WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 31: NZ First leader Winston Peters is filmed on a mobile phone while speaking to media during the Economic Development Agencies of New Zealand Conference at Rydges Hotel on August 31, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. Peters annouced a commitment to move container operations from the Ports of Auckland to Northland if his party is part of government following next month's election. The announcement follows recent controversy relating to the overpayment of his personal superannuation entitlements. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Winston’s children: meet the tempestuous youth wing of NZ First

Branko Marcetic talks to current and past members of Young NZ First about their role in a party usually linked to the old, about rivalries, radicalism and alt-right infiltration. 

For the longest time, the idea of a New Zealand First youth wing seemed like an oxymoron. “Who qualifies?” went the joke; “Anyone under 50?” How could the party of the Super Gold Card, led by a man who was in parliament before most of the people who could qualify to join were even born, attract significant numbers of youth?

Yet despite having sprung up just seven years ago – and only formally being made part of the party structure two years ago – Young NZ First has risen to a position of surprising prominence. Although many were unwilling to talk, I spoke to several of those previously and currently involved in the group about this journey. Behind it is a story of idealism, radicalism, betrayal, and Facebook statuses.

Sprinkled amid the grey haired majority at Peters’ big hi-tech Gold Card announcement on Saturday were a good few younger people. They’ve always had a soft spot for Peters and his message, say those involved.

“Winston especially has an appeal to younger voters – a celebrity appeal,” says Julian Paul, who played a role in the development of the youth wing and is now the party’s candidate for Epsom.

For better or worse, the youth wing was for the longest time associated with the figure of Curwen Rolinson. Then an Asian studies and politics major at Auckland University, Rolinson had both a meteoric rise within the party hierarchy and in public profile, and an increasingly fractious relationship with party leadership.

“He’s a big personality and very energetic,” says one former member of the party’s youth wing, who we’ll call Jake, who spoke to the Spinoff on condition of anonymity. “Talking himself up and trying to create momentum for his beliefs within the party.”

At the age of 20, Rolinson was elected to the party’s board of directors, only about a year into his membership of the party. He not only became the public face of the youth wing, but according to himself and others, developed a close relationship with Peters. And by the time he was 25, he had resigned under a cloud of infighting and controversy.

With his political career halted – for the time being, at least – Rolinson now works in PR, writing columns for the leftwing Daily Blog in his spare time. Describing himself as a “firebrand young nationalist,” he continues to associate with members of NZ First, even if his presence in the party’s hierarchy is no longer welcome. (Rolinson also still runs the NZ First Youth blog, billed as “a decidedly unofficial repository of the news, views and attitudes of some young people who quite like NZ First”).

Current Young NZ First leader Robert Gore and Curwen Rolinson

Party youth wings are typically more progressive than their party’s wider membership. But those who view NZ First as a centrist, or even conservative, party may be surprised by the membership background of its nascent youth wing.

“By and large they were on the left,” says Josh Van Veen, a member and later parliamentary researcher for the party who himself had been a Labour Party member for a number of years.

Van Veen, who considered himself a social democrat, jumped ship to NZ First believing them to be a more effective voice of opposition than Labour. According to him, its members included former Labourites and Greens, as well as others from organisations like Amnesty International and activist movements more generally. Some were from a more radical background.

Rolinson, for instance, came from the Residents Action Movement (RAM) (he was listed number 18 on its 2008 party list), a broad, left-wing, grassroots party chaired by Grant Morgan, a leading member of Socialist Worker. RAM gained prominence in the late 2000s, when it campaigned for Parliament on issues like raising the minimum wage, providing free tertiary education and school lunches, encoding the Treaty of Waitangi into a new constitution, and removing GST from food prices. It also organised against racism, something commentators at the time noted with amusement, given NZ First’s fraught history with race.

