Island Life by David Slack


49 Chinese to Replace John Campbell

If a Chinese politician should ask you to explain our country’s Foreign Minister, be inscrutable. Say: “he is a hair-gelled mystery to us all; a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, tucked inside a double-breasted suit, coiffed with infinite care and as untouchable as a matinee idol. We mostly have no idea what he’s on about.”

In truth he is the Huey Long of New Zealand politics. His constituency is the little guy, afraid of the unknown; bruised and resentful at the blithe disregard shown to all the little guys by the corporate brigands and the cosseted politicians.

Peters lives comfortably amidst change, but he knows his voters are leery of it. Peters trades on everything they do not know: the people they have not met; the books they have not read; the worlds they have not walked in.

"Likee soupee?" she asked the Chinese ambassador, breaking the silence.

The diplomat nodded and continued with his meal.

Dinner concluded, he rose to speak, in eloquent English.

Taking his seat, he turned to her: "Likee speechee?"

Peters dismisses the Free Trade agreement with China for being too meagre. We could have got a lot more out of them, he says, if those fools Moore and Douglas hadn’t dropped all our tariffs 20 years ago (and they don’t want you, he says darkly, to be reminded of that.)

To put it another way, we have arrived at the banquet table too late for the oysters, so we should walk away hungry, rather than fill our plate with noodles and barbecue pork. This is, as usual, disingenuous of him, although it certainly throws some light on the thinking that gave us such protracted coalition negotiations in 1996.

China’s surely not in it for the access to our market so much as they are interested in getting this deal to work and thereby creating a stepping stone to bigger things.

When Peters talks about dropping the tariffs twenty years ago, he speaks to his disaffected constituency. He speaks to the small business people who went to the wall, the manufacturers who went out of business, the hard working blue collar wage workers whose jobs disappeared.

If you were lucky, in those turbulent days, you struck restructuring lotto. Ask the disaffected. They got nothing but debts, but there’s a bloke down the road who got redundancy. Big payout. He bought a lifestyle block, put in a spa pool and a pool room, went on a holiday, and by Christmas all the money was gone.

They tell you: Our ex-brother in law got a redundancy cheque from Telecom and the next day they they took him back on as a consultant. We got nothing. We had had to sell the house.

It was a time of capricious fortune. If you were a beneficiary who got worked over by Ruth and Jenny, Helen Clark’s party and the Alliance were campaigning for you throughout the '90s, but if you were a certain kind of small businessman or a casualty of the restructuring, it felt as though only Winston understood what had happened. It had to be some sort of con job, some evil conspiracy that had put you in this position. You were a hard worker and a proud Kiwi. How could it not be a giant scam?

This political thread reaches back further, to Social Credit and another urbane leader with another fine head of hair who nurtured distrust of the vested interests and the establishment. Peters maintains the suspicion of collusion and conspiracy; smoky, shadowy figures in rooms taking New Zealand away from New Zealanders. His words are peppered with it. “They want you to forget about..” “They don’t want you to know about...”

In Winston’s world, someone is always getting done over. We are all being royally shafted and the proceeds are going to Switzerland. Some politically-connected tycoon in a corporate box is helping himself to our birthright. And that’s all you need to know. Likee votee?

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