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On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Winston Peters

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says in government he would fire the board of Solid Energy if they would not agree to go into the Pike River Mine to retrieve the bodies of the miners who died there.

Peters says he would pass an exemption in health and safety law that would allow entering the mine, and says Labour and the Greens would agree to that "because they have been embarrassed into taking action".

Winston Peters says foreign students in this country on student visas should not be allowed to work 20 hours a week, as they currently can. "The students are going to come here to be educated, not to work."

Lisa Owen: Good morning, Mr Peters. There’s been big developments in this Pike River story this week. We’re going to get to that in a second. But I’m just curious about one thing - a podcast that was released this week, The 9th Floor. In it, Helen Clark talks about the fact that in 1996, someone from your team floated the idea of a shared prime ministership, and I’m just wondering - was it a serious idea at the time?

Winston Peters: Look, she didn’t say that I did that.

No, she didn’t.

Somebody else who was on my tactical team apparently did that. I think it was because in 1932, the then leader of the second biggest party in the coalition was, in fact, the prime minister - a guy called Forbes - a man called Forbes. And I suppose he went in there saying, ‘Now, look, if you think this is novel or new, it’s not; it’s already happened.’ And I think it was a tactic to get them in the right mental frame of mind in terms of negotiating.

But in terms of that, do you think now New Zealanders would be ready for an arrangement like that - a shared prime ministership or a prime minister who comes from the smaller coalition partner?

Let me tell you, neither myself or anybody in my organisation and in my caucus is thinking of that sort of talk. We are focused utterly on maximising our vote in a three-way fight on the 23rd of September this year. That’s how serious the economic and social circumstances are, and we’re not thinking about anything else because we want to put all our efforts into that. And speculation and answering hypothetical questions is not what we’re going to be doing in this campaign.

But just as a general principle, do you think it would be workable to have the prime minister come from another party?

I just told you I haven’t thought about it. I’m telling you we are not going into this arrangement to sell the people out and compromise them and all sorts of arrangements which are against the national interest. This country’s economy’s in serious trouble, our social structures are in serious trouble, our infrastructure is desperate. And you can either go with the present and try and defend the indefensible or you can strike out to have the country the way it used to be - a world leader. And we are in the second camp, and that’s all we’re going to be talking about, all we’re going to be focused on, all we’re going to deliver. Every other egotistical, egregious self-interest is not in our book.

Okay. Let’s move on to Pike River. So we know that this week there’s been more vision, there’s been development in this story. I just want to confirm your position on this. You give a cast-iron guarantee that if you’re in government, there will be a manned re-entry and recovery operation. And you’ve said that it would be a condition of confidence and supply or a support agreement. Is that a fair summary of your position on this?

It’s shameful that I’ve got to repeat this, but I made that commitment to them down at Pike River when I went down to see those families. I’ve worked 11 miles underground in a mine. I know a bit about the dangers - not in a coal mine but in a different type of setting. So I’m not saying it lightly. I heard their experts rescue people around them, and I believe them and said at the time I’m prepared to go in myself - not as some sort of boast, as some people in the media say, but as an indication of my confidence that safe re-entry is possible. The Queensland Mines Rescue said so. The New Zealand Mines Rescue said so. Tony Foster, the leading expert who came back from the UK to give evidence in front of the select committee said so. And all we’ve got is a whole lot of self-interested establishment people engaged in a cover-up, and I’ve said that for a long time and that this cover-up could not succeed.


No, wait. The sooner they fly a white flag and stop behaving this way, the better, because it’s a contempt for a modern democracy, and above all, it’s a contempt for those families.

I know you don’t like the phrase ‘bottom line’, but it would be a bottom line for you.

Look, for the umpteenth time, I gave my word, and I intend to keep it.

All right. So, let’s talk about how you would make that happen, then. So because Solid Energy still controls the mine, what would you do?

No, they don’t.

A law change of what kind?

Solid Energy is a taxpayer-owned organisation controlled by politicians and engaged right now in a massive cover-up.

So how would you practically do this? What would you do? Change that law?

No, I’d fire them for a start…


…and get them to honour the law of this country, which is that if there is a potential for a crime scene to be there, an investigation should take place.

So when you say-

At every level.

Mr Peters, I just want to be clear.

Can I just say one thing?

When you say ‘fire them’, do you mean get rid of the board?

Can I just say one thing? This debate and the academic, ephemeral way you’re conducting it is not good enough. This is a potential crime scene, and these people and our institutions deserve better than that. I want discovery. And everything they’ve seen thus far suggests that.

