Politics

I joined NZ First and went to their conference to find out what they’re really up to

The headlines don’t quite capture the core message of Winston Peters’ party, finds Branko Marcetic when he attends their pre-election conference.

Midway through the first day of the New Zealand First conference, the 300 or so assembled party members considered a remit put forward by the party’s South Hutt branch. It proposed that the party “tighten deportation rules and procedures and revoking [sic] NZ citizenship from multiple citizenship holders and serious criminal offences”.

This seemed like red meat for the party. New Zealand First, after all, is known for its social conservatism and its anti-immigration stances. And an identical law had been passed in Australia less than two years ago.

Yet a delegate stood to speak against it. Not only was the remit poorly worded, he said, but his wife was a dual-citizen, hailing from the United States. He couldn’t in good conscience support it. Another delegate joined him, insisting that once you’re a citizen, you’re a citizen.

A vote was taken and the remit was soundly defeated.

New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters at the Manukau conference on Sunday. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Later an amendment was put forward to a remit committing NZ First to protecting women and girls in the country from genital mutilation, with one delegate suggesting wording be added that committed the party to “extreme vetting” of migrants from certain regions, echoing the language of Trump. This amendment flopped too. It wasn’t even seconded.

Such episodes may seem minor, given the broad rhetorical thrust of the party and its leader. Yet for a political movement routinely compared to Trump and Brexit, the party’s apparent distaste for some of the harsher anti-immigration policies that have been instituted elsewhere was significant. It set the tone for a weekend that would see NZ First defy expectations in other ways.

To its supporters, NZ First is the only party that truly gives a damn about the average Kiwi, and its policies are born of fairness and common sense. To its detractors, it’s a hotbed of racism and intolerance that threatens to bring Trump-like authoritarianism to New Zealand.

In an attempt to cut through the noise and get a sense of what the party truly is about in 2017, I decided to immerse myself, and look at the party as an insider. I paid the $10 fee to join the party, and signed up to attend the conference — my first for any party — as an observer. The intention was not to indulge in “gotcha journalism” or attempt to lampoon other attendees, but to engage with and better understand the men and women that make up a party so often defined by sensational headlines.

The weekend gave me an insight into a party that is almost universally expected to hold the balance of power come September 24.

Despite the party’s association with anti-foreigner sentiment, immigration was rarely touched on across the weekend. In fact, if there was a prevailing theme weaving through the various speeches, discussions and debates at the 2017 conference, it was a steadfast opposition to neoliberal economics, a belief that New Zealand had gravely erred in the embrace of deregulation and globalised trade since the days of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.

New Zealand First has always stood for what might be termed economic nationalism — active government intervention in favour of ordinary and sometimes vulnerable Kiwis (with an emphasis on Kiwis, above all else). It’s right there in the name: New Zealand First. And you can see it in Peters’ signature implemented policy: the SuperGold Card for the elderly. Peters, after all, was originally a National MP who split with the party over the sharp right turn on economic issues it took in the early 1990s.

Although it continues to see itself as a party of the centre, the New Zealand First on display at the conference often sounded like it had been founded by Jim Anderton when it came to economic issues. The running theme was that New Zealanders are caught in the clutches of the unscrupulous, wealthy and often foreign; in the thrall of the failed post-1984 neoliberal experiment. The ordinary working Kiwi is getting shafted – particularly in the regions – runs the message.

In a campaign video shown to party members, with John Farnham (an Australian) blaring in the background, Peters told the audience he wouldn’t let New Zealand be dictated by “foreign ideologies and foreign economics”. It showed Peters touring often neglected parts of the country and chatting with locals over a beer.

The party’s MPs, swept into power with a surprise resurgence in 2014, hit the same note in their speeches. Fletcher Tabuteau railed against the economic inequality that had been “caused by a failed neoliberal order”, which had made business, not people, the centre of political conversation. It was time for “trickle-up economics”, said the MP, that would build an economy from the bottom up.

Denis O’Rourke complained that the National government had failed on housing and public transport, and bemoaned the state of Auckland’s transport infrastructure. Clayton Mitchell said that his reason for being in New Zealand First was the “growing gap in inequality”, and called for a renewed focus on getting workers “a fair day’s wage”. Ria Bond spoke about the urgency of taking better care of the mentally ill, a point that would be returned to again the next day in a guest speech by comedian Mike King.

Mahesh Bindra, the party’s spokesperson on corrections, called for the re-nationalisation of privatised prisons and for prisoners to be put to work in order “to earn their stay, like everyone else”.

