Politics

Winston Peters is plotting to eat Labour’s lunch. And it’s working

In a followup to his report as an embedded NZ First member at the party’s conference, Branko Marcetic looks at how the Winston Peters bus is going through the gears and gives his take on the party’s prospects.

The New Zealand First Party tends to be more associated in the public mind with mobility scooters and rest homes than Tinder and flatting. So as a 27-year-old, I wasn’t exactly the typical demographic most people imagine when they think of NZ First members. And as a non-native-born New Zealander, the party’s anti-immigrant bent would hardly suggest its conference as the place I would choose to hole myself up for most of last weekend. But in order to get a proper sense of the party and its members, it was very much worth it.

All around the conference in south Auckland, there was a palpable sense of excitement. After the electoral wipeout of 2008, followed by clawing back over the 5 percent threshold in 2011 and improving further in 2014, there was a general feeling the party was destined for even greater heights this year, buoyed by electoral trends in the rest of the world. Party members milled about, chatting excitedly.

For the briefest of moments, you could spot Jan Trotman, Peters’ partner, in the convention hall. Trotman, who is rarely seen or heard whether among the party or in the public, is acknowledged within the party as being akin to an invisible co-leader. One delegate said she was reputed to not only steer Peters’ enormous bus around the country, but to co-write his speeches amid a host of other integral tasks. At the end of the conference, a delegate asked the assembled members to give her a round of applause in praise for her work for the party, and her assistance to Peters, given that “he is the party.”

I stuck out. For one, I was a new member who didn’t know anyone. During the conference, attendees were seated with the other members of their local electorate committees. Naturally, the members of my electorate were puzzled to see me there, as I had never been to one of their meetings.

Winston Peters and his bus. Photo: Winston’s twitter

My age and appearance – I look younger than my late-20s – also made me something of a curiosity to my fellow attendees.

“It’s always good to see you young ones getting involved,” one delegate approached to tell me.

“That’s good,” another said when I told her I was older than I looked. “We have a lot of young people, and we have a lot of older people, but we don’t have many in between.”

This was in fact one of the more striking conclusions you reached when you looked around the conference: for all the stereotyping of NZ First as the party of Grey Power, there were indeed a surprising number of young people.

There was of course the contingent of Young NZ First, who had carried out the grunt work in setting up the conference and had a prominent place in the day’s proceedings, giving a presentation on their campaign efforts to the attendees. The idea of a NZ First youth wing might have seemed laughable a few years back, yet there were upwards of a dozen of its members milling about and at times getting involved in discussion.

There were also younger people who weren’t members of the party but were attending out of curiosity. A couple of them, university-age, compared Winston Peters to Jeremy Corbyn and told me that while people said NZ First was a centre party, they believed it was actually left-wing.

This generational divide was clear at times in the discussions over remits. It was a younger delegate who had helped start the party’s official youth wing a few years earlier who put forward the remit to update the Crimes Act’s language on rape, which the rest of the party didn’t appear to take seriously. And it was a youth wing member who objected to a remit that called for parents to be notified and included in medical and mental health decisions of their children until they turned 18 (the remit was carried).

The members I spoke to had a diverse political background. Many had been party faithful from the beginning. One had been a member of the ideologically similar Social Credit, before Peters started NZ First. Another had been with Graham Capill’s Christian Heritage. Perhaps more ominously for the major parties in this election, one I spoke with was previously a member of National, while several had been longtime Labour supporters.

The diversity wasn’t present only in their political backgrounds. While the party is hardly the picture of a rainbow coalition, the conference was far from the lily white affair many likely picture when they think of NZ First. A number of the delegates were Indian, including Mahesh Bindra, the party’s corrections spokesperson. Deputy leader Ron Mark proudly told attendees that Bindra knew more MPs on a personal basis in the Indian parliament than there even existed in New Zealand – “not bad for a bunch of xenophobes and racists”, he said with a broad smile.

There was also a significant number of Māori delegates. On the one hand, this might seem surprising, given the party’s steadfast rejection of race-based policies and denunciation of “separatism”. On the other hand, both Peters and Marks are Māori, as is new recruit Shane Jones, and the party’s existence was once predicated on winning the same Māori seats it now wants to abolish.

At times this led to friction, as in the debate over whether or not to strike out language in a proposed remit that gave special mention to Māori. But it was clear some members saw no conflict between their ethnicity and the party’s stances. One delegate told me that the young Māori she knew weren’t part of an iwi, and in fact resented iwi because they didn’t share their wealth out among the broader Māori population.

