Opinion Piece: Lions tour: Bring sport back to the people for society's sake,

07 July 2017

Winston Peters says sport can be a cohesive force in our economy and value system.

OPINION: Libbers, Labbers and Natskis may be flabbergasted at the notion, but Winston Peters sits before me a reconstructed man. The NZ First Member of Parliament twice represented the New Zealand Maori in a long and damaging playing career and some of the bits have needed soldering back on.

After three knee operations Peters has an artificial knee that doesn't really work. He has bolts in his shoulder. And a smashed nostril that eventually had to be drilled out.

"Rugby is a great game. Now when I smoke I look like Taurus the bull," he chuckles.

Ben Smith always puts in that bit extra to give the team an edge.

And there was me thinking that the steam blowing out of Winston's nostrils was a natural phenomenon, like the geysers of Rotorua. He offers me a beer and sends a goblin down into the depths of the building for a bottle of Canadian whisky. We have an hour before the Hurricanes play the Lions and there is a world to put right.

Winston Peters says a test should have been taken to Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Or at least a country. Look, I'm ready for the charm of Winston's oratory, although there is a shortage of it in a 21st century parliament. Maybe you have to be called Winston to string a sentence together. But it seems very far from being empty rhetoric. It is full of passion for a country that Peters believes to have been vandalised by neo-liberalism.

"Let's downsize Parliament to 100 members. I could finance rugby worldwide with what's being wasted here," says Peters cheerfully. "The economics of many regions have been gouged out by this new neo-liberal experiment we've had for the last 32 years.

"I can show you parts of the north where factory after factory has closed down. But that factory's equivalent in Switzerland or in parts of Scandinavia is still thriving with top of the line, value-added products."

  Peters points out that the Scandinavian countries spend vast parts of the year frozen solid, yet they all frequently appear in the world's top ten for prosperity and happiness. He argues that many of New Zealand's people have been broken up and abandoned by a capitalist model that is both ruined and ruinous.

 

It is a sadness to Peters that sport, which could do so much to pull us together, embraces so much of capitalism's potential for divisiveness. "1.2 million of our homes don't have Sky," he says. "A serious proportion of these people are the ones taking their kids to rugby, washing their gear, and they're not getting to see the big games.

"This idea that the free market will sort things out is being imploded and exploded and unveiled for the disaster it is. Look at the level of family violence we have got in this country (he cites 113,000 cases last year). This is unbelievable in a country that has so much room.

"There are connections between that sort of behaviour and our lack of connectedness and television is one way of repairing it. We need to fund the opportunity to be free for air for our major sports. One way for us to help a cohesive society is for people to see these things together."

Peters sees a great rugby rust belt extending through New Zealand. He remembers some at the NZR even trying to get rid of areas like Tasman and Manawatu, a move that his rugby administrator brother Wayne successfully fought against. Peters believes that while Super Rugby is improving the playing level of our rugby, it is also laying waste to communities. Where have the fans gone, he wonders?

"Sport is a seriously cohesive force in our economy and our value system."

Peters says, "It is not right that there are two tests in Auckland. Why is the rugby union not going to the deep south. The per capita wealth earning in Canterbury and further south is far greater than in the north. So why aren't we paying them some homage. We've got a stadium in Dunedin where you can pack the thing out, guaranteed, rain, hail or sunshine. It's the finest stadium in Australasia and I'd turn it into a 24/7 business if I could. They need the support and you would help rugby to keep going in the south."

Would I like another beer? Yes, but the game will be starting soon and there is a culture to be saved. Some people scoff at the idea that Peters is a man of the people. He's a man of the person, they say, and that person is Winston Peters. But all I'm hearing is a bloke who thinks that western culture is stuffed and would like to do something about it.

Peters was the only politician invited on board New Zealand's boat ahead of the America's Cup races. Peters was the only politician who backed them beforehand, who spoke out for technological gurus like Ian Taylor and all they bring to the country.

All day politicians from every party have been standing in Parliament and praising the yachties. But where, wonders Peters, were these people when team New Zealand actually needed their backing.

For Peters it's a question of principle. He points out that the Pacific is a quarter of the world and argues that New Zealand could and should invest in being in a significant position of influence. The week before our interview he had been in Tonga and run into a group of Welsh people who had flown to Nuku'alofa to support their team.

The only trouble was that the match had been moved to Auckland. No matter, the Nuku'alofa club found the Wales fans five large chairs and hosted them in front of the big screen. Peters watched on from a corner, charmed and saying nothing.

He would like New Zealand to reciprocate and to pull up the big chairs for their island neighbours; "If we want influence in the Pacific one way is to pay a little, to see rugby as an outreach of our foreign affairs. Would I help out to ensure these Samoans and Tongans can get to see first-class rugby in their own country at a third of what they pay in New Zealand. Yes, I would.

"Do we want to be a country that matters in the world. There's a payback for that. Cricket did more for race relations in India than any other thing. We have a capitalist model that cannot possibly work in the Pacific. But we could be in a comfort zone with these countries. It's worth a bit of money from the New Zealand taxpayer to get there."

As we get closer to kick-off, I can't help asking Peters who he admires in the current All Blacks. The answer is Ben Smith, because he always puts in that bit extra to give the team an edge, "an 80 minute thinker". Smith may not be the best passer or kicker in the team, but he is always working to create the extra man. Peters has no time for "the guy who's all Brylcreem and no socks."

Well, there's a few of those in Parliament and one or two in the All Blacks team, although Peters won't publicly name them. Suffice to say they weren't standouts for the All Blacks in the second test.

Peters prefers to name the performers; "Dagg's a big-match player. He does everything right. When he's not Hollywooding provincially and enjoying himself, he does everything right. He's a big-game player."

It would be glib to say the same thing of Peters, and people do. Over time ministers have created a caricature because that was the surest way to destroy Peters for a large part of the electorate. But the man I shake hands with outside the lifts doesn't look like a Spitting Image. The suit is too well-made.

Ian Taylor, the America's Cup inventor of extraordinary things despite being a self-confessed technophobe, once said, "In Maoridom we look forward to our past. The future is behind us."

I see Peters looking the same way, back to a time of community and ahead to a time of a more cohesive society. And even from the top of this office building full of cronies and phoneys, it doesn't look like a bad view.