NZ PM's stand-in takes centre stage

NZ's deputy PM Winston Peters has taken the reins as PM Jacinda Ardern awaits her baby.
NZ's deputy PM Winston Peters has taken the reins as PM Jacinda Ardern awaits her baby.

With New Zealand's heavily pregnant prime minster now out of the capital and past her due date, one of the country's most enigmatic political veterans has slipped into her shoes.

Jacinda Ardern is in Auckland awaiting the arrival of her first child and Deputy Prime Minster Winston Peters - although still not officially acting prime minister - was running the show in Wellington on Monday.

"Well, you could say it's a bit of a curtain raiser, couldn't you?" the 73-year-old gleefully told reporters as he held the PM's weekly press conference, foreshadowing his soon to-be six-week stint at the top.

The half-hour the followed was a sampler of the traits that have served the former lawyer through his four-decades in the house.

Seamlessly transitioning from quick retorts and tongue lashings to his cheeky, knowing smile, Mr Peters fended off questions about a lawsuit he launched last week against a government department, his criticism of a boss of NZ's biggest company - and, of course, the government's business.

While Ms Ardern is notable for her cheery disposition with the press, Mr Peters has no qualms about pulling out criticisms and taking on a grumpier posture.

"I'm not going to come down here to a press conference and start talking about a private conversation," he bluntly interrupted as a reporter asked about his communications with the prime minister.

And then with an abrupt, Elvis-like "thank you very much" he left the stage - before stopping in the aisles for one last exchange with a reporters still shouting questions.

"Look, I've answered all those questions. I'll see you next time ... I'm answering up there (the stage), not over here," he answered across the room.

Sometimes described as a populist, the leader of the minority NZ First Party - a part of the coalition government - is the most experienced hand in the country's political landscape, albeit a polarising one.

He's formed coalition governments with both the centre-left and centre-right (earning resentment from some for his role as "kingmaker"), and since entering parliament in 1979 has held numerous senior cabinet posts, including deputy PM in the 1990s.

"Winston could have been prime minister, but for want of himself," former prime minister Jenny Shipley told the 9th Floor documentary series.

"His complexity often got ahead of his capability... but on a good day he was brilliant."

Australian Associated Press