Peters has had a successful and turbulent political career since first becoming a Member of Parliament in the National Party win of 1978. Peters first served as a Cabinet minister when Jim Bolger led the National Party to victory in 1990, before Bolger sacked him in 1991. As leader of New Zealand First, he held the balance of power after the 1996 election and formed a coalition with National, securing the positions of Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer—the latter position created for Peters. However, the coalition dissolved in 1998 following the replacement of Bolger by Jenny Shipley as Prime Minister.
In 1999 New Zealand First returned to Opposition before entering into a government again with the Labour Party in 2005, in which he served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. On 29 August 2008 he stood down as a minister pending a police investigation into a funding scandal involving Peters and New Zealand First.
In the 2008 general election, New Zealand First failed to reach the five percent threshold and Peters did not regain his seat. As a result, neither Peters nor New Zealand First were returned to Parliament. However, in the 2011 general election New Zealand First experienced a resurgence in support, winning 6.8 percent of the party vote to secure eight seats in Parliament. In the 2014 general election, NZ First gained 11 seats and finished with 8.6 percent.
Peters was born in Whangarei. His father is of Māori descent and his mother of Scottish descent. His iwi affiliation is Ngāti Wai and his clan is McInnes. Two of his brothers, Ian and Jim, have also been MPs, and another brother Ron has also stood as a New Zealand First candidate.
After attending Whangarei Boys' High School and Dargaville High School Peters studied history, politics and law at the University of Auckland and graduated BA and LLB before working both as a lawyer for the law firm of Russell McVeagh and as a teacher. He was a member of the University Rugby Club in Auckland and captain of the Auckland Māori Rugby team. He also played in the Prince of Wales Cup for the Māori All Blacks trials. One brother, Wayne, played rugby for Otago and North Auckland in the then National Provincial Championship and was in the Junior All Blacks while another brother, Allan, represented Wanganui in rugby.
Peters entered national politics in 1975, standing unsuccessfully for the National Party in the electorate seat of Northern Maori; he got 1873 votes, and was the first National candidate in a Maori seat for some years who did not lose his deposit. This followed a successful campaign by Peters and other members of his Ngati Wai iwi to retain their tribal land in the face of the Labour government's plan to create coastal land reserves for the public. The result was that virtually no ancestral land was taken by the government of the day in the Whangarei coastal areas, and the initiative helped inspire the 1975 Land March led by Whina Cooper.
Peters successfully ran again in 1978 but only after winning in the High Court an electoral petition which overturned the election night result for the seat of Hunua (an electorate in the Auckland area) against Malcolm Douglas, the brother of Roger Douglas. He lost this seat in 1981, but in 1984 he successfully stood in the electorate of Tauranga.
On 16 December 1986, he exposed the Māori loan affair in Parliament.
He became the National Party's spokesperson on Māori Affairs, Consumer Affairs, and Transport. In 1987, he was elevated to National's front bench, acting as spokesperson for Māori Affairs, Employment, and Race Relations. After National won the 1990 election, Peters became Minister of Māori Affairs in the fourth National government, led by Jim Bolger.
Peters disagreed with the party leadership on a number of matters and frequently spoke out against his party regarding them. This made him relatively popular with the public. However, his party colleagues distrusted him, and his publicity-seeking behaviour made him increasingly disliked within his own party. While National may have tolerated his difference of opinion, they were far less willing to accept public criticism from a Cabinet minister which they determined was undermining the party. In October 1991, Bolger sacked Peters from Cabinet.
Peters remained as a National backbencher, continuing to criticise the party. In late 1992, when the National Party was considering possible candidates for the elections in the following year, it was decided that Peters would not be allowed to seek renomination for Tauranga. In Peters v Collinge, Peters challenged this decision in the High Court, and in early 1993, he chose to resign from the party and from Parliament. This prompted a by-election in Tauranga some months before the scheduled general election. He stood as an independent and won easily.
Shortly before the 1993 election, Peters established New Zealand First and retained his Tauranga seat. Another New Zealand First candidate, Tau Henare, unseated the Labour incumbent in Northern Maori, helping to convince people that New Zealand First was not simply Peters' personal vehicle.
