a side view of Winston Peters speaking into a microphone on a stage, with a NZ First banner behind him
Winston Peters speaks to his followers at Mt Albert War Memorial Hall (Photo: Twitter; additional design by Archi Banal)

PoliticsJune 14, 2023

A very strange afternoon hanging with NZ First and Grey Power

a side view of Winston Peters speaking into a microphone on a stage, with a NZ First banner behind him
Winston Peters speaks to his followers at Mt Albert War Memorial Hall (Photo: Twitter; additional design by Archi Banal)

Grey Power hosted the relentless Winston Peters in Auckland as he warned of an election of unique peril. Duncan Greive was there. 

“Every election, they say we’re at a crossroads. It’s usually an exaggeration,” said Winston Peters. “This time, it’s true.” The indefatigable New Zealand First leader exhorted a couple of hundred superannuitants to get out and vote, if they loved their country – or wanted to save it. “This is the most critical election that any of us have ever faced,” he continued. “This country is at an inflection point. That is a point in our history that sees us either turning around these adverse developments or continuing straight to the third world.”

It was a gorgeous, crisp afternoon in Auckland, and aside from the doomy speech there was much in this situation which resembled a quaint, nostalgic window into New Zealand’s past. The crowd of around 200 had gathered at the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall, a beautiful modernist building amid a small, leafy park. The event was hosted by Grey Power, whose Auckland president somewhat unconvincingly told us that her organisation is “apolitical”. The crowd was largely composed of retirees, though there were a smattering of younger NZ First members sprinkled throughout. 

Peters, first elected to parliament in 1979 and desperate to get back after NZ First fell well short of the 5% threshold in the 2020 election, is a huge star to this community. He wore a crisp pin-striped suit and tie, and at 78 still has the rhetoric and charisma that has made him the great survivor of New Zealand politics. I sat in the front row, dead centre, alongside Kevin (he did not want to give his surname), a retired former banker who eyed me warily – “one of the big issues we have is reporting”, he said. When asked about the state of the country, he conceded he was “quite appalled with where we’re at”, which turned out to be about the most positive thing he had to say.

Peters ran through a 50-minute speech which traversed familiar issues – law and order, education, race relations, the treatment of seniors – some with well-worn phrases, others with a distinctly harder edge. “Total crime is up 33%. Violent offending is up 42%. Sexual offending is up 16%. Theft offences are up 49%. Ram raids – mostly committed by young people – were up last year by 465%.” I asked NZ First for sources for these statistics, and while Peters amiably answered the call, I did not receive a reply – however they seem accurate if taken from the low baseline of lockdown-impacted 2020. 

There was a particularly pointed section around break-ins at Michael Hill Jeweller stores, which played to our acute sense of inter-country competition. “Michael Hill Jewellers have 88 stores in Canada and one has been broken into. A hundred and sixty five stores in Australia and one has been broken into. They have 36 shops in New Zealand, and 44 break-ins.” Still, these were chilling numbers, and it was an impactful section of the speech.

Co-governance is the main course

From there he progressed to a quick interlude bashing the Auckland light rail project, benefit numbers and educational quality and attendance, before he moved onto what functioned as the main course – a long treatise on the treaty, and particularly co-governance. “The Labour government has been covertly, secretly producing and purging policies, which they never campaigned on during the last election,” he said. “They’re producing policies which randomly rewrite history.” 

The section lasted for almost 12 minutes, and you could feel the energy in the room shift. Peters knows his audience very well, and fed them line after line of fresh meat. He is uniquely well-placed to do this, by virtue of his identity as Māori, and he took care to frame the issue as one of huge concern to a shadowy elite cabal, while ordinary working Māori were more concerned with the cost of living and housing. 

He contrasted today’s reality with a story of high school rugby in Dargaville, where he grew up, when Pākehā and Māori faced off on the field, with Croatians making up the numbers of the indigenous side. It spoke to an idealised vision of New Zealand’s past, where there were no race relations problems and everything was worked out over a beer at the RSA. It’s a version of our history that the overwhelmingly Pākehā crowd keenly remembers, and Peters promises a return to it, if only he can wrest the mantle of kingmaker away from Te Pāti Māori.

He closed on some straight retail politics, hammering home his matchless record on policies which financially benefit seniors, before opening the floor to questions. It ran for 20 minutes or so, and functioned as a window into the preoccupations of the crowd – and showed that for all the baleful nature of his speech, if anything it underplayed the concerns of his audience.

an older woman with curly grey hair, wearing a grey t-shirt emblazoned with the words GREY POWER, stands against a wooden wall, with a honours board of names behind her
Grey Power’s Gillian Dance at Mt Albert War Memorial Hall (Photo: Duncan Greive)

The wisdom of crowds?

Despite a request for “questions, not statements”, most were lengthy and digressive. Someone wanted to know Peters’ views on the closure of the Marsden Point oil refinery (“We should never have allowed it”), another on whether referendums should be binding (“My party has always been a strong supporter of the use of referendum” – an elegant swerve).

A large majority concerned less technical issues. Someone wanted to know what his views were on “the climate change hoax”, despite the venue sitting adjacent to a set of shops which are still shut after the January floods. Another sought clarity on Peters’ views on “critical gender ideology”. He retorted “I know what a man is”, by way of reference to PM Chris Hipkins’ stumbling response during the Posey Parker affair, to thunderous applause. 

