NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsJune 22, 2021

Sorry, Grim Reaper. New Zealand First is alive and kicking

NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
NZ First leader Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Winston Peters is up for the fight. A new president is ready to go. If NZ First can avoid the mire of the culture war and deliver a positive message, there’s life in the party yet, writes Josh Van Veen, a NZ First supporter and former parliamentary researcher to Winston Peters.

New Zealand First refuses to die. With just 2.6% of the vote in 2020 its obituary was all but written on election night. Many voters may have forgotten it exists. But over the weekend, around 150 delegates gathered in Auckland for the party’s annual convention. There was an unequivocal, unapologetic and unrelenting commitment to carry on the spirit of NZ First.

It was a decision made clear on Sunday afternoon in an impassioned speech by the leader. Winston Peters returned to form with a broadside against “woke” elites who, he said,  support racial separatism and perpetuate “cancel culture”. Of course, Peters’ speech was the main event for journalists. But it was the election of a new president and a younger board that will define what happens next.

Former parliamentary staffer Julian Paul, 33, was elected to the presidency unopposed. Young and Māori, with a lifelong commitment to NZ First, he is one of the true believers. He is part of a troika that kept the party going in the bleak aftermath of October 17. The other two members are former MP and acting president Darroch Ball, and secretary-general Holly Howard. Between them, they have reinvigorated the membership and re-established the party infrastructure that will give NZ First a fighting chance. 

According to Newsroom, Peters does not have much time for the new party president. This may be so but Peters has not survived this long in politics without making compromises and working alongside those he does not warm to. In any case, if there was a rift between Peters and the party, it was not evident over the weekend. The trait Peters values most it is loyalty, and Paul has demonstrated that in spades. At the very least he has won over Shane and Dorothy Jones, who remain close to Peters. Mrs Jones was also elected to the board.

It would be a mistake to think that there are no internal divisions, however. An ideological tension has been present since the party’s inception, a reflection of the fact that its original membership came from both Labour and National. During the last parliamentary term this was manifest in the divergent views of Tracey Martin and Clayton Mitchell. While Martin proposed a universal family benefit, for example, Mitchell opposed fair pay agreements.

Neither Martin nor Mitchell are with the party now. But that tension between old-fashioned social democracy and conservatism remains. It is a challenge that Paul and the new board are mindful of. They know that NZ First must never be pigeonholed as “left” or “right” and it will need to rise above the culture war if it is to win back centrist voters. The fatal error in 2020 was to go negative on Labour and appeal to a reactionary sentiment that simply was not there.

It remains to be seen whether Peters himself can offer a more positive vision. He has certainly got it in him. While much of his speech was a diatribe against “Ngāti Woke” and his many enemies, there was more to it than that. “We have been the voice of hundreds of thousands of forgotten New Zealanders when no other party would stand up for them against the system,” Peters declared near the end. He desired a country that was “secure, free, and equal”.

Indeed, fairness and equality of opportunity were recurring themes throughout the speech. But in typical Peters’ fashion this was often couched in negative language.  “Some of us – and I want to say this to you in the media – are sick and tired of your paternalism!” He shouted at one point. “Some of us think that everyone is equal! Some of us think that given the tools, the equipment, the chance, the education and the encouragement we can be as good as anybody! That’s our idea of equality!”

Of course, he was talking about the He Puapua agenda. As a Māori, it is clear that Peters has no tolerance for “Critical Race Theory” or the demonisation of Pākeha. Anyone who knows him can attest that Peters sincerely believes in Martin Luther King Junior’s dream of a world where one is not judged for the colour of their skin “but by the content of their character”. It is what most New Zealanders would understand to be anti-racism. 

But a negative framing is unlikely to inspire the more than 100,000 voters who abandoned NZ First in 2020. A recent study published in the academic journal Political Science dispels the myth that NZ First voters are reactionary. American political scientist Todd Donovan analysed survey data going back to 1996 and compared trends in support for NZ First with right-wing populist parties around the world, including the US Republican Party. Donovan found no relationship between right-wing ideology and support for NZ First. 

In fact, its traditional supporters are probably much closer to the “median voter” than Labour and National strategists are comfortable with. Those who had gravitated to NZ First in 2011-17 were looking for security and a positive vision of the future amid global chaos. In the end it was Jacinda Ardern who fulfilled that need. It explains why a poll in the lead up to election day found that 43% of 2017 NZ First voters intended to vote for Labour; a finding supported by data from TVNZ’s Vote Compass. 

In an interview with Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB yesterday, Peters settled any doubt that he intends to run in 2023. He’d be there, “God willing, if I’m fit and motivated.” It is the closest the 76-year-old has ever come to acknowledging his political mortality. But the impression he gave to members behind closed doors on the weekend was that of a man determined to see NZ First outlive him. Throughout the proceedings he offered counsel, comment and even the occasional grammatical correction.

While much has been made of Shane Jones as a potential successor it appears that Jones is more comfortable in his role as a loyal lieutenant – for now. He and wife Dorothy played a crucial role in organising the convention, which Peters is said to have praised as the most successful in NZ First history. If Peters does choose to bow out, Jones will likely have the support of the party rank and file which he previously lacked as an outsider. 

The main challenge for the new party president and his team will be to convince their leader that NZ First must offer an alternative to the culture war, not partake in it. If they can do that NZ First is poised for its most audacious comeback yet.

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