New Zealand: could Rena open the door for Peters?

What are Winston Peters' chances in Tauranga now?

The Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, ex-Deputy PM, ex-Foreign Minister, is the current leader of a small populist party called New Zealand First. He is at present bereft of a constituency seat having lost Tauranga, a rapidly expanding port city of in the Bay of Plenty, in 2005. 

His party gained 17 seats in the House of Representative in 1996 and 13 in 2002, but dropped off the radar in 2008. It has worked hard to effect a comeback, and a semi-rejuvenated New Zealand First was evident at this year's party conference. 

On 26 November the country will hold parliamentary elections, and NZ First must either breach the 5% threshold or win a constituency seat to gain representation. Could the National government's perceived slow response to the MV Rena container ship disaster in the Bay of Plenty provide Peters with a golden opportunity?

Roy Townhill, local NZ First branch chairman, told Bay of Plenty Times in 2009 that "Winston almost certainly will not be the candidate for 2011 electorate in Tauranga."  But, surely, wasn't the operative word "almost"? 

Immediately the Rena crisis unfolded, Peters was rapid and vociferous in his criticism of the government's alleged slothful response.

"More than 72 hours after the grounding of the MV Rena, with over 1500 tons of oil on board, at the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga the lack of urgency and inertia demonstrated by the Government is to be deplored" Scoop reported a New Zealand First press release from Winston Peters as stating. Peters rubbed it in, mocking the government for hanging around waiting for foreign experts to reach NZ shores to assess the damage. Naming PM John Key, Transport Minister Stephen Joyce or Environmental Minister Nick Smith as being principally responsible for the "inertia", perhaps NZ First in reality had Tauranga MP Simon Bridges in their sights.

Bridges, a bright youthful lawyer, trounced Peters at Tauranga in 2008. Subsequently touted as a potential future minister, Bridges is a rising player within the governing National Party. Coming in for personal flak over the Rena issue, he has toiled hard to fend off criticism. Calling the country's worst maritime disaster "exceptionally serious", he convened a meeting at a local college to enable ministers and experts to respond to concerns and the heated criticisms of residents and environmentalists.

Yet Peters has asked "Where's the leadership?" 

Bridges has borne some of the brunt of criticism. Facebook, Twitter and the Bay of Plenty Times website have buzzed with the frustrations of people venting anger at the length of time it has taken to remove oil from the stricken ship. The Bay of Plenty Times reported that one person wrote "It is a disgrace really. How would he feel if his family was covered in oil and drowning. Bet that would have made him move faster.

If Simon Bridges were to be wrong-foooted over the Rena disaster, or if there's an anti-Nat swing, a door might open in Tauranga for Peters. 

Peters might be positioning himself for a constituency come-back. His return, and therefore his party's parliamentary representation, is critical to the post-election fortunes of the trailing Labour Party, led by Phil Goff.

The National leadership has stated persistenty that it would be unlikely to cut a coalition deal with NZ First. By contrast the Labour Party has courted its old coalition partner.

"Sorry Tauranga, Winston won't be yours again" ran that headline in the Bay of Plenty Times in 2009.  But times are changing as fast as events are unfolding. And as Harold Macmillan once remarked, a "week is a long time in politics." Let alone two years. So, could Peters' star be in the ascendant again?

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