Peters hits NZ's Ardern on COVID, defence

Former NZ deputy prime minister Winston Peters has criticised PM Jacinda Ardern's government.
Former NZ deputy prime minister Winston Peters has criticised PM Jacinda Ardern's government.

New Zealand's former deputy prime minister Winston Peters has returned to the fore with a high-profile television interview attacking Jacinda Ardern's government.

Mr Peters has increased his activity in recent weeks, laying the groundwork for another run for parliament.

The 76-year-old, first elected in 1979, lost his place as Ms Ardern's deputy and foreign minister in October's election when his New Zealand First party fell out of favour.

After months in the political wilderness, the populist force is again stirring.

On TV1's QandA program on Sunday morning, Mr Peters said the government had dropped the ball on national security and on its COVID-19 vaccination rollout.

Referencing AUKUS - Australia's new defence link-up with the US and UK - Mr Peters said it was "very disappointing to hear" New Zealand hadn't been consulted, and the country would be more isolated as a result.

"I'm very concerned that we were not advised, and that we got a phone call post the event from the Australian prime minister," he said.

Mr Peters blamed his successor as foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, for sending "the wrong signals" since taking the job.

In February, Ms Mahuta announced in a grand speech to the diplomatic corps, including Australia's High Commissioner, that NZ would pursue an indigenous foreign policy.

"The new foreign minister made a very critical statement accepted by a number of people in academia as being the right way to go ... that we were going to shift our priority so to speak," Mr Peters said.

"They had announced a shift. A shift to what?

"This is the consequence of those sorts of statements.

"And the first thing we did was to announce a reconfiguration or reassessment of our defence spend.

"You've got to pull your weight, sad to say, and our weight has not been great."

Ms Ardern responded later on Sunday, saying NZ's lack of involvement in AUKUS - in which Australia will receive nuclear submarines - was purely down to its anti-nuclear stance.

"That's (anti-nuclear) legislation we've had since the 1980s ... that's the signal and it's been a long-standing one," she said.

Mr Peters also questioned NZ's COVID-19 response, saying "parts of it have been brilliant, and parts of it have been a serious worry".

"We didn't test properly or trace properly and we didn't vaccinate with the speed we should have," he said.

The TV appearance came after Mr Peters' party announced an online petition arguing to keep New Zealand's name, a direct retort to a Maori Party petition that proposed to change it to Aotearoa.

The return of the sharp-mouthed former MP to public life could pose challenges for Ms Ardern, though she shrugged off the idea it would concern her politically.

"No. No. He did those things from time to time when he was in government," she laughed.

Australian Associated Press