Bryce Edwards: NZ First’s disjointed yet solid conference

Bryce Edwards: NZ First’s disjointed yet solid conference

Trying to make sense of the New Zealand First party can be difficult at the best of times. Political journalists and commentators attempt to work out where the party is going based on leaks, Winston Peters’ speeches, Shane Jones’s stunts, conference remits, and attacks on opponents.

Ultimately there’s very little to make sense of. Peters is an enigma, and there are a mass of different agendas bubbling through the party organisation. Although some are based on a firm ideological worldview and a particular demographic, often the party is blown around by whatever is happening in their “middle NZ” hunting ground that day. This is the party’s strength and weakness – it responds to populist shifts in the electorate, but it’s all over the place.

The party’s annual conference at the weekend epitomised this. There were some basic themes, but no real dynamism or new announcements to suggest that the party is about to jump up the polls. In a sense, despite the mysteriousness of Winston Peters and NZ First, unlike other parties where so often there is more to their operations than meets the eye, in NZ First there is often much less.

Ultimately, that’s probably fine for NZ First – they just needed a conference to stabilise the party after some recent internal fights, while getting some publicity for the usual concerns of the party.

Below are some of the more interesting and important items about the conference at the weekend.

Summing up the conference, Sam Sachdeva points out that nothing much happened during the weekend, especially in terms of announcements – see: Peters light on policy, heavy on punches as National attacks continue. He writes: “Notable in its absence was any significant new policy, the second year running where Peters has kept his powder dry – although not without some mixed messages.” Even Peters’ own speeches were “retreads”, and Sachdeva concludes: “Peters and his party risk being portrayed as having little of substance to share.”

There is a “good cop, bad cop” dualism in the way the party leader operates, and according to Claire Trevett this was on stark display at the conference. “Winston Unleashed” gave his speech on Saturday: “In his brief opening speech, it was little surprise the targets of his attacks were those he had long deemed as his enemies: the media and National” – see Two days, two sides of NZ First Winston Peters (paywalled).

Then, on Sunday, “Winston the Statesman” gave a more positive pitch for what his party was about: “Peters’ goal was to highlight what he has described as the dual role of NZ First in pushing reforms it thinks are a good idea, and pegging back on those that aren’t. The overall aim was to pitch NZ First as a necessary force in keeping the bigger parties under control, and as the only reasonable people in Parliament. He set out the things NZ First had done, and, more importantly, what it had stopped, such as such as a capital gains tax and industrial relations reforms.”

Peters’ final conference speech seemed out of sync with the wider party, according to Richard Harman: “What made the speech sound so jarringly out of place was that his Caucus MPs and party members had spent the whole weekend seriously debating policy. They looked to the future while he looked back” – see: NZ First looks forward while Winston looks back.

To Harman, it’s as if the party that Peters created is now outgrowing him and his “consuming priority… to oppose National”. Therefore, he concludes: “The challenge for the party and the caucus, in particular, moving forward will be how to integrate Peters into the broader-based movement that NZ First is becoming. It won’t be easy.”

Harman’s report draws particular focus to what’s happening in the youth wing of the party, and some of the remits debated, noting “it was a series of remits on environmental issues that provoked the most intense debate” – especially one in favour of allowing trials of GE ryegrass being developed to reduce methane emissions.

“Move over Grey Power, here comes Young New Zealand First” writes RNZ political journalist Jo Moir – see: Young New Zealand First made its presence felt at conference. She says the youth wing of the party “came to life officially only in the last five years but its presence has continued to grow at the annual gathering of party members”.

Moir says the biggest outcome of the weekend was the passage of the remit favouring the legality of drug testing at music festivals, apparently in contradiction of the caucus’ current stance: “The youth wing put in a last minute pitch to Mr Peters on Saturday morning asking that they be allowed to call for the party to reconsider its opposition to drug testing at festivals. Permission was granted, and the remit passed.”

But younger NZ First members aren’t looking for their 74-year-old leader to quit. Moir quotes one youth member: “You can never rule Winston out, that guy could keep on going into his 80s and when you look at East Asian politics the average age of their politicians is a lot older. Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land at the age of 80, so if Winston really wanted to do it he probably could.”

Moir also reports on Peters’ challenge to journalists’ use of unofficial sources on NZ First: “I’m sick and tired of your people’s sources – there’s one source in this party where I’m concerned and you’re looking at him.”

