Shadows of times past for three ageing prize fighters

Jim Anderton is right: our national anthem is a dirge and Pokare sounds heaps better. Air New Zealand understood its powerful nationalistic appeal when it made it its ad theme song.

Anderton sang Pokare when launching his third new party on Saturday, to make a point about the uniqueness of this country’s cultural mix. It is not a theme I have heard much of before from him.

Anderton is reinventing himself again. At 64, that’s impressive, a hard act to trump, especially for his “former colleagues” in the Alliance, still preaching the 1991-99 Anderton gospel.

And, failing an apocalypse in Wigram, he will be back in a Clark-Anderton cabinet as development minister, enjoying himself hugely. After a lifetime of opposition, that’s a change, too.

There is also an Anderton who doesn’t change. He harangued his handful of acolytes on Saturday for an hour with a repetitive, anecdote-laden “Castro” ramble he could have delivered to almost any group. He talks at, rather than with, audiences.

Nevertheless, he communicates intensity. The listener feels he means it. There’s life in Jim yet.

But Saturday rounded off a wistful week: three prize fighters back in the ring, still punching but all shadows of illustrious pasts.

At least, assuming Labour leads the next government, Anderton will have the gratification of power and action. Not so Richard Prebble, banging away on law and order outside Mount Eden prison, and Winston Peters, stroking the fearful in the Baycourt theatre in Tauranga.

Prebble is still the House’s best points-of-order man and on good days ruthlessly logical in debate. But he has slowed. The firebrand these days is new boy Stephen Franks, whose politics are closer to the original idea of ACT than Prebble’s.

Prebble’s party should be reaping the rewards of its assertive opposition in Parliament where its nine MPs have outperformed National’s 39. But ACT is grinding along below 5 per cent, half its peak of above 10 per cent shortly before the 1999 election.

It is 12 years since Prebble was in the cabinet, 14 since he swaggered at the head of the revolutionary forces alongside his old mate, Sir Roger Douglas — who these days constantly complains that Prebble and shock-horror addict Rodney Hide have obscured ACT’s true message.

Believers in less government have given up on those two. Don Brash, with National, is a more commanding exponent of neoliberal ideas.

What will a “win” on July 27 mean for Prebble? At best another three futile years in opposition — and that probably only if ACT is rescued by National voters aiming to ensure there is a coalition partner in the next election.

And what is there for Peters, thickening round the hips, slower of speech, a ghost of the flash “Luigi” once touted as a future National party leader?

Peters promised last Monday at his campaign launch to “shock” journalists and commentators and then did his habitual hide-and-seek when asked to describe the shock. It turned out to be “many more MPs” than New Zealand First current five but he said it without conviction and only after much evasion.

Peters’ party is polling a bit over 3 per cent, one-tenth of its 1996 peak. He was Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister for 20 months. He is most unlikely ever to hold high office again.

He can still do enough on stage to stay the darling of a devoted flock in Tauranga, where he is chauffeured in an imposing new black Mercedes and was attended by two grim-looking minders at his launch. These devotees are decent folk with genuine concerns which he plays back to them but from which he cannot deliver them.

How long can he go on? Until National can drive him from Tauranga. That is likely only when National can persuade voters it is a convincing alternative government.

And Anderton, like Peters Deputy Prime Minister? Sure, he has another term as a minister ahead. And he puffed that up on Saturday into a safeguard against the dangers of one-party government by a rampant Helen Clark.

But his new party will be a minnow to Clark’s kingfish. Thoughts of supplanting Labour, fanned by 30 per cent polls in the early 1990s, are distant memories.

Contrast this trio with the two “old” parties’ leaders. Clark is 52 and Bill English is 40. Politics has moved on.