Winston Peters at a media standup (Radio NZ/Phil Smith)

The NZ First leaks reveal a furious party fighting back against its leadership

Documents and correspondence dripping out of NZ First paint a picture of a party in turmoil and invite questions about the mysterious foundation which funds it, writes Danyl McLauchlan.

The email landed in the very early hours of Thursday morning, sent by an anonymous account, addressed to a handful of senior rightwing politicians and newsrooms around the country.

It contained an email conversation between a member of the party and MP Tracey Martin, and three attached documents dating from late 2017 and early 2018, each detailing internal dissatisfaction with the New Zealand First campaign. Much is just the routine grumbling most party members and candidates vent at their leadership after a disappointing result. (Yes, the outcome in 2017 meant that Winston Peters got to be kingmaker and now, in effect, co-prime minister, but New Zealand First’s overall vote share declined from their 2014 result, and they lost two MPs. During the early stages of the campaign many in NZ First convinced themselves that both the Labour and provincial National votes would collapse in the final weeks of the election and NZ First would emerge as a major party. Then Jacinda happened.)

So some of the NZF candidates and party members were bitter. There were complaints about the marketing, the leaflets, the lack of coordination, accusations of sabotage from within, demands that people be fired, that the leadership itself should plan for succession. All this is completely standard internal party politics. But there are a number of allegations which point to problems within the current government’s very powerful, very problematic coalition partner.

The first two concern New Zealand First’s election financing and list process (the list is the method by which the party ranks its candidates, to determine which of them become MPs). A document written by Helen Peterson, New Zealand First’s candidate in Helensville for the last election, complains that the 2017 list was: unconstitutional, sexist, dependent on patronage and personal relationships with the people on the list committee, “shows a total disrespect for hardworking, loyal, hardworking and long serving members” and points out, with some bitterness, that it “had people in high ranking whose membership was less than six months”. That would be Shane Jones, who was ranked eight. Peterson, who was standing for the third time, was ranked 20th.

Peterson also alleges that “money allocated to support the campaign was not used for the purpose in which it was donated”, and “members who paid huge amounts of money towards the campaign and promised repayment did not receive any reimbursement”.

Every political party is a bit of a pyramid scheme. They have to be. Every three years they run a nationwide election campaign, and while this can be planned and coordinated by the head office, the operation relies on an army of unpaid volunteers and candidates. Especially the minor parties. Especially under MMP, where it’s the party vote that counts, which means campaigning in every electorate in the country, or as near as you can get.

In theory candidates do all of this work because they believe in the party and its values, but they also tend to believe in themselves, and that all of their hard work on behalf of the party will be rewarded with good list positions and a seat in parliament somewhere down the line.

Party leaders have a tricky balancing act managing candidate expectations. They need these people to win votes. Candidates put up the billboards, hold fundraisers, amplify digital channels, door-knock, deliver leaflets, do local media, promote the party at meet-the-candidate events. It’s a huge amount of work, and they need to keep doing it, election after election. (Some campaigners I know estimate that the ground game accounts for about a third of the party’s votes.) But there are far more candidates than viable list positions, so most of the people who do all this invaluable unpaid work will never make it into parliament.

The solution – for most parties – is to motivate the troops on the ground with policy announcements and political decisions, and to bend over backwards to ensure the integrity and legality of the list process. People need to believe they can make it because the process is fair. This is one reason some very strange people get into parliament on MMP lists, and why parties sometimes promote policies that sound bafflingly weird to the public and the media. You have to keep the base happy.

Based on these emails, the impression is that a proportion of the 2017 New Zealand First candidates felt scammed. Some claim they spent their own money on the campaign and never got reimbursed. They thought their loyalty to the party would be rewarded. Instead, they seem to feel, Peters parachuted Shane Jones into parliament ahead of them.

New Zealand First voters and members lean socially conservative, and many of them would have preferred to go into government with National, which is why the leaked documents reveal a party deeply shocked to learn that (a) their leader chose Labour and (b) he was filing legal papers against National while affecting to negotiate with them to form a government.

They were also unhappy with Peters for failing, in their view, to properly promote New Zealand First’s policies during the campaign. It’s worth glancing back at some of those policies – ring-fencing GST to the region it was collected in, student loan relief for people working in the regions, reducing immigration to 10,000 a year (net migration into NZ was 50,000 last year according to Stats NZ), holding binding referendum on abolishing the Māori seats and reducing the number of MPs to 100. None of which Peters has ever notably mentioned during the post-coalition negotiation period, or during his current tenure as the most powerful politician in the country.

So you can see why some New Zealand First members might be upset. But it’s not clear how many of them felt like this, or if these issues raised back in the early days of the government are still live issues inside the party.

But the reason this is being leaked now is very interesting. About three weeks ago, the president of New Zealand First, Lester Gray, stood down and resigned from the party. New Zealand First advised their members that this was because of a medical condition, but Gray has announced that he stood down for “moral reasons”, explaining that he was unable to sign New Zealand First’s expenditure and donations reports, claiming he’d been “kept in the dark” about the state of the party and that he “just needed to get out”. The anonymous email to media was sent out on the same day he made this announcement on his Facebook page.

New Zealand First ministers are campaigning, fundraising even, very aggressively, in a way we’ve never really seen before in New Zealand politics. See, for example, Shane Jones’ most recent demands and threats against the forestry industry. But unlike every other political party, New Zealand First never declares the identity of its large donors. In fact, if its electoral donations are to be believed, it doesn’t have any. Instead, in the last two years it has received almost $200,000 in loans from an entity known as “The New Zealand First Foundation”. This is not a registered company or a registered trust. The foundation has no website, and there’s almost no information about it available anywhere online.

So one of the coalition partners in our government – whose ministers are completely autonomous, the prime minister appears to have no power over them whatsoever – has a discretionary $3bn fund to give away, they’re actively and aggressively soliciting donations from the industries they’re dispensing the fund to, but no large donations are ever declared. Instead the party gains significant funding through loans from a mysterious foundation.

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And now some members and senior office holders of the party are angry and starting to leak against their leadership. There was another large dump of internal documents yesterday, many of which seemed rather random: the New Zealand First digital style guide (preferred typeface: Open Sans); the Electorate Policy and Procedure Manual; the Event and Fundraising Guide, which might sound interesting but is more of a document on how to organise cake stalls and book MPs for quiz nights, rather than how to give threatening speeches.

It also contained the Auckland membership list and suggested that many of the parties registered members are not current, having allowed their dues to lapse. It contains private information regarding 800 members, and New Zealand First has referred the leak to the police.

The New Zealand First Party’s annual conference is this weekend. It is very unlikely this episode is over.

danylmc@gmail.com


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