In the 1996 elections, the MMP electoral system delivered a huge windfall to New Zealand First. The party won 17 seats and swept all of the Māori electorates. More importantly, it held the balance of power in Parliament. Neither National nor Labour had enough support to govern alone. Neither party could form a majority without the backing of New Zealand First, meaning Peters could effectively choose the next prime minister.
It was widely expected that he would throw his support to Labour and make Labour leader Helen Clark New Zealand's first female prime minister. Peters had bitterly criticised his former National colleagues, and appeared to promise that he would not even consider a coalition with Bolger. However, after over a month of negotiations with both parties, Peters decided to enter into a coalition with National. Michael Laws, the party's campaign manager, later claimed that Peters had already decided to join forces with National and used his negotiations with Labour simply to win more concessions from Bolger.
Whatever the case, Peters exacted a high price for allowing Bolger to stay on as prime minister. Peters became Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer (senior to the Minister of Finance), the latter post created especially for him. Initially, there were concerns about whether Peters would be able to work with Bolger, the National prime minister who had previously sacked him from Cabinet, but the two did not seem to have any major difficulties.
Later, however, tensions began to develop between Peters and the National Party, which only worsened after Jenny Shipley staged a party room coup and became prime minister. After a dispute over the privatisation of Wellington International Airport, Peters was sacked from Cabinet again on 14 August 1998. He immediately broke off the coalition and led New Zealand First back into opposition. However, several MPs, including deputy leader Henare, opted to stay in government and leave New Zealand First. It later came out that Henare had tried to oust Peters as leader, but failed. None of the MPs who opted to stay in government retained their seats in the next election.
New Zealand First was severely mauled in the 1999 elections, which saw Labour oust National from power. The party suffered for the rash of party-switching. Additionally, there was a wide perception that Peters had led voters to believe a vote for New Zealand First would get rid of National, only to turn around and go into coalition with National. New Zealand First collapsed to 4.3 percent of the vote and would have been shut out of Parliament had Peters not managed to hold onto Tauranga by 63 votes. This only allowed New Zealand First to win five seats. Under New Zealand's MMP rules, a party that falls below the 5 percent threshold can still qualify for MMP by winning one electorate seat. Still in opposition, he continued to promote his traditional policies, but also became more noticeably concerned about immigration policies.
In the 2002 election, Peters performed well once again, campaigning on three main issues: reducing immigration, increasing punishments for crime, and ending the "grievance industry" around Treaty of Waitangi settlements. This message regained much support for both Peters and his party, especially from among the elderly who had in the past backed Winston Peters, and New Zealand First won 10 percent of the vote and 13 seats. Peters seemed to hope that Labour would choose to ally with New Zealand First in order to stay in power. However, Clark explicitly rejected this possibility, instead relying on support from elsewhere. This appeared to anger Peters considerably.
In a speech at Orewa in 2005, he criticised immigration from Asian countries as "imported criminal activity" and warned that New Zealanders were "being colonised without having any say in the numbers of people coming in and where they are from." He also accused the Labour Party of having an "ethnic engineering and re-population policy." In July 2005, Peters said New Zealand should err on the side of caution in admitting immigrants until they "affirm their commitment to New Zealanders' values and standards."
The SuperGold Card has been one of Peters' flagship initiatives. As a condition of the 2005 confidence and supply agreement between the New Zealand First Party and the Labour Government, Peters launched the SuperGold Card in August 2007.
New Zealand First established a research team to design the SuperGold Card, which included public transport benefits like free off-peak travel (funded by the Government) and discounts from businesses and companies across thousands of outlets. Winston Peters negotiated with then Prime Minister Helen Clark despite widespread opposition to the card on the grounds of high cost. However, it was argued much of the extra costs were ‘book entries’, for example; the Government subsidises much of public transport anyway, where buses and trains travel with empty seats during off-peak hours. SuperGold Card commuters are simply using buses and trains during off-peak times (Auckland SuperGold cardholders also enjoy the benefit during peak times). The real costs are relatively low compared to the benefits enjoyed.