Economic populism was evident in the party-wide debate over proposed remits. Among the remits approved:

  • “End the lip service to ‘Buy New Zealand-made’” and ensure central and local governments hire local contractors for work over foreign ones.
  • Look into setting up a version of the SuperGold Card for people with permanent disabilities.
  • Ensure future asset sales can only take place with a 75 percent binding referendum result.
  • Support a universal child allowance for every child 16 and under.

The last of those in particular is a potent symbol of NZ First’s move to occupy the left-of-centre ground. A universal (read: not means-tested) family allowance was originally instituted in 1946 by the First Labour Government, and was one of the defining elements of New Zealand’s postwar welfare state until its repeal by National in 1991. Its proposed re-introduction prompted lively debate among NZ First members.

The Wellington Central delegate who put forward the remit insisted on the universal aspect, saying it was “simple” and “more efficient”, and he was supported by a North Shore delegate who worked with families with young children.

One delegate, who had earlier identified himself as a mortgage broker, argued against the remit, saying that if people’s brains didn’t mature until they were 25, it didn’t make sense to give them free money to spend while they were kids. It prompted an impassioned reply from the delegate who had introduced the remit, who explained that the allowance wasn’t “money for kids to spend on lollies”, but rather went to families on their behalf.

“I will do everything I can to lift this country out of poverty,” the delegate emphatically told the party. “It is a scourge on us.”

Winston Peters’ customised chariot. Photo: Winston’s twitter

Although voting on the remit was close, it was ultimately carried. One delegate who had opposed the remit told me she had voted against it because she didn’t like that the universal aspect meant money would go to families who didn’t need any help.

Similarly, while NZ First is hardly renowned for its environmental policies, several remits related to environmental protection passed, including one to look into subsidising renewable energy installation in homes. Another called for a review of the strategy for minimising “contamination poisoning and unsustainability”.

“Our water policy needs a total review,” said the Waitaki delegate who introduced it. “Our clean and green image is in tatters.”

Another delegate supported the remit, though emphasised it wasn’t for the “climate change aspect”. Rather, he explained, access to clean water was an increasingly important global issue, particularly in China. Making sure our water was as clean as possible would give New Zealand the upper hand, geopolitically.

The sense of disenchantment and malaise the party is attempting to channel could be felt among the membership gathered in Manukau.

One delegate from the Bay of Plenty had been a Labour voter until 2009, at which point she switched to NZ First. She liked Helen Clark, she said, but thought John Key was a “liar” who just “looked after his rich friends.” She believed Labour had abandoned “the working man.”

“What happened to the working man, and to families?” she said.

She had a son who was 30 years old, and with a baby on the way, who was going to vote for the first time this year. He wanted to vote for NZ First, she said.

A younger delegate from Taupo had given an impassioned speech in favour of the “Buy New Zealand” remit. He related how an older member of his family had told him that, back in her day, the region had numerous sewing factories employing locals, factories that were now all gone.

“It would be nice to bring the factories back,” he said later. “Those bigwigs, they don’t care about us.”

A west Auckland delegate had been involved in the Labour party for 16 years, before switching to NZ First in 2014. What had prompted the shift?

“I started going to auctions, and seeing young New Zealanders unable to buy homes,” she said, adding pointedly. “There was always someone bidding over the phone.”

Many acknowledged that comparisons with the Trump effect had some merit – not just because of Trump’s ability to woo disenchanted voters, but because of the media’s constant dismissal of the businessman, which they believed paralleled the New Zealand media’s treatment of Peters.

That doesn’t mean they were necessarily Trump fans. Though one told me she supported “a lot of what Trump does”, another called him a “twit” who nonetheless had stumbled onto something profound.

It’s not surprising, then, that the party was adopting his language, from Peters’ dismissal of “fake news” in the campaign video played to the party, to Richard Prosser’s call to “make New Zealand great again”. A visceral dislike of the media was also clear throughout the event.

Consequently, the party was explicitly aiming to target the disaffected, particularly youth. One party member told me the party did particularly well among Māori in rural areas and young people outside of universities, and he had been telling Young NZ First to target their outreach at “students working in supermarkets or even those on the dole because they can’t find work”. At one point, party members were treated to a presentation about mobilising non-voters for the coming election, pointing out the tens of thousands of them who were young and unemployed, who could be potential New Zealand First voters.

