NZ First perilously ahead of its time

Could the historic political shifts caused by Covid-19 knock out some of the key struts in New Zealand First's bid for re-election? Tim Murphy on the perils of an outgoing tide 

Through no fault of its own, New Zealand First might soon find itself ahead, and out, of its time - and out of Parliament.

Not for the commonly assumed reasons of having been smothered by its bigger governing partner, or having the political appeal of the sharp end of a pineapple, or Winston Peters or Shane Jones, or the Serious Fraud Office's open file on the party's intriguing and opaque party fundraising and reporting of donations.

No, New Zealand First might now have simply outlived its purpose. History has delivered what the party - which has valiantly soldiered away, never attracting more than 13 out of 100 New Zealanders' votes in its eight general elections - could not.

Take, for example, answers to the party's great crusades on immigration, economic nationalism and superannuation.

Covid-19 has fixed the issue of 'mass immigration'. It is obviously next to zero now for non-New Zealand citizens. Even when borders reopen, no political party will contemplate a resumption of migrant numbers of the past decade, even if the global movement of people is possible. It will no longer be xenophobic or racist to limit migration in the years that lie ahead of us before there is a widespread and effective vaccine. And, no one will truly regard returning New Zealander expats as migrants needing the attentions of an anti-immigration party. 

Similarly, the pandemic's economic crisis has ended the argument over whether steps should be taken to foster manufacturing at home and support Kiwi enterprises at risk from multinational alternatives. The risks to supply lines during the Covid-19 crisis shook voters' complacency about reliance on overseas factories and cheaper global partners. An openness to elements of the economic nationalism Peters and his party have pushed for 27 years has developed around and beyond them. 

On superannuation, Peters argues the elderly will now become renewed targets for National and Labour's high priests of austerity and that his party is needed more than ever. But the pandemic and its lessons on the vulnerability of the old and ill, on the defects in our resthome and hospital funding and structures, and on 'kindness' generally, will have made cuts for superannuitants more off-limits than before.

On these core issues, politicians across the spectrum are now likely to be in furious agreement. 

That presents a challenge for an us-and-them party like New Zealand First. If no foreign hordes are descending on the country, if there is broad consensus over support and stimulation for local industry and if the rights of the elderly are sacrosanct for the foreseeable future, what drums are left to beat?

On one level, it could be argued the party was right, but at the wrong time and perhaps for the wrong reasons. It faces an uphill battle capitalising on its prescience. And in a crisis when all parties are open to doing whatever it takes and throwing accepted economic wisdoms to the four winds, few will want to hear the words "I told you so."

Winston Peters and his chief of staff, former political studies academic Jon Johansson, enter the NZ First convention.  Photo: Sam Sachdeva

The party's annual convention at the weekend in Auckland, a much smaller affair than the pre-election gathering at the Manukau Pacific Events Centre in 2017, had an air of a leader and MPs calling out for appreciation, for respect and for relevance.

Peters laid it on thick, with a Greatest Hits speech dating back to the mid 1990s on the superannuation surtax National implemented, on his warnings on immigration, and on economic self-sufficiency for the regions and beyond. He gave immigration one final play, outlining a maximum target of 15,000 migrants a year, but that was oddly 5000 more than he argued for in 2017.

The messages were consistent: 'You were warned.... never forget who told you... one party was the first to.....'

And there was a defensiveness about other parties now getting with New Zealand First's vision.

For example: "We share the simple belief that our cities are built upon the fertile and productive countryside. We were saying that long before Covid. Which begs the question: how sincere is the recent discovery of that by other political parties?"

And, on the Provincial Growth Fund's $3 billion being dispensed by Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones: "Remember, 'success has many fathers, failure is an orphan'. But you, here this afternoon, know who conceived, committed, and drove this policy to reality."

In a way, even in this current term, New Zealand First has been a victim of its 'success'. 

The PGF always looked to be a handy pork barrel leading into the election, and clutches of millions of dollars are regularly being handed out in key political frontiers like Northland. But the broad, multi, multi-billion dollar Covid-19 recovery packages that the Labour-led Government has had to deploy have almost rendered that $1b-a-year PGF into small change. Billions are devalued. Millions a dime a dozen. 

Similarly, New Zealand First claims to have delivered 1800 extra uniformed police (the calculation ignores the number of police who have left in the same period) in this term, and now says it will add a further 1000. But when you've delivered on the 'more cops on the beat' promise, is there still demand for an extra 1000? Have they dried out that well?

Speakers at the convention talked down opinion polls showing the party at three percent or lower, and their party's history makes that a valid stance. Everyone knows New Zealand First surges in campaigns and Peters brings them home.

Yet... yet...  There was almost a feeling coming through the MPs' combined addresses and chats from the podium of a communal valedictory. 'Here's what we did. Remember that.'

It was probably Peters' final launch of an election campaign. Next time, if he is still leader, he would be 78.

He spoke lyrically of his party being a rock in Māori mythology, standing firm against surging waters.

The pandemic and economic crisis might well have left that rock high, and dry.

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