As the 2005 general election approached, Peters did not indicate a preference for coalition with either of the major parties, declaring that he would not seek the "baubles of office". He promised to either give support in confidence and supply to the party with the most seats, or to abstain from no-confidence votes against it, and that he would not deal with any coalition that included the Greens. He pledged to keep post-election negotiations to under three weeks following criticism of the seven-week marathon it took to broker a deal with National in 1996.
In the election, some of New Zealand First's traditional support moved to National. Peters himself narrowly lost his longstanding hold on Tauranga to National MP Bob Clarkson, but New Zealand First did well enough to receive seven seats (down from 13 in 2002), allowing Peters to remain in Parliament as a list MP. Soon after the 2005 election Peters launched a legal challenge against Clarkson. The case alleged that Clarkson had spent more than the legal limit allowed for campaign budgets during elections in New Zealand. This legal bid ultimately failed, with a majority of the judges in the case declaring that Clarkson had not overspent.
In negotiations with Clark after the election, Peters secured the ministerial portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Racing in the Labour-led government, a move which apparently lay at odds with his earlier promise to refuse the "baubles of office". He was a member of the Executive Council, although he was outside cabinet. He was able to criticise the government in areas not related to his portfolios, which experts said was an unprecedented situation. Considering his previous comments relating to immigration, there were mixed reactions from commentators. His selection for the Foreign Affairs portfolio created some measure of surprise within the country and beyond. National Party leader Don Brash said the choice was "astonishing", because "the whole region distrusts Winston Peters – Australia, Asia [...]. I think putting him as minister of foreign affairs does huge damage for our international reputation." The Age, in Australia, expressed surprise that the position had been given to an "outspoken, anti-migrant populist [and] nationalist".
Allegations concerning Peters' involvement with Simunovich Fisheries and former Member of Parliament Ross Meurant, who was engaged as both adviser to Peters and in undefined business activities with Peter Simunovich (managing director of Simunovich Fisheries), culminated in a Parliamentary Select Committee enquiry into what became known as the 'scampi enquiry'. The enquiry cleared Peters, Simunovich and Meurant of any wrongdoing.
In October 2006, Peters affirmed that he would continue to serve as leader for the 2008 election.
Peters tried to regain Tauranga in the 2008 election and lost to National's Simon Bridges by a margin of 11,742 votes, a much larger loss than in 2005. With New Zealand First gaining 4.07 percent of the vote and failing to reach the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament without winning an electorate seat, Peters did not enter the 49th New Zealand Parliament. In his concession speech, Peters promised, "This is not the end", and alluded to the fact that while New Zealand First would not have any members in Parliament, it was still New Zealand's fourth largest political party, with 4.07 percent of the vote. Despite this, political commentators described the defeat as "the end of the road" for Peters.
Peters generally shunned the media spotlight following the election. In 2009, he caused a brief flurry of interest when it was revealed he was still using a ministerial car, some months after his election defeat. Later it was reported he had started writing a rugby column for a local magazine. He appeared on TV ONE's Q & A programme on 5 July 2009, confirming that he was still the leader of New Zealand First. He hinted at a political comeback and attacked the New Zealand government's review of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. In late 2010 and early 2011 Peters made a number of appearances on television and radio where he made it clear his and New Zealand First's intention to contest the 2011 election. New Zealand First's annual convention in July 2011 received widespread media coverage and somewhat restored the media's interest in Peters and the party.
In the 2011 general election New Zealand First experienced a resurgence in support, winning 6.8 percent of the party vote to secure eight seats in Parliament.
In the 2014 general election New Zealand First increased their parliamentary representation further, winning 8.6% of the party vote to secure 11 seats in the New Zealand parliament.
In 2015, National MP Mike Sabin was forced to resign, leaving his seat of Northland open. The seat, located in the Far North District, and its predecessors had been in National hands for decades. However, Peters ran for the seat and won it with a commanding majority—the first time that New Zealand First had won an electorate seat since 2005. With Peters resigning his list seat in order to take up the Northland seat, this allowed New Zealand First's representation in parliament to increase to 12, with Ria Bond, the next available candidate on New Zealand First's party list filling the vacant list seat.
