What really counts in Winston Peters' slide

The important issue in the donations stink is not the looming end to Winston Peters’ sinuous career. It is the looming end of New Zealand First.

We can now be nearly sure Peters won’t be a minister after the election even if he manages to cling to his warrant before the election.

One never says die of Peters. Remember him walking up to the podium to concede Tauranga in 1999, only to hear as he walked that he had won by a sliver.

But even if he manages to recover and rebuild his party’s vote to 5 per cent, what then?

Two National Prime Ministers fired him from cabinets. John Key has fired him in advance for the next term.

And if Helen Clark were, despite his contamination of her, tempted to turn to him to scrabble a majority, her party and her allies and most voters — and her own inner self — would be askance. There are limits to politics’ stretchability.

Could Peters somehow later rehabilitate himself to the point where he could be a minister after the 2011 election?

As an opposition politician again, it is conceivable he could win back support, as he did in 2002 after 1999. But this time it is unlikely: despite his policy wins for the oldies, he no longer sparks them up. Those who flocked to him 15 years ago are dead or dwindling. The new oldies about to stack Grey Power are baby-boomers and they are not Peters people as their parents were.

So we can start the countdown to New Zealand First’s exit — this election or the next.

What sort of hole will that leave in our politics?

Peters started out as a fellow-traveller with and in the populist politics of Sir Robert Muldoon, who idealised an “ordinary bloke” as the epitome of New Zealandness and geared policy — especially economic policy — to this imaginary figure.

A generational change in politics wrong-footed Muldoon and revolutionised policy and politics. But revolutions make victims and leave lingering fear. Peters was the man to carry the counter-revolutionary flag.

He did that more deftly than Jim Anderton’s NewLabour, which, shackled to ideology, had less flexibility.

Where Anderton lectured the hurt and bewildered, Peters comforted them. He gave shape to and demonised their tormenters: the fast-buck business “entrepreneurs” who got off with state assets, the foreigners licking their lips over the spoils as ordinary blokes were fired in the name of efficiency, the silver-tongued baby-boomer cabinet ministers who cut pensions and benefits, the “sickly white liberals” who kowtowed to Maori, the Asians crowding in on this little bit of England.

He wrapped it up in a name which also gave comfort: New Zealand was to be first.

Then, with the quicksilver Michael Laws at his side, he added some social, health and education policy that could have come out of a traditional Labour manifesto. That gave the party a patina of centrism, though actually it was populist.

Finally, add in his Maoriness and some big iwi backers. That got him the Maori electorates.

It added up to 17 MPs in 1996 and, for him, the posts of Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

The barefoot boy from the north had got very close to the top. Clark put him back up there in 2005. As he came within sight of retirement age, he had the prestige he always yearned for. There is not much prestige now, suspended and squirming before Parliament’s privileges committee, his party under investigation on money matters.

And what of his party?

The Maori party is the iwi vehicle now. Peters still has access at high levels but his “tight five” of Maori MPs in the 1996 Parliament trashed the party’s credibility as a vehicle for iwi aspirations.

Labour has taken the edge off oldies’ bothers about pensions and been a willing accomplice in Peters’ policy wins for them.

New Zealanders’ appetite for cheap imports has tempered enthusiasm for fortress economics. Anderton’s Kiwibank and Labour’s renationalisations have offset and softened resentment at foreign business influence. “New Zealand First” doesn’t call to arms as it did in the 1990s.

In any case the Greens, with a strong and evolving brand, make the case for wariness at foreign influence in the economy.

And National — aided noisily by Rodney Hide — has recovered its enthusiasm for attacking “sickly white liberalism”. John Key is backing away from his own compromise measure on smacking. Don Brash’s prankish appointment of Wayne Mapp as spokesperson on political correctness has been ditched but the line of thinking that spawned it hasn’t.

Add all that up and then ask whether New Zealand First got its 5.7 per cent in 2005 for its policies or for its leader. There is only one answer.

So when he goes, it goes.

That is the real point in the sad charade in Parliament’s privileges committee, in Owen Glenn’s mix of vaudeville extravagances and important documentary evidence, in Peters’ twisting and turning and Clark on a skewer.

Peters’ departure, whenever it comes, will end the fizz. But he will leave no hole where it matters — in policy.