Politics

NZ First hits 25 - but where next?

This week marks the 25th anniversary of New Zealand First, a party which has had three stints in power under Winston Peters. The party has survived personality clashes, sackings and a stint in the political wilderness - but where does it go next?

In July 1993, Winston Peters stood in front of a crowd at Auckland’s Alexandra Park Raceway to announce the formation of a new political party.

No candidates were named, no policy specifics revealed, but there was a name: New Zealand First.

Twenty-five years later, Peters is the Deputy Prime Minister for a second time, in the party’s third stint in government.

It has survived clashes of egos, sackings and resignations, and a three-year stint in the political wilderness - but where does it go next?

NZ First or Winston First?

Speaking to Newsroom, Peters says the years have flown by, with the party’s members and officials working hard to overcome “enormous activity and a lot of difficulty”.

“We’ve got people who have worked for us for the full 25 years - now their sons and daughters are.”

Api Dawson, a former director of operations for New Zealand First who worked with the party for over a decade, says the party’s 25th anniversary is particularly impressive given it fell out of Parliament in 2008 following the Owen Glenn donation scandal.

“To hold things together for those three years then come back together [at the 2011 election], it’s remarkable.”

Peters puts New Zealand First’s longevity down to the fact that it has kept the promise in its name, “putting our country first”.

“There’s a certain element of the population that would vote for him even if he was strangling puppies - they’d say the puppies deserved it.”

However, it’s obvious to most where the real secret to the party’s appeal lies.

Dawson says there is “no other component or ingredient” to its success other than Peters himself, using an analogy reminiscent of Donald Trump’s brag he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing votes.

“There’s a certain element of the population that would vote for him even if he was strangling puppies - they’d say the puppies deserved it.”

Tuariki Delamere, who was among 17 MPs in the party’s class of 1996, believes there is no other politician in New Zealand history close when it comes to the intensity of Peters’ appeal to voters.

“It’s not loyalty to New Zealand First - it’s loyalty to Winston.”

Peters’ strength, says Dawson, is that he is one of the few people in New Zealand politics who genuinely enjoys the rigours of an election campaign.

A former New Zealand First staffer, who did not want to be named, also acknowledges Peters’ “good strategic brain”, adding that he has, for better and worse, exerted total control over the party since its inception.

“He’s a micromanager simply because I think he’s learned that’s the way things work best for him - no one makes decisions but Winston.”

Any New Zealand First MPs lining up to replace Winston Peters could be waiting a while longer. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Dawson describes the party’s philosophy as “conservative economic nationalism”, a grab bag of ideas from both the left and the right.

Some have called Peters the last of the Muldoonists, while the man himself says the party advocates for “responsible capitalism, capitalism with a human face”.

However you care to describe the party’s ideology, it’s clear that it has changed little in 25 years.

As the former staffer says, Peters has succeeded not only because of his charisma but because he’s “stuck to his knitting”: advocating for seniors, railing against foreign ownership, calling for immigration cuts, and bashing big corporates.

While Peters is New Zealand First’s biggest asset, Dawson says he is also the party’s weakest link as it seeks to bring new members into the fold.

“One of the main barriers to vote growth for New Zealand First is Winston: basically all the voters know Winston, there’s no name recognition problem, and all those voters ... have a strong opinion of him either way, so there’s not much chance of bringing much more people over to the cause.”

A new face could bring in new voters, Dawson says, although some Winston loyalists could drop off as a result.

Delamere is less optimistic, believing the party is gone once Peters is, and he’s not alone in that view.

No one-man band - Peters

Unsurprisingly, Peters rejects any suggestion the party is a one-man band, pointing to events organised by party officials around the country, including in Southland this week.

“That’s what makes a political party, no one person can do that, and we have that capacity all over the country, and we still do pack the halls - we don’t get the publicity of other parties but we get the real barometer test of whether there’s consumer demand for the product that we have in politics.”

The key issue for any post-Peters party would be which leader it chooses.

The obvious candidates include the ever-colourful Shane Jones, charged with dispensing the Government’s billion-dollar regional fund, and New Zealand First deputy Fletcher Tabuteau, who has been a member of the party since its creation.

Former deputies Ron Mark and Tracey Martin may also have designs on the top job, but most feel that nobody in the current caucus can quite fill Peters’ shoes.

“I don’t see anyone there at the moment that can do what Winston is able to do - he might be a one-off in New Zealand history,” the former staffer says.

“Winston loves Parliament, he loves politics, and he’s in good health as well ... there’s no reason for him to give up politics at the moment so he simply won’t,” Dawson says.

Of course, making it past the 2020 election - even with Peters - is no given.

The party has never made it past one term in government, and has generally won between four and nine percent of the vote for most of its existence (its high point remains the first MMP election in 1996, at 13.35 percent).

With a “base” of between two and a half to three percent, Dawson says, Peters and his team rely on peeling off voters from elsewhere - hence the usual dance about which party it will go with after the election.

Despite seemingly tethering himself to a young Labour government, Peters could still go with National at the next election if circumstances made it the right decision, Dawson says.

While Peters says he hasn’t yet decided his plans beyond this term, both Dawson and the former New Zealand First staffer believe he will contest the 2020 election.

“Winston loves Parliament, he loves politics, and he’s in good health as well ... there’s no reason for him to give up politics at the moment so he simply won’t,” Dawson says.

'Better shape than for an awfully long time'

The Deputy PM has recently taken to citing the electoral success of new Malaysian Prime Minister, 93-year-old Mahatir Mohamad, as a sign of the benefits of political longevity.

Does that mean we should expect a 98-year-old Peters to be leading New Zealand First into its 50th anniversary celebrations?

“No ... it’s just me trying to encourage you guys not to be so ageist.”

Peters has thought about a life beyond politics - “of course I have” - but says he is for now “seriously absorbed in the job and the challenges I face now”.

“The work we’re doing now we’ll be in better shape by December this year than we’ve been for an awfully long time, and in a modern context.”

The party is replacing one ageing body this year: its constitution, which Peters says will be formally updated at its AGM in September to reflect the changes in the last 25 years.

“You’ve got to start at the ground floor, and the ground floor for this party is to modernise our constitution in line with the latest technology that’s available, so that is critical.”

While the changes are largely about administrative issues, Peters says they will raise wider implications in terms of the party’s shape and structure.

“The work we’re doing now we’ll be in better shape by December this year than we’ve been for an awfully long time, and in a modern context.”

How the party shapes up in the coming years will require far more work.

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