Bryce Edwards: The pressure of survival shows for NZ First

Bryce Edwards: The pressure of survival shows for NZ First

When New Zealand First holds its annual party conference next week, the issue underpinning all the discussion and debate will be its survival. It’s a perennial problem, but one that is now particularly pronounced. With polling putting the party below the crucial five per cent MMP threshold for most of their time as part of the current government, party activists and MPs will debate the way forward for NZ First climbing back up. It’s got the potential to be a very fraught conference.

Tensions in the party appear to be running high, with a number of internal disputes and differences currently spilling out into the open. This isn’t the usual way for the NZ First party – an organisation that leader Winston Peters has always insisted should operate with extreme discipline and forced unity.

Cohesion is easier to achieve when a party is doing well, but when the chips are down, factions and personalities turn on each other. The stress of losing always pushes problems to the surface of a political party. That’s what appears to be occurring at the moment in NZ First, with a series of recent unforced errors.

President’s resignation from the party

Last week saw the resignation of the President of NZ First, Lester Gray, in highly unusual circumstances. Significantly, he resigned not just from the party’s highest office, but also from the party entirely.

This was first reported by veteran journalist Richard Harman, who quoted Gray’s Facebook page resignation, which stated: “I am no longer a member of the Party… Please direct all New Zealand First enquiries to another member or the Party website… I will always treasure the wonderful people I have met and the friendships we have started. Signing off, Lester” – see: Shock NZ First resignation.

According to Harman, the “resignation will be a blow for the party because Gray brought some new energy to what had previously been a low-key position playing second fiddle to Peters.” He had only just been elected a year ago, and is seen as being in the more socially conservative, or “populist right” wing of the party – coming from the traditional party stronghold of Tauranga, where Gray has also been the close friend and electorate chairman of MP Clayton Mitchell.

It’s clear that Gray was under great pressure within the party – later clarifying that “I want to get it out that I am fine and I just needed to get out [of the Party]”. This communication was part of resignation letter in which the departing president dropped a bombshell about his “moral” problems with the task of signing off the annual financial accounts of NZ First.

His resignation letter states: “I refuse to sign off the 2019 Financial Reports with the information I have been provided… As President, the limited exposure I have had to Party donations and expenditure leaves me in a vulnerable position… This type of operation does not align with my moral and business practice values, and I am therefore not able to support the Party any longer.”

The resignation letter also states that Gray felt there was “insufficient communication and support from senior members of the Party for me to effectively function as the President”.

For more on this, see Matt Shand’s article, NZ First president resigns after refusing to sign 2019 financial reports for ‘moral’ reasons. Shand says: “The shock departure raises concerns about the internal financial arrangements of one of the government’s crucial coalition partners as election season looms in 2020.”

It raises questions about the robustness of NZ First’s donation disclosures to the Electoral Commission, with National-aligned blogger David Farrar suggesting that the Commission should be asking Gray what his concerns were – see: Why did the NZF president quit the party?.

Here’s Farrar’s main point: “NZ First have (off memory) never ever disclosed a donation. Yet everyone knows they get significant corporate donations from the industries they represent in Parliament – forestry, fisheries and racing. The party office holders often get left in the dark, with Winston or his office or lawyers actually controlling the donations or money. A former party secretary filed numerous incorrect donation returns which she had to correct. The Electoral Commission is charged with ensuring party’s donation returns are accurate.”

Further internal discontent

A number of activists in NZ First appear to be discontented with the party at the moment. For example, in reaction to Gray’s Facebook announcement, another former election candidate, Helen Petersen, wrote: “Welcome to the population of people who have worked bloody hard for a party that treats its members like imbeciles and exploits the dedicated… So incredibly saddened by the fact that dedicated people with a genuine belief in a better NZ have been let down.”

Peterson, who has stood three times for the party and was placed at number 20 on the party list in 2017, has also authored a document listing her complaints about the party’s last election campaign, which describes NZ First as “disorganised, dishonest, and hypocritical”. Her report has been leaked to the media along with other internal emails, and you can see more in Jason Walls’ article, Leaked NZ First emails reveal party members deeply unhappy after 2017 election (paywalled).

Peterson’s document is titled “NZ First Concerns and issues regarding Election 2017”, and it reports that “A number of members nationwide have been extremely disappointed in the way in which the 2017 election campaign was handled”.

Some of the complaints are about money. Peterson says that party “members who paid huge amounts of money towards the campaign and promised repayment did not receive any reimbursement”. And: “Money allocated to support the campaign was not used for the purpose in which it was donated”.

The creation of the party’s list for the 2017 election is also strongly criticised. Summarising this, Walls’ says: “The documents reveal members felt the party’s list showed disrespect for hardworking, loyal, and long-serving members, and favoured candidates who had personal relationships with those who select the list placement. Members also complained the list process was sexist, as only three of the candidates in the top 18 were female.”