Writing just prior to the conference opening, Matthew Hooton suggested that the current divisions and debates in the party are evidence that NZ First is moving beyond being just the Winston First Party – see: Putting the Winston Peters party first (paywalled).

In terms of the leadership succession question, Hooton says the party caucus is divided: “there are those who expect a smooth transition in the years ahead from Peters to his apparent protege Shane Jones, with a business background. Others would prefer a more contested process, perhaps involving Ron Mark, who could be seen as representing the uniform-wing of the party, those with backgrounds in the armed forces, the police, Corrections or the Māori Wardens.”

According to Tova O’Brien, “a succession plan is underway” in the party, and “during the conference [Peters] talked up his crew big time. He can’t be first forever – the question is, who comes second?” – see: Winston Peters admits there’s a ‘succession plan’ for New Zealand First leadership.

O’Brien names the four contenders to replace Peters: “Shane Jones, the bolshy boy from the North; Fletcher Tabuteau, the dutiful deputy; Ron Mark, the Peters idoliser; Tracey Martin, the reasonable one”.

Reporting on Peters’ main conference speech, O’Brien also draws attention to his focus on criticising National: “there were a dozen mentions – more than twice that if you count all the National MPs he name-checked. Throwing shade appeared to replace the original plan for Peters to make a detailed policy announcement.” And the main line from that speech seemed to be: “The fact is New Zealand First, right now, as a party of the centre, is the National Party, when it had a capital N”.

So, despite all the National-baiting on display at the conference, it was clear that NZ First still sees itself as a conservative party. That social conservatism was clearly on show, according to Thomas Coughlan: “Remits on law and order issues like compulsory community service for young people, 90 day trial periods for prisoners, and changes to the drinking age were hotly debated. The first two passed” – see: NZ First shows its woke side, but don’t think Winston Peters is going anywhere.

And according to Coughlan, the party leader also “rubbished identity politics and political correctness”, adding: “Opening the conference, Peters ribbed the increased use of te reo on RNZ, joking that if he were on the network he’d introduce himself, ‘ko Winston Peters tēnei,’ before adding that the party didn’t do identity politics.”

But Coughlan also says that “elsewhere in the conference, members and speakers showed signs of being, dare I say it, woke.” He points to NZ First Minister Tracey Martin explaining her enthusiasm for running in the Wellington electorate of Ōhāriu at the next election: “It won’t be a surprise to you that I’m a feminist. I quite like the fact that there are two of these white guys that have got a particular patter going on in Ōhāriu and I’m certainly not a white guy.”

The party’s social conservatism was also evident in the passing of a law and order remit about the introduction of some sort of “compulsory volunteering” scheme for youth – see Thomas Coughlan’s NZ First: Being young isn’t a crime, but teens should still do compulsory community service.

News that Mediaworks is poised to sell-off or even close down TV3 was greeted with some glee by Peters who responded with “good riddance”. Newshub political editor, Tova O’Brien, was offended and said “Peters took it far too far, making light of the sale of MediaWorks TV – 520 jobs are on the line” – see: Cantankerous Winston Peters digs deep against National, MediaWorks and gun owners at NZ First conference.

She pointed out that when Peters was also asked by Newshub how many terms he has left in him, he replied: “I think I’ve got more terms in me than some of those asking the questions”. Peters also railed against opinion polling, “demanding that any journalist who ran the polls must resign when New Zealand First is elected in 2020.”

The editor of the Sunday Star-Times, Tracy Watkins, says Peters’ “crowing about the possible demise of MediaWorks, and the hundreds of jobs that might go down with it, is as unseemly as it is telling about the Deputy Prime Minister” – see: Poor Winston Peters? Poor us.

She says it’s because “Peters still holds a grudge against the media for NZ First being booted out of Parliament in 2008 and he may be right.” Watkins points to the role of people like investigative journalist Phil Kitchin and the NZ Herald’s Audrey Young who exposed the some of the dodgy political finance of the party. Hence, “as far as he’s concerned, politics would be a much better place without any pesky scrutiny of him or the Government in which he is such a key player.”

Finally, although Shane Jones failed to spark any controversies in the weekend, his ability to create widespread interest is undiminished – see Andrew Gunn’s ‘… the limelight has a way of craving me’.