And despite the party’s anti-immigration reputation, my strange, foreign name didn’t arouse any ill-will. Party members were friendly and happily chatted with me throughout the two-day conference. At one point I was even offered a freelance writing job, for one delegate’s independent newspaper. Most of the writing, he told me, was outsourced to writers in India, because it was too expensive to pay Kiwi writers.

The party’s relative diversity is clearly something its members relish, given the frequent accusations of racism lobbed their way. During his speech on the Sunday, Peters delighted in needling the other parties over what he claimed was their lack of racial diversity while they accused NZ First of racism, calling it a “case of do as I say, not do as I do”.

Leader Winston Peters at the 2017 New Zealand First Convention in Manukau. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

The leader’s 40-minute paean to the working poor, declining middle class and a country buckling under the devilish hat-trick of unsustainable immigration, political correctness and 30 years of neoliberalism, capped off the two-day event. It was as pure a distillation as you’re ever going to get of Peters’ multi-decade success and survival in politics, and his current resurgence.

Peters understands the travelling medicine show aspect of politics, and added a performer’s touch – even a sense of festivity – to his speech. He kicked things off by holding up two newspapers, which he singled out for abuse and praise over op-eds they had published (shades of his infamous “NO” sign in 2011). He talked to the crowd, insulted his opponents, went off-script, and made humourous asides, always followed by that cheeky, boyish grin. He talked about the “shiny bums” in Wellington, the “latté sippers” in Auckland and the “fart blossoms” in the media. And when the time came to talk about the reforms of the 1980s and the plight of poor and middle-class Kiwis, he summoned a zeal that only he can.

Unlike other party leaders, Peters clearly has no interest in appearing what the media tends to view as “stable” or “reasonable”, but so often comes across as staid and dull. Like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders, he’s aiming to channel the anger of the ordinary working person, and aim it at venal politicians who “work for the few, but not for you”. The net result, not unlike with Trump, is that even if you despise Peters, you’ll watch his speech because you know it will be entertaining. How many neutrals would willingly subject themselves to an address by Andrew Little or Bill English?

While a feeling of general disdain towards the other parties was on display throughout the weekend, it often seemed there was a special ire reserved for National. Party members said they were “trying to get National out” and frequently mentioned their dislike of John Key and Bill English, and the policies their governments had enacted. As part of his speech, Peters talked about the need for honest politicians, and began listing various National names, from English down to Nick Smith, asking the crowd if they would trust them with their house keys. “No!” came the emphatic reply with every name listed. This hostility toward National among the membership may make for some awkward intra-party discussion should the caucus decide to enter into a coalition with National.

As I’ve written about previously, Peters’ speech – and indeed, the party’s focus as a whole – seems designed to target the disaffected section of the public that would have once flocked to Labour, but is uninspired by today’s iteration of the party. Hence it was Peters paying tribute to the ordinary working Kiwi and launching repeated, angry broadsides against neoliberal economics – an attack he pointedly stressed for the media – and hence the party’s members are pushing for policies at times swiped from the first Labour government.

Compare this to the approach of the Labour Party, which seems headed toward another crushing electoral result. It’s not hard to make the case NZ First is animating voters that might have once gone for Labour by projecting an untrammelled anti-neoliberal message.

Labour’s campaign to date has lacked any real alternative vision to rally potential voters to its flag. Unlike Peters, who is angrily painting a picture of a country in decline and offering as a solution the rollback of neoliberalism, Labour’s “Fresh Approach” slogan all but implies that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. As one op-ed charged, the party is essentially “promising not to change too much”. Meanwhile its policies, however well-meaning, are often overly complicated, failing to excite the ordinary Kiwi voter, and contrasting with the popular, universal benefits the party enacted under Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser.

When NZ First put forward a proposal to wipe student loans, Labour joined National to dismiss such a scheme as fiscally unachievable. It famously signed a budget responsibility pledge even as polling by Roy Morgan suggested barely any New Zealanders care about government spending, and are instead most worried about house prices, homelessness, poverty and inequality — issues that should be Labour’s natural territory. By contrast, Peters has rejected such spending limits for his own party.

Perhaps NZ First’s resurgence won’t end up being as dramatic as it now appears. A lot can change in two months, including Labour’s poll numbers. But as Labour scrambles to capture voters’ imagination, it may yet ask itself how the party of workers allowed an ex-lawyer from Auckland’s St Mary’s Bay to steal its shtick.

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