David Fisher: One final election spent in pursuit of Winston Peters

One of the great mysteries of political life is where to find Winston Peters on the morning after an election.

The answer, almost always, is “not where you want him”.

And so, after a late night covering the electoral demise of NZ First, those of the nation’s media fortunate enough to be assigned to the Bay of Islands for this most arduous of assignments began to wonder where he might be.

It is well known how difficult it can be to pin Winston Peters down. Wily, they call him.

Generally, this is in words rather than actions but – as Peters has said on occasion – actions speak louder than words.

The question of where Peters was staying wasn’t all that far from media minds the night before. If you know where your quarry sleeps, then far easier it is to track. This question became pressing after it was clear that Peters would not – as he had last election – deliver a speech then toss the top off the whiskey bottle and party until the early hours.

Instead, he emerged, gave a speech as lengthy as his usual preamble, then disappeared through a door clearly marked “Staff Only”.

There were so many questions to ask. Would he stay on as leader or would he retire? If he retired, who would succeed him?

Last election, Peters began the day on the footpath outside the Duke giving a press conference. It seemed like a reasonable place to go looking. Media began to cluster there from 7am.

Almost three hours later came Shane Jones, also now unemployed, who had showered, shaved, eaten breakfast, and – having pulled himself together – rocked through media duties in a way which made it clear Peters would not be following.

In fact, it raised the prospect Peters had already left for his home at Whananaki South, on the coast east of Whangarei. He did so last election. It seemed reasonable he would do so again. At that point, two-thirds of the NZME team covering NZ First – one Herald journalist, a Northern Advocate photographer and a Newstalk ZB reporter – left Russell.

It takes about an hour and 50 minutes to drive from the Duke of Marlborough in Russell to Winston Peter’s house in Whananaki.

At that point, the remaining third of the NZME team still in Russell rang to say Peters had followed Jones and was seated for lunch at the Duke of Marlborough.

So back we came, from beautiful Whananaki South, over dusty and winding roads, through verdant farmland and onto State Highway 1. Kawakawa was approaching when an update arrived – Peters had finished lunch and apparently slipped out through the kitchen.

The Opua car ferry seemed a good choke point. Traffic crawls on slowly on the Russell side and crawls off slowly at Opua. It is about one hour and five minutes to drive from Whananaki to Opua.

As fortune would have it, it was enough time to complete the drive, park, walk five metres to the ferry berth and watch a late-model Lexus roll off and away with what appeared to be an older gentlemen in dapper clothes attempting to hide his face.

While it wasn’t possible to see his face, it seemed likely it was him because of two things – his actions trying to hide his identity and because the car was being driven by Peters’ partner Jan Trotman.

It is about 35 minutes drive from Opua to Whakapara, where one turns east if they want to go to Whananaki.

This is where Trotman stopped, pulling up at the BP garage to go shopping. I parked and walked to Peters’ side of the vehicle, tapping on the wing mirror to get his attention.

Somewhat reluctantly, he opened the door slightly. “Have you been following me?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, although it didn’t really seem so. It seemed I had been driving for hours and hours and for a small portion of that time he was in front of me.

“I won’t be saying anything today, to you or to anyone,” he said, and shut the door again.

At this point, a different media outlet emerged and started photographing Peters. He pulled down the visor, held up a newspaper. The photographer moved around and Peters moved the obstacles, leaving – more or less – a clear shot to me. I took it. It reinforced, again, why I write words for a living.

Then I left, determined to get to Whananaki South before Peters. It would allow time for photographer Mike – who was travelling separately – to line up a spot from which to photograph Peters.

Having got ahead of Peters, I became concerned he was not behind. So I stopped and waited and the Lexus didn’t show. No Peters! If he wasn’t going to Whananaki, where could he be?

Back to SH1 and down to Whangarei. No sign of Peters. I was on my way to the airport to check flights when Mike called from Whananaki. Peters had arrived, presumably detouring through Hikurangi to either stock up on supplies or to throw off persistent media.

It takes about 50 minutes to drive from Whangarei to Whananaki, although once Peters is inside his coastal bolthole, there’s little to be gained from trying to photograph him there or speak to someone who doesn’t want to be spoken to.

Those questions remain unanswered. What does 42 years in politics do to someone? Was it all worth it?

Is this the last election I spend chasing you all over the countryside?

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