The challenge for a magic-maker: to grasp a centrist opportunity

Winston Peters was at his worst/best last week, flaying Saddamist Iraqis and Paul Swain. The result was panic-policy to hunt down and throw out “undesirables”.

We are in pre-election mode. Good policy is made on evidence and taking a broad and long view. But near an election the telescope is turned round and the long view vanishes.

Swain’s panic demonstrated how aware ministers are of cultural insecurity as an election issue. Sure, there was a national security overtone. But the underlying issue was cultural unease.

It is among the culturally insecure — those unsettled by rapid changes in the society around them — where Peters trawls successfully and where Don Brash is also now fishing. It is a broad and widening pond.

Ingredients are the Treaty of Waitangi, immigration and law changes to give status to minorities such as gays. To which you might also add something the much-diminished Tony Blair grimly vowed on Friday to address in his third term: a decline in civility, the conventions of behaviour in a smooth-running society.

Helen Clark might take a leaf out of Blair’s book for her looming campaign — or her opponents might. The left thinks civility is a rightwing plot to stifle free expression. In fact, it is how we rub along. Free expression that takes the form of drugs, crime and gross discourtesies is not conducive to social ease and easy politics. Labour’s edgy suburban core voters could tell Clark that.

You might say Peters is no beacon of civility, in the House or out of it. But a many of his troops and supporters in the suburbs and provinces, especially the over-65s, yearn for a more civil society. And that gives Peters scope to play leader and propel himself and his party out of the political margins.

Only three politicians regularly feature on preferred Prime Minister registers in the polls. Clark is out on her own. Brash is at half her level, creditable for in opposition against an in-command Prime Minister in a rollicking economy.

Then comes Peters: up and down but always there — 10 per cent in the latest TV1 poll to Clark’s 40 and Brash’s 20. Very respectable for a minor party.

Peters would object to the word “minor”. At 10 per cent in the last election and averaging 6-8 per cent now in polls, with 10 per cent possible this coming election, New Zealand First is the third party, clear of the others.

Fine for now. But what if Peters is just hoovering up grumpies? That leaves his party on the sideline, in opposition to both big parties. If New Zealand First wants permanence and a real part in governmental politics, it needs more than grumpies in its bag.

And this election, more than any since 1996, potentially offers New Zealand First and Peters a bigger role. Post-election the lead government party, whether Labour or National, might well have to deal with New Zealand First — if not as a coalition partner or a support partner for confidence and supply votes, at least on some crucial votes.

We have already seen that this term. The Foreshore and Seabed Act would not have passed without New Zealand First’s contribution. Labour could not get a majority from its usual backers.

That contribution was centrist in the context of the argument over rights between the Maori party and the Greens on one side and National and ACT on the other. It was a creditable first lick at a “reasonable” stance the party wants to project on Maori and treaty issues. Peters’ bill to remove treaty “principles” from our laws is due back in the House tomorrow.

Imagine a Parliament post-election in which Clark would need both United Future and the Greens for a majority. Of all parties in the House those two have the prickliest relationship. Clark could not fold both into a working majority. Peters and his party would come into play, at least on some significant bills and maybe at times on confidence votes. The same would go if Brash was trying to govern.

That would give Peters the chance to display leadership. But to carry that off would require him to be a constructive centrist, not a sideline rock thrower.

His party’s economic and social nationalism (anti-free-trade, anti-foreign-ownership, anti-immigration) is sideline, not centrist between Labour and National. He cannot change those, nor his over-generosity to the old, because anti-globalisers and the old are core constituencies.

But on other policies the party does have scope to be centrist. And in fact a generally moderate and centrist picture is on show in most of the rest of the party’s 87-page election policy, “Together we can”.

Peter Dunne says he occupies the centre. But he, too, has a non-centrist core constituency — moral conservatives, who are to National’s right. And his party is at 2-3 per cent in polls.

Dunne was the star of 2002 and has a pivotal role in this Parliament. That prize awaits Peters if he can manage genuine centrist leadership instead of the momentary magic of a mid-rank minister in a tizz. That, however, is a very big if.