Furthermore, Auckland candidates weren’t given high list positions, resulting in no representation for that region amongst the current NZ First caucus. Peterson complains that this left “Auckland, who have the highest population, and where there are a third of the country’s total electorates without a New Zealand First Member of Parliament representing them” – see Boris Jancic’s NZ First leak: Members say they felt ‘exploited’ over donations (paywalled).

Coalition negotiations were also a point of contention for some members, according to the leaked emails and documents. Some complaints seemed to imply that Winston Peters had undertaken discussions on forming a government without proper consultation with the caucus.

Replying to such allegations, MP Tracey Martin stated that she was “deeply offended”. In terms of complaints from members that Peters shouldn’t have been taking legal action against National Party figures while involved in coalition negotiations, Martin replied: “None of us were aware of the papers filed by the Rt. Hon. Winston Peters because that was his private business and nothing to do with the formation of a government. None of us, particularly the Rt. Hon. Winston Peters, are that shallow”.

And today further leaks have come out, with details of the Tamaki branch being unhappy at the head office of the party trying to impose a candidate on them – see Derek Cheng’s New NZ First leaks: Complaint over candidate selection and request for board apology (paywalled).

In addition, the leaks provide details of a 2017 election advertisement that was apparently vetoed due to concerns about racism. And the list of Auckland party membership was also leaked. This is detailed in Henry Cooke and Thomas Manch’s Major leak of NZ First membership database exposes personal details.

Apparently, the leaked membership database included “the names, occupation, phone numbers, addresses, and paid membership status of more than a thousand people affiliated with the political party – including Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and his partner Jan Trotman.” Cooke and Manch write that, “The leak is the latest in an ongoing saga challenging the unified appearance of a party known for strong leadership from Peters.”

The information contained in the leaked database is very detailed: “The 799 members listed in the undated Auckland membership database leak records details of paying members from as recent as 2016. Fewer than half, 351, were paying members as 448 were due to renew their membership. Another list of more than 80 Auckland central members, and a database of 225 volunteers from across the country were also included in the leak. The databases take the form of unencrypted excel spreadsheets with data on residential addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and when the member last paid party dues.”

Desperate ministerial electioneering

It’s not just party activists in NZ First who appear to be feeling pressed by things not going right for the party. Cabinet ministers, too, are showing the signs of discontent over their involvement in the coalition not paying off with higher public support.

Back in March, Defence and Veterans Affairs Minister Ron Mark was accused of using his Cabinet minister position to win party votes, when he told a veteran’s organisation that the $25,000 in Government funding they received was “courtesy of me” and “To be perfectly honest, when I look at the polling results of my political party New Zealand First, then the veterans, the Defence base, you guys haven’t supported us. At all” – see Derek Cheng’s Ron Mark accused of threatening to cut Govt funding if veterans don’t vote NZ First.

Similarly, last week it was reported that Forestry minister Shane Jones “told a forestry awards ceremony they needed to vote for him or miss out on the billions he’s handing out for provincial growth” – see David Fisher’s Anger over Shane Jones speech to forestry industry: I showed you the money – now show me the votes.

According to Fisher, “One person present labelled Jones’ comments as an inducement to ‘bribery’ and another thought the minister – responsible for forestry and the $3 billion provincial growth fund – was ‘buying votes’.” And responding to such concerns, Jones said: “This is reciprocity. If you want it, back it. You can expect to hear me say that every week from now on. Does it violate constitutional principles? I don’t think so.”

As result, a number of commentators, and even Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, recommended that Jones study up on the rules of behaviour for ministers. For more on this, see Madeleine Chapman’s A review of Shane Jones’s assigned holiday reading: The Cabinet Manual.

But the fact is NZ First does desperately need more votes – which means they need to push the boundaries of electioneering. The last time Jones was in similar trouble for behaviour skirting close to rules – back in April – Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote that Jones (and his colleagues) is desperately seeking attention “in the same way that a junkie needs heroin, but also in order to keep his job” because they need to push their support levels back up to five per cent – see: NZ First feels very wrong in Govt after Christchurch attack.

Of course, NZ First will argue that they “always” bounce back in election year. Du Plessis-Allan isn’t so convinced: “The party he belongs to is currently polling below the 5 per cent threshold. As in, half of that. They should be doing better. Sure, New Zealand First always polls low mid-term, then bounces back during election campaigns. They often defy final-days predictions. Maybe they’ll do the same thing this time. Or maybe they won’t. This term, unlike others, they’ve had $3 billion to throw around and win over grateful regional voters, but it’s not working. The voters are taking the money, thanks very much, then telling polling companies they’ll vote for a much more sensible party.”

Finally, perhaps the party’s problem is that its traditional supporters just aren’t happy that NZ First are in coalition with Labour. Survey results came out this last week which suggest that NZ First voters were keener on a coalition with National – see Henry Cooke’s NZ First voters preferred National to Labour at 2017 election by wide margin.