Rolinson says that after RAM dissolved following the 2008 election, its members fanned out to different parties. Some went back to Labour, others to the Greens. He and a friend attended a NZ First meeting, because “their economic policies were pretty left,” and “they had a genuine understanding of how to fight back against neoliberalism.” Rolinson describes this meeting and the resulting conversations with the party’s generally older membership as “fate”.

“You didn’t have to tell these people, ‘Once upon a time, New Zealand was different,’” he says. “They lived through it.”

It’s not clear exactly how large this early version of the youth wing was. Van Veen says there were around a dozen people under 30 actively involved in the party, though Rolinson told the Timaru Herald in 2012 that the youth wing had 60 members and branches in three North Island universities, including Victoria University. Jake says it was “quite a small group” based mostly online on Facebook groups, and “not really anyone in Wellington.”

Regardless of the exact details, the mere existence of a party youth wing was, and still is, useful for the party leadership, helping combat the popular perception of NZ First as the party of canes and mobility scooters. Rolinson’s claim to the Timaru Herald, for instance, had come in response to alleged comments John Key had made on the infamous “Teapot Tape” that NZ First supporters were “dying out.”

“We were getting hammered as the geriatric party, but it wasn’t true,” recalls Paul. “A lot of us were young.”

On the occasion of the launch of “NZ First on Campus”, Peters visited Victoria University of Wellington, telling Salient that the perception of the party as irrelevant to young people was wrong. Its party president in 2012 told RNZ that its new youth wing meant NZ First was bucking its image as the domain of older voters.

Despite later events, the formation of a youth wing appears to have been driven by Peters. Rolinson says Peters gave him and his friend a cell phone number at the meeting they attended in 2009, expressing an interest in getting some kind of project involving young people off the ground. Some time later, says Rolinson, they met at Peters’ home and discussed starting a youth wing.

Van Veen, a friend of Rolinson’s, was inspired to get involved with the party after seeing Peters speak at Victoria University. Rolinson passed on his contact details to Peters, who set up a meeting with Van Veen in Wellington, where Peters asked him for assistance with the project.

“Winston gave a lot of time to the youth voice,” says Van Veen. “He wanted NZ First to be a mass movement.”

Indeed, the party’s still unofficial and comparatively small youth wing had a relatively sizeable influence in the party. In the 2011 campaign, Van Veen was the vice chair of the Wellington Central and Rongotai electoral committee, the campaign manager for a candidate in Wellington central, and informally worked with Peters’ media adviser on campaign planning and strategy. After the election, he and another youth member would be tapped to be Winston’s researchers in Parliament, which involved everything from writing policy briefings and digging up opposition research to penning parliamentary questions and Peters’ speeches.

Winston Peters, ageless leader of the NZ First Party. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Rolinson pulled quintuple duty, having been elected to the party’s board of directors, sitting as the chairman of three electorates, and serving the unelected role of representative for the youth wing. And during the 2011 campaign, the youth wing played an influential role as informal policy advisers.

“There were a number of private meetings with people involved in the youth wing,” says Van Veen about the 2011 campaign. “A lot of policy was developed out of those sessions.”

“Winston was scrambling around in the lead-up to the 2011 election, and used certain members of the youth wing as sounding boards for bright ideas,” says Jake.

One particular triumph that came out of that effort was Peters’ promise in 2011 to forgive student debt in exchange for graduates remaining in the country for five years, a policy Peters has re-promised this year. This, former members say, was a direct outcome of these talks.

Another triumph: convincing Peters to drop, or at least sideline, the anti-immigration and race-baiting rhetoric that had been vote-winners for him in every campaign prior. The former youth members I spoke to were unanimous in agreement that Peters tamped down such talk in 2011 under their advice, a claim backed by a survey of news coverage at the time.

In fact, far from some of the ugly rhetoric of his earlier campaigns, two months before the 2011 election, Peters gave a speech in Singapore lauding the ascendancy of China as “a very positive development,” and asserting that “with its history, culture, and capability, energy and enterprise, it is rightly taking its place at the centre of the world stage.” At the same time, the party fielded its first ethnically Chinese candidate in Jerry Ho.

