Winston Peters at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Winston Peters at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

PoliticsJune 12, 2020

Winston goes to war with the ‘woke generation’ as NZ First gets election ready

Winston Peters at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Winston Peters at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Down in the polls and facing the risk of oblivion, New Zealand First has had a very busy Friday. Justin Giovannetti looks at the start of an NZ First electoral strategy focused on being tough.

There’s no surer sign that it’s election time than the blitz of news coming out of New Zealand First.

With 99 days to go to the election, the party announced a bill that would require police to immediately remove any future iwi checkpoints. An email from the party torpedoing Labour’s light rail plans in Auckland was made public. And finally (catch your breath), leader Winston Peters let rip, expressing “disgust” at a “wave of wokeism” following the removal of a colonial statue in Hamilton.

A number of recent polls show NZ First is in trouble and will struggle to enter parliament unless it can quickly turn things around.

Earlier this week the party’s leader and main lieutenant Shane Jones were in Northland making a number of funding announcements as government ministers. Jones had just announced he would be running for the Northland electorate – where victory could be a lifeline for the party should it fall under the 5% threshold. On Friday, NZ First decided to remind supporters how they much differ from Labour.

At the end of next week the government will be entering caretaker mode. With governing about to be put on pause, any legislation introduced in the coming days has little chance of becoming a law. Instead, it’s all about firing up the party base and creating publicity before voting begins in the weeks before September 19.

Darroch Ball, a list MP who sits at the back corner of NZ First’s block in parliament, will be tabling a member’s bill that would modify existing law and force police to remove the type of roadblocks that appeared during the Covid-19 crisis. Many of the checkpoints were manned by Māori groups concerned about the damage the virus could do in communities with restricted access to health care.

In a statement, Ball said the bill would protect the right to movement from “the whims of certain groups who think they know better than everyone else”. As a member’s bill, it doesn’t necessary reflect the government’s view, but member’s bills are rarely introduced without the consent of party leaders.

The construction of a light rail system in Auckland is one of the signature promises from Jacinda Ardern. The project is troubled, with no sign from the government on when construction will begin, what it’ll look like and who will build it.

RNZ reported this morning that Peters sent an email to transport minister Phil Twyford in February in which he said the government’s coalition partner wouldn’t back a proposal to build light rail from the city centre to the airport. While Twyford’s office confirmed it received the message, it declined to provide the email’s content.

RNZ reported that it was “understood” that Peters wrote in the email that he was unhappy with the cost and scale of the proposal, as well as the involvement of a large Canadian pension fund. The fund would be part of the financing, construction and possible running of the system.

The first part of the light rail system was supposed to be constructed by next year. The government has only publicly commented that negotiations are ongoing.

The sight of a crane winching the statue of Captain John Hamilton out of the eponymous city’s main square was met by cheers locally on Friday but led to a blast of outrage from Peters later in the day. “Why do some woke New Zealanders feel the need to mimic mindless actions imported from overseas,” said Peters in a statement.

He added that a self-confident, mature country doesn’t tear down its symbols and cautioned that cenotaphs could follow, along with bulldozers into the side of any school that once used the strap. Finally, Peters warned that Wellington’s bronze statue of Gandhi might go for a swim in the harbour.

Hamilton’s statue was pulled down as part of a wave of similar actions around the world, including in the US and UK. The removals are part of ongoing protests against police brutality that have expanded into a movement against racism and historic oppression.

Peters also said calls to remove statues of Captain Cook are “disgraceful”. In a wink to his party’s base delivered with the subtlety of an atom bomb, he said that New Zealand’s woke generation needs to “deal with it, grow up and read a book”.

With less than three months until voting begins, today brought a taste of the rhetoric to come.


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