Election 2020

NZ First: backing your future, or back against the wall?

New Zealand First’s conference was a chance for Winston Peters to show his team can meet the challenge posed by Covid-19. But instead of a bold vision for New Zealand’s future, the party’s big ideas seemed relics of the past, Sam Sachdeva writes

ANALYSIS: The drab surrounds of East Tamaki’s Highbrook Business Park seemed a somewhat odd choice for New Zealand First’s election-year conference.

Yet the party stalwarts showed up nonetheless, albeit in a trickle rather than a stream with numbers seemingly lower than last year’s event in Christchurch despite the higher stakes in 2020.

With the conference serving as Winston Peters’ first major event since taking medical leave for unspecified keyhole surgery, it was not just the vitality of the party but its leader under the microscope.

On the latter front, there were no obvious missteps: the leader was his usual pugilistic self when speaking to the media, while basking in the adoration of his supporters.

It was the party itself that seem tired, bereft of any big ideas to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.

At last year’s conference, the party’s remit sessions were a chance for Young New Zealand First members like Rob Gore to shine, as the youth wing successfully pushed for a reconsideration of New Zealand First’s opposition to drug testing.

This time around, Gore - now the party’s candidate for New Lynn - was laughed down by some corners of the room as he unsuccessfully tried to add tampons and sanitary pads to a list of ‘household staples’ that should be exempt from GST (although he did get a later win, with party members voting to support a binding referendum on the West Auckland Licensing Trust’s monopoly on alcohol sales).

A well-meaning but dry remit asking the party to “promote a policy where metallic brake pads sold or installed in New Zealand have the requirement to have low or copper-free friction quality” led much of the room to drift off, showing there are at least some limits to Peters’ talk of acting as a handbrake on the coalition.

Back to the future

Former deputy leader and Children’s Minister Tracey Martin was the party’s “guest speaker” on Sunday, doing her best to make a case for the party’s relevance.

“We wanted a fairer New Zealand where more people shared in our economy - we wanted the country to be honest about some of our problems, and start to address some clear areas of neglect,” Martin said of the coalition negotiations with Labour in 2017.

“Let’s not forget that this Government exists because of New Zealand First, and it has been a better government.”

Martin laid out what she said were myths about the party in need of rebuttal: that it was better at stopping initiatives than leading them, that it didn’t understand social issues, that “somehow being in government doesn’t agree with us”.

She also laid out the most novel policy proposal of the conference, albeit an old one: reinstating the universal family benefit that was introduced in 1946 but scrapped in 1991, and allowing the payments for a family’s first child to be “capitalised” and put towards a deposit on their first home.

But there was precious little detail on offer. The party had developed costings, Martin told Newsroom, but she had left the relevant information in Wellington.

She estimated a suitable weekly payment as being $200 per child, but suggested 20 hours’ free early childhood education and other child-related subsidies could be scrapped to fund the benefit - hardly a desirable trade-off for many families, on the face of it.

New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin argued the party had been more constructive in government than many believed. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But at least it was more exciting than the campaign slogan unveiled by Peters (Back Your Future) while both of the big policy announcements in his speech were simply less ambitious retreads of the party’s 2017 pledges.

Back then, New Zealand First pledged to limit net migration levels to 10,000 per annum; now, it is 15,000 per annum, in addition with a bottom line that the party supply the next Immigration Minister.

Of course, the Government had struggled to achieve far more modest reductions before Covid-19 hit, and while the pandemic has temporarily put paid to almost all migration, it would seem difficult to meet the party’s target once the borders reopen and both foreign visa-holders and Kiwi expats come to seek refuge.

Peters’ response? To complain about bureaucrats counting New Zealand citizens in the official tally of new arrivals.

Such statistical jiggery-pokery explains the party’s ‘success’ in meeting the coalition target of 1800 new frontline police officers this term, only after both Ardern and Peters waved off Police Minister Stuart Nash’s previous comments about taking attrition rates into account.

Now Peters has said his party would add another 1000 frontline officers in another term of government, making dark references to rising crime levels in the Covid-19 era as other nations focus instead on major police reform.

Then there were the predictable attacks: on the “nine long years of neglect” under the last National government, on the Labour-Green “woke pixie dust” his party had allegedly blocked this term, and of course, on “political activists masquerading as journalists or political commentators [and] the clickbait media who are already in the tank for a Red-Green government”.

The bigger problem may be the sense that New Zealand First lacks an extra gear to make up ground in the polls and cross the five percent threshold on September 19.

Take out the handful of references to Covid-19 and the campaign trail, and it would have been almost indistinguishable from his 2019 conference speech. He even recycled last year’s proverb, although changing it from “an old Pacific adage” to “that classic Maori phrase”: “Not like the seagull tossing and turning its head at every wave, but like the rock, steadfast against the surging sea.”

New Zealand First could yet be rocked by the Serious Fraud Office investigation into its eponymous foundation; foundation trustee and lawyer Brian Henry was notably absent from the conference despite presiding over parts of last year’s proceedings, with Peters saying he was “busy”.

But the bigger problem may be the sense that his party lacks an extra gear to make up ground in the polls and cross the five percent threshold on September 19. While National's leadership and the broader global environment have changed dramatically this year, New Zealand First's campaign strategy does not appear to have done the same.

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