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Winston Peters has dominated the NZ political landscape for the past three decades. He started as an MP in the National party in 1978, but split off with Tau Henare to create NZ First in 1993 after being sacked from Cabinet by PM Jim Bolger. Three years later, NZ First won 17 seats and every Maori electorate which meant that no party could govern without their support. He was made Deputy Prime Minister by Bolger, as well as Treasurer (a position created just for him). He was sacked again in 1998, this time by Jenny Shipley, and spent seven years in opposition. In 2005 he once again held the balance of power. This time, he sided with Helen Clark’s Labour party and was made Minister of Foreign Affairs. He’s been in opposition since John Key won in 2008, but it’s likely that he will once again be kingmaker after this election. After much convincing, Salient had a chat with him over the phone to talk about immigration and youth issues. Boy is he colourful.
Hi Winston, thanks so much for doing this. I’m Cam and this is Duncan and we’re the editors at Salient.
When are you publishing this issue?
It comes out on Monday morning, but we are publishing this interview online…
This following Monday, the 22nd.
Next Monday, today being Tuesday, next Monday?
Yes, that’s it.
Well sorry guys forget it.
We are publishing it online first…
I’m not having an interview for a publication coming out after the election.
Judith, you’re assistant said…
We’re publishing it online tomorrow.
Yea but it’s not coming out until Monday. I don’t know what sort of party you think we are but we don’t put up with this sort of shilly shallying around.
Sorry Winston. Judith told us that this was all fine, we assumed she had passed it with you.
No you must be joking. You’re not telling me surely that you expect me to have an interview for a publication coming out not before the people vote but after.
No, that was a mistake on our behalf it is coming out before the people vote.
You’ve interviewed everyone else and you’re interviewing me last. With the greatest respect, we’re not going to (unclear) we will not be treated like this and so this interview is off.
I think if you could just give us one second, you’ve just misheard us slightly.
I beg your pardon?
The arrangement we had with Judith, which she was alright with, said that we were going to publish this interview online on our website by tomorrow and then we were going to publish in our print version, because we don’t go to print until this Thursday and it comes out on Monday. Our website is read by 8,000 students each week and she said it was more than enough to satisfy an interview.
Well it doesn’t satisfy me. You’ve had other leaders interviewed. They’ve all been published as well. And you expect me to take an inferior service and agree with that. One thing you’ll learn in life is that that’s not the way things happen.
It’s not that it’s an inferior service, it’s just different in light of when the election…
Nah mate, it’s an absolute slight to my party and I’m not gonna have it.
Well we’re sorry if you think we’ve offended you.
Well if you guys think this is fair play, then I don’t know what class you go to but it can’t be the ethics one. Why don’t you tell your readership that your view of NZ First was so low that you published what we had to say after the election.
Sorry, in the issue that we have out at the moment which is the election issue we only have John Key and David Cunliffe because one of the two will likely be the prime minister after the election. We have a spotlight on each party’s policies. So we have three pages of the magazine that include NZ First policy on law, the environment, education and the economy…
When did you publish Key and when did you publish Cunliffe?
Yesterday was when they came out.
Right. Before the people voted.
Yep. As well as publishing NZ First comment on every single area of policy that is important to students.
Yea but what’s this interview about if it’s going to be published on Monday.
It’s being published online tomorrow so students will read it then and make an informed decision about what they’re voting on before the election.
That’s if they go online. What if they don’t?
The vast majority of students, every student goes online. The other thing to say Winston is that we contacted your office weeks ago and we asked for an interview and they told us this was the only week that you were available.
Yes. And we’re looking at the email now. So it’s not like we tried to slight you or we only just thought of only just giving this interview to you, this was something that we have been trying to set up with your people for weeks. And we would have loved to have published your interview in the election issue…
Did you say, at the moment you told my office that information, that the issue was going to come out on the Monday after the election.
Yes. And Judith who we spoke to, who is from your office or the NZ First office or wherever she’s from, told us that that was fine, as long as we published an online version. And so we really do apologise if that is not fine with you Winston and it’s okay, it’s your choice if you don’t want to be interviewed by us.
[Winston cackles] No, no I wanted to be interviewed by you when your readership would know what I had to say.
Yes and we wanted to interview you too but we were told you couldn’t be interviewed by us.
I’ve been down to Dunedin and I’ve been to your office.
I think you’re thinking about the wrong magazine. That’s Critic. We’re the Victoria University Magazine Salient.
We’re not the Otago student magazine, we’re Wellington’s student magazine, Salient.
Well I’ve been in Wellington all year.
Yes and we’ve been trying to source an interview with you and now you are available and that’s great so we were wondering if we could just do the interview and we’ll publish it online…
[Winston cackles, unintelligeble] Alright, let’s go.
Ok great, great fantastic, thanks so much for your time.
What one thing would NZ First do to change the lives of the average student?
The biggest thing to change the lives of the average student in this country or anyones life is to run a sound thriving economy that is far far wealthier than it is now, that has triple the exports it has now, so they can stay in their country with real opportunity at the end of their studies to get real jobs with first world paychecks and first world opportunities to be promoted further up their careers if they have got the talent.
Many students who think about NZ First, often due to statements published in the media, interpret you as a racist party…[interrupts]
No they don’t. No they don’t. Let’s squash that right now. In a country that’s taking 104,000 immigrants in the last report of two weeks ago, net 41,000, heading to record levels, there’s got to be a debate when we’ve got so much unemployment in this country and such a housing shortage in Auckland.
Just so we can be on the same page you think it’s okay to prioritise the interests of New Zealanders here over immigrants from overseas who might get a better life from being in New Zealand?
