Bryce Edwards: Can NZ First once again fill the vacuum at the centre of politics?

Bryce Edwards: Can NZ First once again fill the vacuum at the centre of politics?

They don’t get much media coverage at the moment, but the New Zealand First party could be central to the next year in politics, and determine the shape of the next government.

The latest opinion survey out yesterday – leaked from Labour-aligned pollsters Talbot-Mills – has New Zealand First on 4.4 per cent. The party has been edging up in the polls all year. The last few Kantar-1News polls have had the party on 3 per cent.

This level of support is actually relatively high for the party which tends to do poorly between election years and then have a surge of support during campaigns. So, it’s certainly not out of the question that Winston Peters’ party could soon register 5 per cent and suddenly become a real force in next year’s election.

This would change everything.

The re-emergence of a 5 per cent NZ First party would suddenly mean the drag race that we are seeing between the left bloc and right bloc would be over-taken by a centre party once again holding the pivot vote. A re-elected NZ First party would be the King or Queen maker again as neither the National-Act bloc nor the Labour-Greens-Te Pāti Māori bloc would be likely to have a majority in the House.

The possibility of both Christopher Luxon and Jacinda Ardern needing the votes of Winston Peters in the house to form the next government should be taken very seriously.

Filling a vacuum at the centre of politics

There is a sense of a growing vacuum at the centre of the left-right spectrum in New Zealand politics at the moment. There is no party in Parliament that can credibly position itself as being between the two blocs of left and right. The old centre parties such as United Future are gone, and few see Te Pāti Māori as genuinely playing that pivot role between Labour and National. And the prospect of The Opportunities Party breaking into Parliament is still unlikely.

NZ First is now well positioned to fill the vacuum that has developed in the centre of politics. Winston Peters is putting his party forward as the only “true centre option”.

As Matthew Hooton writes today in the Herald, the two blocs in Parliament are currently playing right into the hands of Peters by appearing as extreme, allowing NZ First a plausible new pitch for votes: “Vote for the Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori (TPM) bloc, they argue, and you’ll get ever-more insufferable Grey Lynn wokeism, world-first climate taxes on provincial New Zealand solely designed to bolster Jacinda Ardern’s international brand, radical separatism and ultimately some kind of ‘Tiriti-ocracy’. But vote for the National-Act axis, they say, and a hapless and policy-less Christopher Luxon will be pushed far right by a much better organised and ideologically committed David Seymour.”

NZ First now has a strong catchcry of being the “handbrake” on the excesses of Labour and National extremism.

This weekend’s “Renewal” conference

Winston Peters is now 77 years old, and sometimes appears like a spent force. Certainly, at the last election it was apparent that both he and his party had lost touch with the Zeitgeist and had run out of steam. The party’s thinking was stale, and they were overshadowed by their coalition partner Labour, which surfed the Covid waves to win 50 per cent of the vote.

So, can Winston Peters and his sidekick Shane Jones show that they are re-energised? They will get the chance to do that this weekend, when the party holds its annual conference in Christchurch. The public will get to see if the party has anything new to show, and whether it still possesses the sort of dynamism required to stage a comeback next year. The conference is being billed as the party’s “Renewal” conference.

According to Hooton, at tomorrow’s meeting Peters will “rant” about being the victim of the Serious Fraud Office investigation, which resulted in a “not guilty” verdict in the High Court earlier this year. But there will be other areas of more effective campaigning: “Peters and Shane Jones will find more fertile ground talking about law and order including ram raids, Ardern’s climate-change posturing, and the plutocracy in government departments and big business in downtown Wellington and Auckland.”

The conference will also give a sense of whether the party is still a going concern or has hollowed out, with many former MPs, activists and members drifting away from involvement. Peters is reported today as saying that most of his former caucus are still involved in the party. According to Jo Moir: “Shane Jones, Fletcher Tabuteau, Darroch Ball, Mark Patterson and Jenny Marcroft are all still contributing to NZ First. Marcroft, with Tracey Martin, had initially walked away from the party after the 2020 loss, but according to Peters, Marcroft has come back into the fold.”

Marcroft herself is quoted, explaining her return to NZ First: “There have been some big shifts internally that would allow me to return to the party in some capacity, including more women on the board and electing a gay Māori president”.

The health of the party’s finances might also be an issue at the conference. After all the party’s fundraising schemes have been clearly under intense scrutiny and condemnation in the High Court. But recently, the party declared a $35,000 donation from Troy Bowker, a Wellington private equity investor and donor to the Act Party.

Guest speakers at the AGM tomorrow include Sir Graham Lowe and economist Cameron Bagrie.