“Winston wasn’t particularly bothered about pursuing that issue in 2011,” says Van Veen of immigration.

“That helped when trying to reach out to the people I was trying to get – the left, anti-neoliberal crowd, the social democratic crowd,” says Rolinson.

It invites the question: how sincere exactly is Peters’ anti-immigration rhetoric, and how much of it is a vote-getting strategy?

“He definitely believes in immigration being an economic issue,” says Rolinson. “But I do think the immigration angle has been played up in this election.”

“I remember him saying on a number of occasions that politics is theatre,” recalls Jake. “He’s a showman and he knows which political buttons to press to get reactions.”

Yet there was also increasing tension. Despite its influence, NZ First Youth was in something of a purgatory. Its members had influence within the party, the party leadership touted its existence, and Rolinson gave interviews, party conference reports, and made Back Benches appearances as the NZ First Youth leader.

Yet attempts to formalise the organisation had repeatedly failed. NZ First Youth was still technically an unofficial entity. This suited the party leadership, who could draw on the youth wing as a source of ideas and support when necessary, but avoid the pitfalls of having to treat it as an extension of the party.

“People in the youth wing had some radical ideas that wouldn’t align with rank and file membership,” says Van Veen.

This dilemma reared its head with the debate over marriage equality. Although the party’s official position was to call for a national referendum over the issue, Rolinson –  cited in news reports as the leader of the NZ First youth wing, a position that technically didn’t exist – signed onto a joint statement with the other youth wings in support of Louisa Wall’s bill legalising gay and transgender marriage. Despite Rolinson’s attempts to walk a tightrope – stressing the importance of a national referendum in media appearances but saying he was “very sad” the bill didn’t include this element – the decision caused a lot of tension in the party, particularly among its more conservative membership.

Such tension led Peters and the party leadership to become increasingly wary of NZ First Youth, particularly as the provocative Rolinson mopped up more media attention. The party leadership saw him as a radical lefty out of step with the wider party and who had a habit of making easily-taken-out-of-context comments on social media (when one party member referred to Paula Bennett’s “Nazi welfare reform,” Rolinson replied that the comparison was unfair because “Hitler, after all, had a stronger emphasis on job creation”). This wouldn’t have mattered if Rolinson wasn’t also both a board member and the head of the youth wing.

In 2013, the party tabled a complaint against Rolinson, and Peters ordered all NZ First social media pages to be shut down, including that of NZ First Youth. Snippets of a private Facebook chat conversation sent to David Farrar at the time have Rolinson claiming he was “saved” from disciplinary action by Peters, while being symbolically punished.

One of the sources of acrimony was an internal feud revolving around Apirana Dawson, the party’s director of operations who had come over from the Labour Party. Rolinson maintains that Dawson was “trying to hack at NZ First from the inside” because the party was “taking votes out of Labour.” Eventually, someone (not he, maintains Rolinson) laid a complaint with the party about Dawson in 2013, alleging that he had fabricated part of his CV, a complaint that was later thrown out. Van Veen doesn’t have much to say about Dawson, except that he’s “very ambitious, very loyal to Winston,” and that he and Dawson had a “falling out.”

In fact, it was on Dawson’s account that Van Veen and his researcher colleague were sacked from their roles that year, accused of being overheard making disparaging remarks about Dawson at a monthly party for parliamentary staff. Van Veen and the other staffer were both fired without the accusations being investigated, and Brendan Horan – a former NZ First MP who had also been thrown out of the party over very different but similarly never-proven charges – called them “innocent victims of plots and subterfuges.”

“It was a big stitch-up,” says Jake, who believes Dawson was concerned Van Veen and the other staffer were “on to him.”