I think it’s important that people understand how you would do this in practical terms, because you’ve obviously thought about it. So you’d get rid of the board. How do you change the law?

I said to the new head of the board, ‘If we were to change the law to enable a re-entry to take place, what would you do?’ He said, ‘I’d resign.’ I said, ‘Really? What if the government was to agree to change the law?’ You know what he said? ‘I’d have to rethink that.’ Now, straight away, I’m talking to a politician and not someone concerned about the history and getting to the facts behind that mine catastrophe.

So would you just pass an exemption that allowed a recovery operation for Pike that took away responsibility for any potential health and safety consequence?

That is not an impediment, but, worse than that, this is a coward’s way of behaving. What you’re saying to those families is, ‘The possibility that someone might get hurt and we’ll have to pay compensation during this recovery is so concerning to us, we don’t give a darn whether you get to the facts or the truth or not.’ Now, that’s an appalling way to behave, and I’m looking at institutions, including some of your colleagues in the media who, frankly, on this matter, have been a damn disgrace.

But it’s more than that, though, isn’t it? Because under the new laws, if it’s found to be reckless conduct, you could go to jail for five years. So would you pass an exemption that took away that responsibility?

I’ve already said that. I’ve said that we can take away any possibility that by making the decision to give the miners’ families justice, anyone else would be, for that event, capable of some sort of penalty. We can remove all that. But what we won’t do is remove from that circumstance the culpability of people who were guilty in the first place.


29 people lost their lives. No one in this country, that’s meant to be a first-world democracy, has been held accountable. That’s repugnant. It is disgraceful. And we’re all- Many of us in this country are guilty of allowing it to happen.

So you changed the health and safety rules. Do you reckon that Labour and the Greens would come on board with that to perhaps water down - some people would see that as watering down - health and safety rules? Do you reckon the Greens would come on board and vote for that if it came to it?

Look, all these other parties were talking about-weren’t doing anything about it at all. They were talking about, "Oh, maybe I’ll have a review." We went to Pike River-

So you don’t think they would support that?

No, no. They will now because they have been embarrassed into taking action. But when it happened, they weren’t. When the families asked us, I took one of my colleagues down and a senior guy in the South Island to go and see them, and I heard, with time and further investigations, I heard enough to know there’s something seriously wrong here.

Okay, well, Bill English has suggested that if you want to change the law and you want to do this, you might want to make yourself responsible under that law. Would you be prepared to do that? If you’re so certain about it, would you be prepared to say, "I will take responsibility. I would be the one it fell back on."

Look, I’m not going to have a duel of wits with an unarmed opponent on this matter, like Bill English. His behaviour has been repugnant and extreme. So has John Key’s. John Key said that they’d go to the ends of the earth to help these families, and all we’ve seen at a certain time is an utter switch from willing to go in to "This is a massive danger to any recovery or retrieval group of men."


No, no, let me tell you this.

I just want to be clear.

But I want to give you a piece of evidence here. Nick Smith and the government and the system have been saying it’s far too dangerous to go in. So the next question is, "But you allowed men to go in to as far as 400m. How do those two statements-? How does the statement now balance the statement when you let them go in? And is it not the case that you, if you were right now, sent those first mining people into that situation knowing that they could be immolated in a second? Now, those two statements- The behaviour and the statement don’t stack up; they rebut each other. They give the lie to what’s going on here.

Let’s move on to another topic that’s turning out to be a central issue in an election year - immigration. You want to drop the numbers to around 10,000 immigrants a year. About 70,000 now. How would you do it? What categories would you target? And over what period of time would you make those kinds of cuts?

We’d bring people here that we need, not who need us. We’ll bring people here like Switzerland, Ireland; every other country in the world does. People of top quality experience, skills, the type which we have got gaps in our economy. But we will not bring here a mass number of unskilled people that’s been going on. And if the British target right now - UK target, 65 million people - their target is 100,000. And we’re at 4.7 million, and we’ve got 72,000 already.

So, what? Would you target student visas?

No, no. We’ll return the integrity of export education. When the student comes in here from there economy to pay our economy to educate them-

Yeah, but if you want to go from 70,000 to 10,000, you’re going to make some cuts somewhere, clearly.

No, you’ve got it all wrong. No, straight there, you mentioned student visas. The students are going to come here to be educated, not to work.

But they have work rights. At the moment, they can work 20 hours a week.

No, no, I know that.

So would you get rid of that?