Some of the younger attendees had a model other than Trump in mind: Jeremy Corbyn.

“I was one of those people who wrote Jeremy Corbyn off and I shouldn’t have,” said one. The strategy of his opponents, he reflected, like that of Hillary Clinton against Trump, was to point at him and say how bad he was, which never succeeds.

There were divisions. One was over a remit that proposed balloting surplus Landcorp farms to young Kiwi farmers (“The regions need this inspiration,” said a supporter). As Newsroom reported, while party members favoured the remit, they were split over whether to change the language to prevent those farmers from later selling the land to foreigners.

“New Zealand farmers are selling their farms to the Chinese or anyone else who has got the cash and the bully to tempt them into it,” complained deputy leader Ron Mark.

Others argued against removing language that specified the land would be balloted specifically to young Kiwi farmers. Hugh Fletcher was a New Zealander, one delegate pointed out, and he could simply buy up many of the farms using his enormous wealth. The debate showed the party caught between both its opposition to big business and to wealthy foreigners.

Another concerned a remit proposed by a young delegate that would have updated the Crimes Act to remove any gender-specific references in its definition of rape, allowing prosecution of male-on-male, female-on-male and female-on-female rape. The remit was ultimately defeated, but appeared not to be taken seriously by many party members.

“What gender are you?” someone asked the delegate as he prepared to introduce the remit. There was audible sniggering as the delegate explained the remit, and it was ultimately voted down on the basis that the wording was insufficiently precise. The delegate later said he didn’t understand why it had been defeated when “other remits were badly worded and they got voted in”.

One of the most significant divisions happened early in the conference, revolving mainly around the party’s traditionally race-neutral stance on policy. The disagreement concerned the wording of a remit that stated “that the Māori population, and indeed all New Zealanders, need and want” things like affordable housing and first-world wages.

One delegate said the specific reference to Māori undermined the party’s commitment to avoiding race-based policies, while another believed it “distracted” from the point of the remit.

Others disagreed. One said that the fact was that Māori were faring less well in educational and other statistics, and “it does us no goodwill to leave that out.”

“Am I getting a sense that tangata whenua aren’t being appreciated here?” asked a Māori delegate.

“You’re wrong,” someone cried out. Another Māori delegate also spoke out in favour of the more inclusive language, saying that “we’re different, we’re indigenous.”

“We’re all New Zealanders,” came the response.

“You’re in the wrong party,” someone else cried out.

Meanwhile, Ron Mark, who thought it was good someone had brought up the “elephant in the room”, registered his support for the language, and accused, somewhat counterintuitively, those who opposed it of political correctness. The amendment to remove the words ultimately failed, and the remit was passed as is.

One of the delegates who supported the language explained why she saw it as important. “My people, you’ve got to give them something, otherwise they won’t vote for us,” she said. “They all hate us. They say, ‘They rubbish us.’”

Although settled amicably, the complicated relationship with Māori remains for NZ First – a party which won a clean sweep of the Māori seats 21 years ago, and today wants to get rid of those electorates altogether – a potential fissure in the months to come.

The two-day conference culminated in a nearly 40-minute speech (which you can watch here, or read a partial transcript of — sans one-liners and certain off-script comments — here) by Peters on Sunday afternoon, addressing around 500 party members, supporters and curious onlookers. In many ways, the speech tied together the different political strands running through the conference, and emphasised the party’s more emphatic economic nationalism.

The party faithful cheer on their leader. Photo: NZ FIRST

While all of the media coverage of the speech focused on Peters’ pledge to hold referendums on eliminating Māori seats and reducing the size of parliament, as well as his promise to dramatically slash immigration, for someone who had witnessed the rest of the conference, there was no doubt what the key takeaway was: Peters’ full-throated denunciation of neoliberal economics.

Before coming to the stage, Peters was introduced with a speech that called for New Zealanders to “stand together and raise our voices to challenge forces of economic and social elitism that are working to steal our common wealth,” attacking “the merger of state and corporate powers,” criticising “those who manage and manipulate markets,” and bemoaning “the frittering away of freedoms in favour of private and corporate interests”. It sounded almost like something you would hear at a Bernie Sanders rally.

Peters’ speech continued this theme. “Some of us know what poverty smells, tastes and feels like,” he remarked, in between assailing the government for housing, mental health, education, policing and other policies that failed ordinary New Zealanders. He charged that “the poor have been bypassed and the middle-class have been left behind,” that “people are sick of worrying about bills,” that middle class families “were barely treading water”. Kiwis “want to know why as working men and women they are so damn poor.” He called National the “Robin Hood party in reverse” and railed against zero-hour contracts.

