WINSTON PETERS sat very still under the lights, slumped into a ratty office chair, a small plastic cup of water in his hands. He had already had a nap today, as his ministerial limousine chauffeured him from an engagement at Waikato University to an Auckland interview with John Campbell; now, sitting in a makeshift studio in TVNZ's atrium minutes before filming an interview with Tagata Pasifika, he gave the impression of hibernation.
He seemed weary, drawn into himself. He barely spoke, but grunted. Things were probably going better than they had on his last visit to TVNZ's studios, when political commentator Matthew Hooton called him a "f---ing c---", but still. In an old-fashioned double-breasted navy suit, the stresses of polling at around the margin of error drawn on his impressively crumpled face, the 65-year-old looked like a faded matinee idol, yesterday's man.
"When you're walking through airports and people are looking at you like you're a crook, you've got to know what that's like," Peters had told the Star-Times a few days earlier, following the Serious Fraud Office's announcement that his party had committed no fraud in its reckoning of a $100,000 donation by billionaire businessman Owen Glenn. Had the Glenn fiasco, which saw him lose his foreign affairs and racing portfolios and suffer a humiliating censure by parliament, finally sapped the 30-year parliamentary veteran?
But it only took two words to reignite Peters - John Key:
"I'm not going to waste my time on the campaign talking about Mr Key," he snapped. "The last one was Brash, before that was English, before that was Shipley. There's a long list of losers, and I'm supposed to waste my time on the campaign trail talking about them?" The old crocodile creased his face into his famous grin, to reassure anyone who might suspect he was ailing, or spent, that he was in fact merely basking, quite comfortably.
"Yes, I am still enjoying politics," he said, the following day. "And I hope other people are enjoying my enjoying politics." He was upbeat for someone apparently so close to political oblivion all polls have his National opponent, 31-year-old former Crown prosecutor Simon Bridges, comfortably ahead in the Tauranga electorate which ejected Peters in 2005. His best hope of a return to parliament is through the party vote. New Zealand First squeaked in with 5.72% last time; a rolling poll of polls has him currently on 3.3%.
But no one writes Peters off. He has made a habit of improbable comebacks, and is in his element on the hustings, ramping up his familiar attacks against the faceless cabal hellbent on his destruction, into a freewheeling, sometimes incoherent rhetoric of paranoia. The Glenn affair was a result of big business, the liberal media and the "upper echelons" of the SFO conspiring against him, he says; the allegations had hurt not only himself, but the nation. "It does enormous damage when a foreign minister is defamed internationally like that. I regard it as the ultimate act of national treachery."
Ah yes, you can hear the strains of the violin playing! Of course, every problem currently besetting Peters is the result of someone else's actions. If only he could have the honesty to admit that he is far from perfect, he might have a decent shot at survival in three weeks time. But he remains in denial, and with any luck, he and his fellow MP's will have plenty of time to contemplate the world after the Court of Public Opinion hands down its verdict.