Pundits speculate that the popular, tough-talking conservative may someday be premier. WINSTON PETERS
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND
WINSTON PETERS is a pugnacious, table-thumping populist. He is a straight-talking lawyer who favors Italian suits. He grew up poor and now champions blue-collar causes. He is half-Scot, half-native Maori.
And if there is to be a Maori prime minister, then ``Winston Peters will clearly be it,'' says former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon.
During the last 12 months, opinion polls have consistently ranked Mr. Peters as the politician Kiwis would most prefer as prime minister. Last month, Peters was nudged out of top-spot contention spot by the Labour Party's new prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, and by the hoopla surrounding David Lange's sudden resignation. But political pundits suspect that Peters won't be eclipsed for long.
The ascent of this conservative National Party member of Parliament coincides with the rising prominence of Maori issues and the debilitating effects of economic recession during much of the Labour Party's five years in office.
The native Maoris constitute about 14 percent of the population and the bulk of the jobless. But the Labour government has taken significant steps to redress long-standing Maori grievances and to offer hope for economic self-sufficiency.
A quasi-government tribunal is now judging claims by Maori tribes for about 50 percent of New Zealand's land mass. Already, based on new legal interpretations of the Treaty of Waitangi, extensive fishing rights worth millions of dollars are being returned to Maori tribes.
But the moves are provoking resentment among some white New Zealanders. As National's opposition spokesman on Maori Affairs and Employment, Peters lambastes Labour's actions.
``Mr. Palmer has exacerbated race relations and heightened European anxiety. At the same time, he's heightened Maori expectations beyond any hope of fulfillment,'' says Peters in a Monitor interview.
``We could have all the fish, all the forest, and all the land back, and still 58 percent of our prison population will be Maori males. ... We will still have this 4-to-1 disparate rate of achievement in education. We'll still have Maori unemployment rates at 2.5 to 3 times that of Europeans. What will have changed?''