“People who have worked 50 years and paid some of the highest taxes in this country and any country ever saw, now hard up against it because of the experiment that started on the 14th of July 1984, that has surely failed,” he said, appearing to go off-script, and referring to the snap election that brought David Lange’s Fourth Labour Government into power, ushering in the era of Rogernomics.

Several party members could be heard audibly agreeing.

“The 33-year-old model of Douglas and Richardson is utterly broken,” he later said to more audible agreement.

“I’ll say it once more for my media friends over there,” he said. “The 33-year-old model of Douglas and Richardson and every acolyte after that is utterly broken.”

“Can you remember the slogan of 1987?” he added, apparently still extemporising. “They said, ‘You’ve had three years of pain, now you’re going to get three years of gain.’ And, 30 years later, we’re still waiting.”

Peters’ railing against post-1980s neoliberalism isn’t something he just introduced to the stump. As Bill Ralston pointed out last month, he’s been criticising the “neoliberal experiment” in front of other audiences. But as Ralston also (somewhat unwittingly) points out, it’s a significant departure from current New Zealand political orthodoxy, which since the 1980s has meant both major parties tacitly agree that Labour’s reforms in the 1980s are essentially permanent.

“For the past two decades, economic policy has been steady on its centrist course,” wrote Ralston. “Michael Cullen morphed almost seamlessly into Bill English who, in turn, has now evolved into Steven Joyce.”

Peters and the wider party behind him are striving to stake out a position as the only ones determined to defy this post-1980s consensus.

“The Greens and Labour and the National Party subscribe to it,” he said. “We do not — and we want a change.”

The line was met with cheers and applause.

Peters also used the speech to hammer on the theme of elitism, presenting New Zealand First as the only party that “was not too proud to associate with ordinary people,” because New Zealand used to be “the one country in the world where Jack was as good as his master.” He also laid into, at typically great length, his familiar bugbears of political correctness and immigration, warning of a “tsunami” of immigrants stretching public services and taking away assistance from more deserving New Zealanders.

But among these familiar topics, the emphatic rejection of neoliberalism and appeal to working New Zealanders were at the foreground of Peters’ speech. They may have been overlooked in most of the media coverage, but it is safe to assume this is the message the NZ First leader is delivering as he tours various parts of the country, visiting declining provinces blighted by unemployment, addiction and youth suicide. The appeal to the working poor and angry denunciations of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson are designed to be heard by these audiences.

Will that appeal continue to propel NZ First up in the polls? Columnists like Ralston think New Zealand enjoys too great a “calm and affluence” in a world buffeted by instability for something like a Trump or a Brexit to take hold here.

But provincial voters will get the final say on that. Trump defied similar assurances about the limits of his allure in the United States last year. And he did it by combining, like Peters, an anti-immigrant fervour with paeans to the “forgotten man” and angry denunciations of wealthy interests who control politicians like marionettes. Even if Trump’s actual policies once in office have betrayed the voters who put such faith in him, this was the platform that helped him flip once solidly Democratic, working-class states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

The view of NZ First from the inside may similarly help to explain Labour’s polling doldrums this election. It looks clear enough that many formerly reliable Labour voters have been swayed by the Winston Peters’ open rejection of the “neoliberal experiment”.

The seeds of New Zealand First’s current strategy and resurgence were sown in Peters’ shock win two years ago in the by-election for the usually solidly blue Northland seat. John Key at the time dismissed his campaign as a “stunt” to “create trouble,” and predicted he had “absolutely zero” chance of winning. Instead, Peters sailed to victory by more than 4,000 votes, running on a campaign emphasising regional neglect. Two local stalwart National voters at the time believed his win was “a protest vote” against National.

With the election still more than two months away, it’s too early to say whether Peters has a shot at pulling off a similar, nation-wide “protest vote”. Even at their current polling the balance of power is all but assured. But if NZ First continues to climb, commentators will likely look back to Peters’ win in Northland not as some kind of freak accident, but as a portent. Already the party’s gains, and Labour’s travails, have fed a welter of speculation about scenarios which could see Peters ending up as prime minister.

Perhaps the naysayers are right, and it’ll all amount to sound and fury. Having spent the weekend as a NZ First member, however, my guess is that the response among most of the party faithful to those who write them off would be: good – that’s what they always say, before we win.


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