Josh Van Veen: Racial separatism is not the path to victory for NZ First

Josh Van Veen: Racial separatism is not the path to victory for NZ First

‘Racial separatism’ is the cause célèbre of those who feel marginalised by cultural change in New Zealand. They yearn for a simpler time when race relations were about who you played rugby with and not much else. One didn’t ask moral questions about colonisation. The distribution of wealth and power could be understood according to free market doctrine or Marxism. Successful leaders blended the two without any thought to the intersectionality of race and gender.

In a nearly 4,000-word speech to the NZ First annual convention last weekend, Winston Peters mentioned the words ‘apartheid’ only twice and ‘separatism’ once. But it is obvious that Peters is lining up NZ First to ride a wave of cultural backlash against what he describes as “woke, virtue-signalling madness”. Whether it is the use of te reo in public life, Three Waters, or defunding Shakespeare, there is a growing unease within the New Zealand body politic that struggles to find coherent expression.

The question is whether Peters and NZ First are the vessel for that sentiment in 2023. It is by no means certain. ACT New Zealand has been more successful at exploiting cultural insecurity than any other party.  David Seymour’s framing of the co-governance issue as a choice between ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘ethnonationalism’ provoked Peters to respond with rhetorical flourish of his own. The speech was a clarion call to those voters who abandoned NZ First two years ago. Only Peters can save the country now.

In 2020, ACT gained from the electoral collapse of NZ First. Seymour’s stance on gun control and his anti-government rhetoric appealed to rural conservative types who had gravitated to Peters during the Key era. These voters felt betrayed when NZ First spurned National for Jacinda Ardern’s Labour.  And they were furious when the Ardern-Peters Government made them give up their semi-automatic firearms in response to the Christchurch mosque shootings.

As one insider told journalist Andrea Vance shortly after the election: “It was the coup de grâce for NZ First. Their vote was always suffering but that just killed it.” There is only one problem with this narrative. It overstates the extent to which there is overlap between ACT and NZ First. After all, the two parties are quite different. While ACT dreams of a free market utopia, NZ First is nostalgic for the tightly woven social fabric of mid-20th century New Zealand. It is no coincidence that Peters admires the First Labour Government.

Results from the 2020 New Zealand Election Study (NZES) indicate that around 60% of the ACT vote came from National, and only a small amount from NZ First. On the other hand, a third of NZ First’s vote went to Labour. While the NZES has a sample size of 3,731, these estimates are based on a small sub-sample and should be treated as speculative rather than conclusive. However, they are consistent with long-term trends. In 2011 and 2014, more NZ First voters reported voting for Labour than National at the previous election.

In 2017, political scientists used a much larger dataset gathered from TVNZ’s Vote Compass alongside the NZES to estimate the change in party support between elections. Remarkably, this modelling also found that NZ First support came disproportionately from Labour. And it makes sense. NZ First is culturally conservative but left of centre. So, too, are many Labour supporters. Including a large number of Māori and Pasifika who don’t fit the media’s stereotype of a NZ First voter.

There is a strange paradox between Peters’ rhetoric and the actually existing NZ First voter. In 2017, Peters made an explicit appeal to the ‘one-law-for-all’ vote by campaigning for a referendum on the Māori seats. At the time, he said it would be a bottom line in any coalition negotiations. But the issue soon disappeared and the referendum never happened. In any case, regression analysis using data from the NZES finds that when controlling for demographic variables there was no significant relationship between anti-Māori sentiment and voting NZ First in 2017.

In fact, those with Māori ethnicity were twice more likely to vote NZ First than non-Māori when controlling for age, gender, and other variables. Immigration was the most salient issue for NZ First voters. The decline and fall of NZ First must be understood in this context. With the exception of Talbot Mills, no pollster has had NZ First near the 5% threshold since 2020. This is despite Peters’ trenchant criticism of the Ardern Government and his crusade against racial separatism. Could it be that Peters is speaking to the wrong audience?

When it came to re-affirming the party’s stance against the Ardern Government’s “separatist, apartheid framed, racist co-governance ideology”, delegates at the NZ First convention were less than enthusiastic. Jim Peters, the elder brother of Winston and a kaumatua within the party, strongly objected to using the word ‘apartheid’. Whanganui delegate Helma Vermeulen, originally from the Netherlands, explained the origins of the word and why it was not appropriate. In the end the convention floor voted to delete the reference to apartheid.

Those most outraged by the co-governance issue are dogmatic liberals. They believe that any special constitutional status for Māori violates the principle of legal equality between individuals. The fact Māori, on average, experience worse life outcomes than non-Māori can be dismissed on the grounds that people shouldn’t be classified by race or ethnicity. Indeed, the concept of race is itself problematic, with no scientific basis. But ‘colourblind’ ideology diminishes the importance of language and culture to one’s existence. It is worth considering what can happen when this idea is taken to the logical conclusion.

An extreme case is to be found in the Central American country of El Salvador. In January 1932, a Communist-led uprising of indigenous people against wealthy landowners was met with extreme state violence. Thousands were killed. But it didn’t stop there. In an attempt to eliminate racial conflict, the Salvadoran government outlawed traditional Indian dress and language. Politicians also made the extraordinary decision to remove racial categories from the census and civil registry. The indigenous peoples of El Salvador vanished from public life. It was not until the 1990s that their existence was officially acknowledged.

No one is suggesting that Māori language and culture should be eliminated. Certainly not Peters. But he is speaking to a voter who believes we must apply a rigid ideological framework to questions of national identity and race relations. They seek a culturally homogenous nation in which there are no Māori and no Pākehā; just individuals who speak English. Such a place can never exist and it should not be attempted. If we are to reach maturity as a nation then it must be by embracing our cultural differences rather than suppressing them.

There is an identity crisis in New Zealand and NZ First is at the heart of it. The party’s enduring appeal has much to do with a sense of hope and empowerment that Peters once inspired. His nationalism is a distinct blend of Māori and Pākehā weaved together by radical egalitarianism. It is this side of Peters that saw him advocate for state support of Māori self-determination in the Bolger National Government. It is why each time NZ First was in government it increased funding for Māori Wardens. And why so many of the party’s true believers are Māori.

Stoking fears of racial separatism is not the path to victory for NZ First. Peters must elevate himself in 2023. He should leave the internecine culture war to ACT and Te Pāti Māori. His party can offer something they don’t: a vision of national unity based on mutual understanding between Māori and Pākehā. That is the essence of NZ First. Shadow boxing with ACT for a reactionary right vote will get the party nowhere but an ideological cul-de-sac from which it will struggle to return.


Josh Van Veen is an Auckland-based writer and political analyst. He currently works as the Local Government Campaigns Manager for the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union and is a former member of New Zealand First. The views expressed in this article are his own.