By June 2015, as the relationship between himself and the party leadership deteriorated, Rolinson resigned from the board “in protest against what I considered to be unconscionable and dishonourable conduct” by the party leadership, he wrote at the time. He promised he was “not going anywhere” and that he still believed “in this party – its ordinary members, if not always its leadership; its leader, if not always his martinets; and its principles if not always their practical applications.” It had “arguably been quite a long time coming,” he says now.

Nevertheless, acrimony continued. When Rolinson was slapped with drug charges in 2015, the party tried to distance itself from him, with Peters putting out a statement claiming that the NZ First youth wing didn’t exist, and that Rolinson had been “told countless times never to call himself the president or leader of a youth wing.” When Rolinson wrote a blog post accusing then-Deputy Leader Tracey Martin of trying to undercut a potential rival, she accused him of violating the newly passed Harmful Digital Communications Act.

Yet even as NZ First Youth was roiled by these incidents, 2015 was also the year the youth wing was officially established within the party. A remit to formalise the youth wing was passed at that year’s party convention, finally codifying it in the party’s constitution.

“There was a demand for it at the member level,” says Julian Paul, whose electorate put forward the remit. “We wanted a structure, we wanted a focus, and we wanted to put something in place to be recognised and supported by the party.”

Given the unofficial youth wing’s tumultuous history, one can’t help but think giving the party proper oversight and authority over its activities played a role, too.

That was also the year Young NZ First’s current leader, Robert Gore, got involved with the party. Gore, who studied political science and history and now works for a property maintenance company, had come from a Labour background.

“My family traditionally were a Labour family,” he says. “I belong to that generation whose parents were used to a different kind of Labour Party – as it deserted its roots, we deserted it.”

Gore observed from home the political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump’s candidacy, and believed New Zealand was seeing the same trends.

“When you look at people like Jeremy Corbyn and Trump, they succeeded because people genuinely believe they could help their lives,” he says. “It’s the same form of sentiment we have.”

The older, former members that I spoke to regard the current, official iteration of the NZ First youth wing as different to the one they were a part of, however. They believe it’s less likely to buck the authority of the party. They also believe it comes from a different place, politically.

“There has been an ideological shift in the youth wing,” says Van Veen. “Most of the present membership is more socially conservative and less inclined to left-wing politics.”

Indeed, a furore erupted last year when at an AUSA Back Benches event, a group of Young NZ First members, started chanting “Build the Wall” at Ricardo Menéndez-March, the Young Greens’ then-co-convenor, who is of Mexican descent. Young NZ First later apologised to him.

Whether this incident is simply a sign of immaturity or speaks to something more sinister is unclear. But as the Herald’s Kirsty Johnston reported in July, New Zealand’s “alt-right” – a broad label that includes neo-fascists and white supremacists – has expressed the desire to infiltrate and influence NZ First, including by joining its youth wing.

I asked Gore if he and the rest of Young NZ First were concerned about this prospect, and if they were taking steps to prevent the group’s subversion by such forces.

“It’s not really a concern at all,” he says. “At the end of the day, if you want to put your country and your people first, then we’ll take you. But we expect a degree of common decency and politeness.”

So there would be no objection to someone identifying as “alt-right” joining as long as they adhered to a certain standard of decorum? “The problem is, I don’t even know what that label means,” he says. “I’ve never seen one consistent definition for what that word actually means.”

Would he be worried about someone who believed New Zealand ought to be a Pākehā ethno-state joining?

“No, because all our party believes is putting New Zealand and New Zealanders first,” he says.

“We look at it on a case-by-case basis – if they’re not a nice person, discourteous,” explains Julian Paul. “We don’t want to be dismissive of debate or of people just because they see things as different.”

It’s perhaps a sign of NZ First’s unique place in New Zealand’s political ecosystem that, over the short lifespan of its youth wing, both socialists and “alt-right” racists have viewed it as a potential vehicle for their respective politics (though it must be said there’s no evidence yet of a far right takeover of the organisation). Young NZ First is still, well, young, yet from all appearances, here to stay. We can only wonder where it will go in the years ahead.

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