A tale of two conferences

Tim Murphy drove up and down the Southern Motorway in Auckland at the weekend between the Greens and New Zealand First party conferences, watching two groups who are worlds apart but possibly facing a shotgun marriage.

Walk into the Green Party's annual conference and you are surrounded by love hearts. Green ones. Little ones assembled into the shape of New Zealand behind the speaker's dais. Big ones carrying the new campaign slogan Great Together for the audience to hold up during the speeches. "Love Heart -NZ" icons on the podium and the Kiwi-made T shirts on sale in the foyer.

Walk into the New Zealand First annual conference and you are confronted by a larger than life banner of.... Winston Peters, a stall selling old-time black and white rosettes and New Zealand First T-shirts made in China. (For good measure, there's a man at the main doors selling the biography of Peters by Ian Wishart).

The contrasts are too easy. The superficial observations too obvious. But take time to soak up the vibe and listen and watch the people at both venues, and the contrasts are no less real.

The people who make up these two parties are, really, like oil and water. I imagine the Greens would claim the water part of that analogy and New Zealand First is coloured black.

Should Labour and the Greens combine to do well enough to be contenders for government they will most likely need to negotiate from September 24 with Peters' party. It would be unpalatable for both sides, but not impossible. 

New Zealand First certainly won't be condescended to. Peters repeatedly hit out during his speech at people "who think they are better than us. These shiny bums in Wellington and latte sippers in Auckland think the people in the regions are thick. They think their BA in social sciences means their opinion is better than that of a tradesman or woman."

His people would probably have noted that the Greens' conference venue was at a university (AUT). They would have probably condescended in their own way at those cute little green love hearts everywhere, the greetings in Te Reo at the beginning of presentations and that "Great Together" slogan.

Peters had a go, telling his team New Zealand First came up with "Together for New Zealand" for its bus tour, then National came out with "Let's Get Together" and finally the Greens had followed along.

"Great Together? What, when, who, and where? Not a syllable, not a sound, not a murmur."

The Greens might have noticed a delegation in the New Zealand First crowd sporting white stetsons, alongside the party's deputy leader Ron Mark in a black one and dapper black cowboy boots. They would have seen a more conservative crowd, formally dressed for a business-style meeting of old, many in black and wearing ties. And a vigilant group of younger men, in their Sunday-best like a phalanx of Destiny Church ushers. 

In a stereotyping nutshell: Mansplaining local government types, ex-cops and military men - to the Greens' artists, social campaigners and environmentalists.

The New Zealand First crew, had they been flies on the wall at AUT, would have noticed just how very white/Pākehā/Palagi the Greens' conference audience appeared. Not universally, of course, but enough to prompt Peters to guess on the evidence of the Greens list that: "The Greens are largely white and don't have a Pasifika person until you trawl down to number 19".

Anticipating Green and progressive criticism of New Zealand First's views on race and ethnicity, he said: "It is a case of do as I say, not do as I do."

New Zealand First is no Pākehā bastion. Peters himself, and his original Tight Five Māori MPs mean the party has had obvious Māori representation throughout its life; its conference evidenced a range of ethnic backgrounds, from Pasifika to Indian.

Self-effacingly, Peters said "We've even got Scottish and Irish people... well, nobody's perfect."

The New Zealand First conference venue was the Vodafone Pacific Events Centre in Manukau. It was the bigger gathering of the two, at up to 300 delegates to the Greens' 250, with a big carpark and a big bus and a big black BMW four-wheel drive with Peters' name on its side parked out front.

The New Zealand First roadshow. Photo: Tim Murphy

The meeting looked professional, well-funded. It was smartly produced (with Peters' partner Jan Trotman directing the audio visual effort for his Sunday afternoon entry and speech) but seemed to run out of agenda items at times, and juggled the scheduling of guest speakers and business items. It fell back for large chunks of the sessions on discussions on remits from the electorates, with people from Taupo, or Clutha-Southland, or Tauranga, or Whangarei popping up and exercising their political itch.

It was politics in the raw, and politics of a sort the major parties have done away with at their major conferences.

In contrast, the Greens opened themselves to little media or public scrutiny. The two main sessions at which co-leaders James Shaw and Metiria Turei spoke were open; almost everything else was behind closed doors. There was no indication on the conference agenda of remits, or policy ideas being debated. It was a slick, digital, stage-managed affair. A little bit of Chlöe Swarbrick here, a bit of Hayley Holt there.

The Greens weren't that young (there are plenty of boomer and ageing activists); New Zealand First not that old (there was an unexpectedly large number of Young NZ First members on show).

It would have been in what they discussed, however, that the groups would've had difficulty gelling. 

New Zealand First deputy leader Ron Mark spoke proudly of his party's history in standing up for lawful gun owners against those who would infringe their rights to hunt; lamenting the sneering by some at those like him with a military background; Peters painted the Greens into an economic triumvirate with National and Labour in backing the neoliberal policy settings of the past 30 years (presumably due to the Greens' fiscal pact with Labour); remits sought to tighten rules for those holding multi-citizenship who committed crimes and so on. Peters' speech was long on justification for his party's anti-immigration stance, its rejection of special treatment under the Treaty of Waitangi, and the madness of paying for carbon credits as a penance for greenhouse gases for which NZ First would have better, Kiwi answers.

The Greens' views on farms and pollution, on the Treaty, on Te Reo, on giving all beneficiaries a 20 percent pay rise, on identity politics, and many more would be anathema on several levels to the conservative, nationalistic, them-and-us party down the road.

The way the audiences reacted to their leaders was also distinct. Turei's speech on poverty and family policies was to an audience crackling with cheers, applause, ovations and aroha. Possibly egged on by the presence of the television cameras, but palpably enthusiastic.

Peters' speech just 25 minutes later saw him welcomed warmly to some kind of synthesised choral music but given a standard reception and only the obligatory standing ovation at the end. They wanted to hear it, in a polite, Rotary kind-of way. Bugger the cameras.

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