that led many of his traditional supporters to vote Labour in 2020. But it isn’t a bad thing. Winston Raymond Peters can, when he chooses, leave the political arena feeling vindicated. And we will miss him.



Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.