New Zealand First faces first of campaign trials and tribulations

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Analysis – If New Zealand First wants to stay in the race this election then its MPs need to learn the art of a walkabout.

New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters.

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Covid-19 level 2 restrictions have made this year’s election campaign an anti-social nightmare for politicians and Winston Peters’ bread and butter politics of town hall meetings are a no-go zone.

That means socially distanced walking around streets across the country is the only way to meet as many people as possible between now and 17 October.

But in order to do that well, the leader has to be prepared to bowl up to every person he meets and make them talk to him, whether they’re voting for his party or not.

Peters delivers a speech well but that’s an entirely different ball game to small talk on the street with strangers and if Dunedin on Monday was anything to go by then he’ll need to learn fast.

Peters was flanked by Southland-based MP Mark Patterson and Palmerston North-based MP Darroch Ball.

Neither are big chatters so the combination resulted in a fair bit of awkward silence.

Peters would do well to get Tracey Martin, Ron Mark or Jenny Marcroft on the bus tour with him – they’re all sociable, natural conversationalists.

New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters.

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

But it’s not only New Zealand First dealing with this problem.

Both Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and National’s Judith Collins have had to field questions about their own social distancing on the campaign trail, after Collins was filmed playing with a baby who started sucking her fingers, and Ardern was seen in Auckland getting a little too close with well-wishers.

Monday marked the first official day where all political parties were out on the road.

In fact Peters had beaten them all to it – ditching the last day of Parliament on Wednesday and heading south on the ferry to get the West Coast of the South Island and Christchurch under his belt before hitting Dunedin.

Peters admits this form of campaigning is not easy.

“It is hard, but we’re doing more and better than anyone else,” he says.

“No one is out there going to all the small parts of this country and by the time they wake up the campaign will be over.”

New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters.

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

He says there is no “comparative base” as a campaign has never been run under such circumstances, so it is impossible to say whether he is meeting fewer people as a result.

Given there has been no cases of Covid-19 in the South Island since restrictions increased in Auckland, Peters is questioning why it is still in level 2.

He says he had expressed that to the prime minister also.

There were no policy announcements from Peters on his Dunedin jaunt, but he says there will be one a day from now on.

For the most part, the few people Peters came across were friendly and happy to chat.

The most human moment of the day was when he interrupted two Otago University students playing table tennis and asked if he could have a go.

New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters.

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

They were happy to oblige and for about one minute Peters looked to be enjoying himself.

Then it was onto neighbouring Mosgiel where he spoke to a couple of shop owners and a busker.

Peters probably felt most at ease when he had a shouting match with a truck driver.

The middle-aged man leant out his window as he drove past Peters on the street and yelled, ”too old Winston, too old”.

An unperturbed Peters yelled back from the footpath, ”I know you are”.

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