Yet afterwards he showed his political cunning, saying “I always believed the government has no business in the nation’s bedrooms”, which is an essentially pro-LGBTQ position, just with an appealingly small government wrapper. He again showed his deft touch in sidestepping a conspiratorial question about “ceding sovereignty” to the World Economic Forum. There is no other politician in New Zealand able to gain applause in addressing multiple contentious issues without ever quite uttering a line which goes beyond the range of acceptable political discourse.

A number of questions contained references to some variation on “unelected Māori in co-governance”, likely the most animating issue of the day. The first also contained an aside: “I’m wondering why the media are keeping quiet about it?” Perhaps more than any other issue, even co-governance itself, the useless, conniving media was a unifying preoccupation of the crowd.

There seemed to be a new frontier of hostility. Peters took care to stoke it by reference to the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF), a temporary and relatively minor spending programme currently in its waning days, but one which is widely believed by a subset of New Zealanders to be a giant bribe from Labour to mainstream media. 

The PIJF is not uncomplicated, and its terms probably contained some overreach, but the consensus among newsroom bosses is that its impact, both financial and editorial, is massively overstated. Peters knows what his audience wants though, and described it in stark terms: “They’ve been bought off. They took $54 million in a contract with the government not to criticise them.” (The PIJF represented roughly 1% of media industry revenues during the period it operated – hardly enough to justify refusing to criticise the government over; besides, there’s the fact all media companies do that every day.)

Still, Peters’ line brought one of the loudest ovations of the day, and it is essentially taken as uncontroversial truth by thousands of New Zealanders. Thus it has had a profound impact on trust with news media among some – including Kevin, who I chatted with after Peters finished up. He was satisfied by the speech, but when I asked him about his views on New Zealand’s media, his attitude turned. 

A man with a long grey beard, wearing a wide-brimmed hat secured beneath his chin, sunglasses a jacket, a backpack and camo trousers, talks to a man in a suit behind a desk
A supporter in conversation with a New Zealand First party member at the event (Photo: Duncan Greive)

Kevin and Lois

Kevin said he has entirely stopped consuming any mainstream media, including the 6pm news. “The minute they start gibbering away at me in Māori, I turn it off, and yell ‘fuck you!’ at the TV,” he says. He now gets most of his news from Facebook, which has vastly decreased the volume of news it distributes from mainstream sources lately. Kevin also complains that journalists have “tried to change the name of our country without telling us”, and tells me, very wrongly, that accepting PIJF funding required news organisations to hire “Māori journalists and tranny journalists”. 

Gender identity is also a big part of what has drawn Lois Griffiths, a 74-year-old housewife from West Auckland. She’d just signed up to join NZ First – despite never having been a member of any party before – on the back of Peters’ speech, part of a steady stream of new recruits lining up at the trestle tables. Griffiths presented as a sweet older lady, the grandma next door, with a pageboy bob and disarming smile. Things quickly took a dark turn.

“I came along because I’m so worried about New Zealand, with all the evil that’s going on,” she said. Asked to specify, she said “Woke. Covid. Vaccines, which I believe are not vaccines at all, but are killing people. I never got the vaccine.” I asked how that impacted her life. “The closest family I’ve got now is a niece, and she didn’t want to see me at Christmas.” Her late husband’s family have also rejected her due to her unvaccinated status, she said.

Asked to expand on her problem with a perceived turn toward woke culture, Griffiths said “I would describe it as an evil, as a Christian. People changing their sex. Telling God he made a mistake.” She said her son is transgender, living in Australia and estranged from her. Later she said she thought I was from Counterspin – the aggressively conspiratorial anti-vax media outlet – not The Spinoff.

While Peters earlier avoided explicitly pandering to this worldview, spend time with his audience and you come away thinking that that general sense of disenfranchisement from society that welled up into the parliamentary protest is more baked in than we might have anticipated. And that Peters is as well-placed as anyone to corral some parts of it into yet another parliamentary comeback. 

A Sri Lankan man in a checked shirt and brown jacket stands in front of a pyramid-shaped modernist building and a row of leafless trees
Ranjith Da Silva outside the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall (Photo: Duncan Greive)

The boots on the ground

Still, there were some much more agreeable attendees. I met Ranjith Da Silva and Gillian Dance, packing up at the end of the event. Dance is president of Auckland Grey Power, and seemed largely indifferent to any politics of NZ First outside of those which directly impact seniors. Da Silva is a Sri Lankan New Zealander, who emigrated here in the late 90s. “I came looking for a better life, for my family and my children.” He said he found it. He became a member of NZ First in 2010, and now oversees five electorates.

He said he buys Peters’ thesis that the country is at a turning point. He has fears for “one country, one law”, said “crime rates are going up” and is no fan of Labour’s economic policy. Neither Dance nor Da Silva made any mention of gender identity, te reo Māori or vaccines. They strike you as fairly typical examples of more conservative voters, with their concern for the country’s direction and the welfare of the group they identify most closely with: retirees. 

Yet their restrained perspectives seemed in the minority at this meeting. Questions from the floor and conversations with attendees revealed a very troubled view of New Zealand. Even by the standards of NZ First, which has always been haunted by what it perceives as forces working to damage the country they grew up in, this was a worried, angry crowd. 

Their views, to be clear, diverge from Peters’, in some cases markedly. Yet they were out in force at this rally and Peters, the most consistently formidable campaigner of modern times, will meet them the length and breadth of the country. To make it back into parliament, he will likely need to find a way to turn their fury into his votes.

Keep going!