Stoking the culture wars

Expect to see Peters and Jones push hard on culture war issues. This is probably the party’s best bet for differentiating itself from Labour and picking up on the anger with the Government. It’s also a fertile area of politics because most politicians have been reluctant to campaign strongly on this (with the obvious exception of David Seymour).

Issues of culture and race remain potent areas of populist electoral politics everywhere in the world at the moment. And Peters is still well positioned to push very hard against things like Three Waters, Māori co-governance, and the Labour Government’s He Puapua report.

As Andrea Vance has argued this year, “His ancestry gives him the freedom to exploit the issue and whip up fears of ‘Māorification’ without being labelled a racist. A strong stance on the issue of Māori sovereignty would also endear him to some older, provincial voters in National’s base who are yet to forgive him for handing power to Ardern in 2017.”

More recently, Richard Harman says that Peters and Jones “both possess strong credentials to question the current Government’s Maori policies. Both are obviously Maori; Jones is fluent in Te Reo, and Peters is a former Minister of Maori Affairs.”

Peters has already signalled that the price for working with Labour again in 2023 would be that they drop their co-governance agenda. And he’s explained that he had previously been a handbrake on these issues: “We were in government for three years. There were matters which were clearly not disclosed to me or my party – He Puapua and going to Ihumatao… Since the [2020] election you have seen the emergence of what are clearly race-based policies and a pathway to apartheid – there’s no other word for it.”

National and Act won’t escape Peters’ critiques on this. Recently he has pointed out that the decision to go with Labour in 2017 was partly because of National’s support of The UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights. He’s said: “I was up against a National Party with nine years coupling with the Maori party and the Act Party that had approved the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights and changed the foreshore seabed legislation and every other stupid thing that’s unleashing racism and separatism in this country”.

Peters has also said that “separatism” is going to be “a massive issue” during the 2023 election campaign.

No doubt, he will also focus on free speech and climate change. In terms of the latter, Peters has been one of the most scathing critics of the impact of the He Waka Eke Noa proposals for pricing farming emissions. Recently he declared: “It’s all this woke virtue signalling, without real understanding of the industry you’re trying to serve”.

Don’t expect Peters’ usual xenophobic campaigns on immigration, however. As the Herald’s Audrey Young writes today, “given the dire need for immigrants to fill labour shortages, it is unlikely that attacking immigration will feature strongly in Winston Peters’ bid to return to politics next year.”

A focus on the Labour Government letting down the poor

Peters is currently focusing his energies on condemning the core policies of the Labour Government. He has said this week that the local election results, in which Labour-backed or left-candidates for mayoralties mostly did very poorly, were a reaction to Government policies: “it was a serious rejection of some of the central government oversight and imposition on local government, and the desire for people to be in control of their own lives.”

As well as stoking the culture wars, however, Peters is likely to paint a picture of the current government being focused on cultural issues while the material needs of people for housing, health and income go unmet. Recently he made this critique of the Government: “People are up against the cost of living and for a lot of people who would be in that wealthy or middle incomes, many of them are struggling and people at the bottom, sadly despite all the problems, the fundamental costs of rates, insurance, cost of living, food, everything is going the wrong way and they’ve done nothing about it.”

And Peters will position himself as the defender of the majority of Māori who are bearing the brunt of government policies and recession. In contrast, Peters argues Labour politicians are only concerned with more elite, cultural issues: “The sad thing is that while politicians like Willie Jackson push their pet project for a certain Maori elite, Maori housing, health, education, and incomes remain on the scrap heap of their political concerns.”

And, of course, there’s always some new Peters-esque phrasing to make his campaigning media-friendly or memorable. Look out this weekend for some new version of “woke” or other critiques of the elite. One word that Peters has started using recently is “Hypersociology”.

Of course, much of this type of language and campaigning will bring ridicule and condemnation, especially from Twitter, the media, and other politicians. But this just works in Peters’ favour. As Hooton has argued, “Winston Peters needs only one in 20 voters – the remaining 19 voters and the mainstream media can loathe and belittle him as much as they like… If anything, the scorn of the 19 and the media helps.”

New Zealand First still have a long way to go in returning to Parliament – and there are plenty of reasons for voters to distrust them. But it’s probably time to start taking a Winston Peters comeback seriously.


Further reading on New Zealand First

Matthew Hooton (Herald): Resurrecting Winston Peters? NZ First ready to be born again (again)
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Peters says NZ First is coming back, again
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): New leaked Talbot Poll – Guess whose back? Back again? Winston’s back, tell a friend

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