Absolutely. Because this is a democracy and our duty is to respond to the democratic wishes of New Zealanders. With the greatest respect I was the Minister that increased foreign aid to the highest level since 1973. For forty years, the biggest ever lift was when I was in charge. And that’s my response to people who say that. And if we bring people here, it must be because they fill the skills gaps that we haven’t filled. We should never use immigration as an excuse for failing to train, educate, upskill and employ our own people first, including those first immigrants who are working to improve the lives of their children and that’s our responsibility. I see that totally negated by a ramshackle immigration policy.
And how key is the immigration policy to who you will decide to work with after the election?
In every country, but particularly in Asia, immigration is a deadly serious matter because it’s about your capacity to improve your economic and social life including the economic and social life of those who come. And when you see that the result of your immigration policy is to lower the standard of that economic and social life then your country has failed, both the people living in it, and the people who have come.
Are you happy with the current influx of Australians into New Zealand or are you only concerned with immigration by people from Asia?
Well of course I’m not happy with the influx of Australians into New Zealand in circumstances where our people over there as a result of our ramshackle policy has seen the shutters go up to NZers in Australia so they can’t even vote, can’t gain access to universities. I warned in 1996 that that would happen, it’s happened now, and all my colleagues who criticised me back then, all they can do is wring their hands and it’s all tea and sympathy. They were the ones responsible for not taking heed of what was warned would happen.
So should we implement Australian policy and stop them from voting in New Zealand?
No the way forward is to give them an assurance that immigration to our country will never be used as a bolthole to have rights to go to their country. Then we might be able to put back the system that has so badly collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are living in Australia as second class citizens.
There’s been talk of universities using international students as cash cows and Trevor Mallard a while ago said that we needed to be careful not to get a reputation that we accept international students who come here willy nilly and are lazy, what are your feelings about international students studying and tertiary institutions in NZ?
Well Trevor Mallard didn’t make that statement, he repeated the statement of a Chinese politician.
Yea definitely, he said that the worry was that we would be too soft on international students and our tertiary education providers will get to a place where we aren’t providing challenging environments for these people and we won’t be providing degrees that will be respected around the world.
Well Trevor Mallard is one hundred percent right on that matter. But then again, he wasn’t the first one to say it. What we’ve got is a concept which New Zealand has embraced which is called export education. I was the person who signed off the student visa agreement with China in 1997. That agreement was for export education and they asked me to solemnly pledge on behalf of the people of this country and the government of NZ that when they graduated they would be returned home. I’ve kept my word on that matter. Here’s the point though. Now we’ve got this export education policy it’s absolutely perverted and distorted to the effect that you’ve got 79,000 students work visas in New Zealand. Tell me how that export education works, when our economy is now paying for a substantial part of their being here.
International students do pay full fees (two to three times more than NZers) when they come here though isn’t that correct?
Yes that is. But their living costs are funded, tens of thousands of cases now, by the NZ economy.
Sorry can you explain how it is that the taxpayer is paying for these international students staying here?
No the taxpayer’s not, the economy is. The idea of export education is that Economy A pays Economy B to educate, at their cost, the total cost, of their students being in Economy B. But in Economy A in this case, and there’s numerous of Economy A type students around the world, where much of their living costs are supplemented by our economy. Whilst tens of thousands of New Zealand students can’t get any work, trying to get through their degree. How is that to the benefit of any NZ student looking to get a break to catch a break to keep their student loans down?
Right. We’ll move now to the election: you’ve ruled out working with race-based parties like Maori and Mana, what is it specifically about the party being Māori-based that means you won’t work with them?
They’d be a disaster for Maori people in particular and second for the people of New Zealand in general. More importantly the Maori are starting to realise that. That’s why the Maori party is in such trouble this campaign, and so is Mana.
But you’re happy to support say Labour when they implement policies that particularly target Maori as a race?
Nope. When I gave confidence and supply to the Labour party, they did no such thing for the three years that the agreement held. They gave assistance to people on the basis of need, not race.
But what about Treaty claims?
Treaty issues are different because it crosses the political divide as a historic settlement process and is not to be conceived in the same way as frivolous policies like Whanau Ora, which arose from a report where there was not one piece of empirical or analytical evidence, purely anecdotal, which would be the worst kind of background paper for any public policy whether it be for business or whether it be for government.
Right. So we’ve got to wrap up now, but thanks so much for agreeing to the interview eventually. One final question – you’ve dominated politics for decades, what do you want your legacy to be from your time in politics.
I’ve never conducted my political life to get some sort of personal legacy. That is why I’ve never run for any office other than to be an MP.
But presumably you want to be an MP to change things, what is it that you want NZ to look like after you leave compared to when you came?
I’ve changed things. There will be a whole lot of students at your university around this country that are beneficiaries of free medicine or free doctors visits because of us. All are beneficiaries of a number of changes we’ve made in our political time just to name specifically where it would connect with them. But those who conduct their political life for a legacy have simply not got the priorities right. It’s not about them, it’s about service to one’s country.
Thanks so much for your time. Good luck for the rest of the campaign.
Publish it on Thursday would you. [Cackles]
And you’re definitely keeping mum on who you’re going to go with after the election?
Well you say who are ‘you’ going to go for. NZ First is a democratic party and if you’ve got any hope of surviving, we’ve survived longer than any new party and far stronger than any new party and that will be proven at this election is because we conduct democratic decisions of the full caucus and of the full board and after we’ve known all of the facts that are available to make a decision. The rest make a decision before the campaign starts. How you can make and academic case for that I don’t, but we don’t.
So it’s probably going to be Labour then?
What’d you say?
We said so you’re definitely working with Labour but we were kidding.
I know you’re kidding because unlike you guys we don’t know how to play cards without seeing them.
We should play cards sometime. Thank you so much for your time.