No. That’s my complaint. They’ve got work rights in their tens of thousands against New Zealand students who can’t get jobs, and yet the export education policy, of which I know something because I was there at the start of it, was your economy pays our economy to educate your students.

Should we get rid of the 20 hours that they’re allowed to work? And then after they graduate, they’re allowed to work for a year.

Do you know why the 20 hours is allowed?

So would you get rid of those?

Do you know why the 20 hours is allowed? And this is what stinks about New Zealand’s political system sometimes. Our export education wasn’t working, so instead of improving our export education quality product, we decided to have inducements on the side, not to do with education, but to do with competing with other economies that provide better export education than us.

So if you’re going from 70,000 down to 10, we’re going to make some trims. We’re going to have to make some trims.

That goes without saying.

Yes, but would you allow students to continue while they study here? Would you allow them to work after graduation, which is the current situation? Would you change all of that?

No, no, once again, let me tell you, our policy is profoundly clear. Either you’re coming here to get educated and to go home, as the Chinese asked me to promise that I’d do way back in 1997, or you’re coming here with an immigration programme.

So no rights to work. Come get your education, go home.

If you were to come in here and you were to have a unique skill that we didn’t have, then you’d have a chance of getting into this country, yes, in the 10,000 bracket, but not 72.

But you would still need to cut other areas, so who would you target? What areas? Permanent residents? Work visas?

Look, it’s not complicated. I’ve given you the criteria.

Yes, but I’m wanting detail.

Bring people who our economy needs desperately because of high skills and not low-skilled, unskilled people who are driving down wages and conditions in this country.

So specifically who don’t we need? Because let’s say we go down-

The second category we don’t need.

But specifically. If we go down to 10,000 immigrants, who’s going to run our dairy farms? Who’s going to look after our old people? Who’s going to make coffee?

Oh, look-

Who’s going to build houses, all that kind of stuff that these people are currently employed in?

We can fix up the dairy farms by having an export dollar under the Reserve Bank Act that reflects what our economy is, not the highly inflated dollar we’ve got now, and farmers would be able to pay First World wages. I’m off a dairy farm. I know that Mum, Dad, the corporate family in New Zealand in my time could out-compete an earner in four adults in any part of Europe. Don’t tell me that the New Zealand working families on farms aren’t up to it.

But can we--? I’m not telling you that, but I’m saying that,…

Yes, you are.

…for example, in the service work-

You’re saying we can’t do the job on the farm any more.

In the service workers area, predictions of how many people we’re going to need, Careerforce predications say that we need 200,000 people-

Lisa, you sound like the problem.

…200,000 people more by 2020. Where are those people going to come from?

Lisa, you seem to be more interested in your questions, and you sound like the problem.

Where are they going to come from, Mr Peters?

We’ve got 92,000 young people who are not in education, training or employment. 92,000. That’s where they’re going to come from.

But that’s 200,000 people. Yeah, 90,000 when we need at least 200,000.

That’s right now. Who said that?

Careerforce predictions.

Why would I believe them?

So do you think-? Mr Peters.

Excuse me. Out of left field, they just put up a figure of 200,000, and you believe it.

For service workers, so, do you think that we can fill all the job vacancies are run the country without having any immigrant workers?

I didn’t say that, did I? I’m not going to get done over by you people with misinformation and alternative facts in this campaign. Let me tell you this. 10,000 is a very high figure against what every other First World economy is doing. It’s not low; it’s high. We’re going to bring in people in a high-skilled area, like Norway, Switzerland, all those countries do. But we’re going to look to train, educate and employ our own people first and not use immigration as an excuse for our failing to do so in the first place.

But I suppose, Mr Peters-

We are putting commitment behind our policies.

Even if you do that, 91,000 young people who aren’t employed or in…


…education - about, what, 130,000 unemployed - that still doesn’t bring us up to the numbers of people we need to fill these positions.

But I say again - you’re talking bunkum. There’s 140,000 unemployed in this country, and that’s because employment in this country is- one hour’s work a week makes you employed. Now, that’s the great lie for a start. Then we’ve got about 150,000 who can’t get the adequate work that they need or hours to do these jobs, so now we’re looking at about 250,000. And of that number, you’ve got 92,000 young people who you’ve consigned to the scrapheap of history. I have not, and we’re going to look to all those people first. Then, after all that, if we can’t place them, we’ll look to your cheap shot alternative - we’ll get people in from overseas.

Thanks for joining us this morning, Mr Peters.

You’re welcome.

Much appreciated.

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