Will the appeal to regional New Zealand and a pitch centred on reviving the economically interventionist state bear fruit for NZ First, asks former National Party cabinet minister Wayne Mapp.
Is this going to be the year of Winston Peters, just as it was in 1996? The New Zealand First leader increasingly looks as though he will hold the balance of power come September 23, and able to go either left or right, in a repeat of 21 years ago.
Thinking about Peters has led me recently to recall my first serious interest in elections. It was 1969, when National campaigned on the National Development Conference. I grew up in a small rural community, Reporoa, on a soldiers’ rehabilitation farm, which was a true exemplar of positive government investment to promote growth and provide opportunity to young families. Power cuts were frequent as the country struggled with the demands of growth and modernisation. The newspapers were full of political ads describing infrastructure progress.
Power was the centerpiece, with the Benmore dam, the Manapouri project and the associated aluminium smelter at Tiwai point, and the chain of Waikato River dams. There was also the Glenbrook steel mill, the Marsden Point oil refinery and the Taranaki gas field developments. You could not help but think the country was forging ahead into modernity.
These were all developments that occurred under a National government. A government that saw it had an active role in pushing ahead major economic developments. This was done for the overall benefit of the economy but also for its own private enterprise supporters.
How does this apply to Winston Peters in the 21st century?
Winston came to maturity during the Holyoake era, a period that still has resonance for many on the conservative side. The politics of national development had an echo in Muldoon’s Think Big projects. Winston was, and is, a convert of this type of direct government investment. He has always been an admirer of Muldoon, both the man and his vision.
Of late Winston has been reciting the mantra of the failed neoliberal experiment of the last 33 years. It is both heartfelt and cynical. He knows it is a trigger to gain support from voters on the left. But it is also intended to convey a time when government was expected to take an activist role in developing the economy, rather than just providing the macroeconomic settings. It is less the detail of the reforms of the last 33 years that concerns Peters; rather, he is conveying a sense there is more policy choice than is typically offered to the electorate.
These same imperatives can be seen in the New Zealand First leader’s regional tour. He is promising the regions direct government investment to grow their economies. From roads to rail, and traditional agricultural industry NZ First has made these economic priorities. These priorities are principally oriented toward the regions. The major metropolitan cities are not seen to need infrastructure investment beyond what is already committed by the current government. If New Zealand First is in government, the regions will get at least some of these things as a direct result of coalition deals.
Traditional infrastructure that is not directly provided by the market has always been the domain of government. Roading and rail electrification are par excellence in this category. For the National government, the major infrastructure investment has been heavily dominated by urban interests. The Central Rail Link in central Auckland, the Waterview Tunnel, the extension of the motorway north to Wellsford and south to Cambridge is primarily about Auckland. Similarly, Transmission Gully and the Kapiti Expressway are all about Wellington.
But what about regional New Zealand?
Obviously there has been some infrastructure expenditure, but nothing transformative.
Winston has said that a bottom line is rail to Marsden Point. Logically, such a demand would also extend to a four-lane highway from Auckland to North Port, and why not also to his old stamping ground of Tauranga. This would open Northland’s economic potential and transform the lower Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. Marsden Point could become New Zealand’s major port along with Tauranga. Auckland gets the collateral benefit of being able to transform its waterfront.
This brings us to the central question of this election. How is the electorate, particularly in the regions, responding to New Zealand First’s appeal to the traditional role of government as it existed 50 years ago? Current polls show New Zealand First at 10% or so. Typically polls have understated how well the party does on election day. There is a sense of momentum with New Zealand First.
In this election Winston Peters is clearly the most charismatic leader among the leaders of the four main parties, and getting a level of media attention that reflects that fact. It would not be surprising if New Zealand First finishes above 15%. In that case Winston will get many more of his bottom lines than would be typically expected. The result will be a more interventionist and active government in economic development than we have been used to. For many in the regions that will be exactly what they want.