Peters does not fit neatly on either side of the political spectrum. He says he distrusts the corporate world, a fact sometimes used to label him as left-wing. However, he favours cutting taxes and shrinking the size of government, and has long exhibited strong conservatism in his social policy. He is opposed to high levels of immigration, in order "to avoid New Zealand's identity, values and heritage being swamped". He has highlighted the "threat" of immigration in both cultural and economic terms.
Peters has on several occasions characterised the rate of Asian immigration into New Zealand as too high; in 2004, he stated: "We are being dragged into the status of an Asian colony and it is time that New Zealanders were placed first in their own country." On 26 April 2005, he said: "Māori will be disturbed to know that in 17 years' time they will be outnumbered by Asians in New Zealand", an estimate disputed by Statistics New Zealand, the government's statistics bureau. Peters responded that Statistics New Zealand had underestimated the growth-rate of the Asian community in the past.
In April 2008, deputy New Zealand First party leader Peter Brown drew widespread attention after voicing similar views and expressing concern at the increase in New Zealand's ethnic Asian population: "We are going to flood this country with Asian people with no idea what we are going to do with them when they come here." "The matter is serious. If we continue this open door policy there is real danger we will be inundated with people who have no intention of integrating into our society. The greater the number, the greater the risk. They will form their own mini-societies to the detriment of integration and that will lead to division, friction and resentment." Peters has a generally fraught relationship with the media with media interactions often described as confrontational. Peters attributes the hostility of media coverage to foreign-ownership of New Zealand media assets and their political agenda.
Peters has campaigned in previous elections for compulsory superannuation schemes for all New Zealanders. He has cultivated support amongst the elderly in particular, and his support has been concentrated among New Zealanders over 60 years of age.
In 2007, Peters was bestowed with the chiefly Samoan title Vaovasamanaia, meaning "beautiful, handsome, awesome, delighted and joyful."
In March 2013, a Peters-led motion criticising the Ben Affleck-directed film Argo was passed unanimously by the New Zealand parliament.
Peters attracted media attention in 2008 over controversial payments for legal services and party donations. He had received $100,000 in 2006 to fund legal costs of challenging the election of Bob Clarkson to the Tauranga electorate. The money came from Owen Glenn, a wealthy New Zealand businessman and philanthropist based in Monaco. Under parliamentary rules, any gift to MPs over the value of $500 must be relinquished. Peters denied knowing about the source of the money but this was not corroborated by his lawyer Brian Henry and Glenn contradicted Peters' denial.
The Vela family, prominent in the racing industry, had donated $150,000 to Peters over a four-year period. The payments were made in sums of $10,000 in order to remain within rules governing political party funding.
The Dominion Post published details from New Zealand First sources that before the 2005 election $25,000 had been donated to the party from Bob Jones via the Spencer Trust. The Trust is administered by Wayne Peters, a brother of Winston Peters. Jones confirmed that he had paid the money to the Spencer Trust and was asked by Winston Peters to make the donation. Peters denies that he had asked Jones for a donation to the party. The donation was not declared to the Electoral Commission as required by law.
On 29 August 2008, Peters offered to stand down from his portfolios as Foreign Affairs and Racing Minister, pending an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office as to whether the donations from Sir Robert Jones and the Vela brothers reached the New Zealand First party as intended. On 10 September 2008, Winston Peters gave evidence to the Privileges Committee of the New Zealand Parliament in an attempt to refute evidence given by Owen Glenn. The Privileges Committee returned a report on 22 September recommending that Peters be censured for "knowingly providing false or misleading information on a return of pecuniary interests". Parliament passed a motion censuring Peters the following day. All but three of the parties in Parliament (New Zealand First, Labour, and Progressives who abstained) supported the censure.
Peters was later cleared by the Serious Fraud Office with respect to political donations, however some matters were referred back to the Electoral Commission as it was determined that, while no fraud had taken place, some electoral law matters with regard to funding declarations were not complied with. The police subsequently decided that no offence had been committed.
Peters has referred to the affair as part of the "most vicious character assassination seen in any campaign this country has ever witnessed" and unsuccessfully sued Television New Zealand for defamation.
On 21 May 1998 Peters was appointed to the Privy Council and became The Right Honourable Winston Peters. He is the only Privy Councillor in the current New Zealand parliament.