It was the first public split between New Zealand Second and New Zealand Third: Ron Mark vs Shane Jones.

And, fittingly, it was in a debate over sales of land to… the Chinese.

Late yesterday at New Zealand First’s pre-election conference, a day dominated by low-level fundraising and local electorate remits, Mark, the current deputy leader, became strident from the floor about a move to make state-owned Landcorp give surplus farms to young local farmers. He opposed the move because NZ First believed all public assets must be kept for the public, not individuals who could, down the track sell off “to the Chinese or anyone else for $5m, $15m or $20m”.

Mark gave farmers a serve, too. “It is the farmers themselves who are hocking off their land to the Chinese and Americans or anyone who wants to turn up and give them a retirement in perpetuity – the reason is New Zealand farmers are selling their farms to the Chinese or anyone else who has got the cash and the bully to tempt them into it.

“I’m over this…. No, thank you very much.”

Mark sat down to claps but his moment lasted only a moment.

Up jumped Jones, newly representing the Whangarei electorate of New Zealand First after a career with Labour and then under National’s patronage as a pseudo ambassador in the Pacific. The men were on opposite sides of the big room at the Pacific Events Centre in Manukau which held about 200 delegates at the time.

Jones begged to differ. Acknowledging his “Māori cousin” the MP Pita Paraone who had spoken earlier in the debate about Landcorp surplus land first being offered to Māori under Treaty of Waitangi settlements, he ignored what Mark had just said, not mentioning him (in the style of a subtweet), but going on to urge support for the remit.

Jones’ reasoning was New Zealand First had a macro policy already against land sales to foreigners and it should say to Landcorp that it could make land available to young farmers that was never going to be sold. In Northland, it would be welcomed. 

He, too, had a lick at the Chinese on the way through. Foreigners could not buy land in Hawaii, or China. “I have been there, trying to set up factories when I was at Sealord and you could not buy land.”

Looking forward to New Zealand First’s no-sales-to-foreigners policy, he said: “I imagine we are going to do to them what they are doing to us.”

The remit passed and will go to a New Zealand First policy committee to be fleshed out. 

It is widely thought Mark resents the presumption, generally held beyond the party, that former Labour cabinet minister Jones will walk into the deputy leader’s role after the September 23 election and be the heir apparent to the ageing Dear Leader, Winston Peters.

Yesterday’s difference of opinion on one minor remit might well count for nothing if not for the timing. Jones is not long in the party but has had blanket media coverage.  His taking the call from the floor immediately after Mark to argue against his strident view was telling. 

The party says around 300 delegates are attending the weekend event. It is a quite formal, olde political conference – many dressed in black (the party’s colour), ties are ubiquitous and it was loaded with blasts from the past. Peters’ older brother, Jim, a former MP from the north was there, as was former, colourful, North Shore Mayor Andrew Williams, now representing NZ First’s Taupo electorate. But there was a presentation by Young New Zealand First and those involved were, reportedly, actually young. The conference dinner last night was at “the Weymouth Cossie Club”.

On Sunday, Peters gives his big speech. When he appeared on The Nation on TV3 yesterday he was preaching ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ over the party’s result at the election, but his demeanour was the opposite. He was openly speculating, based on a leak of a political tracking poll from Labour’s pollster UMR, that the Opposition leader Andrew Little might not even make it back to Parliament on the list and therefore could not be assumed to be a likely leader of any alternative government.

And, at 72 , older than both Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump when they took office and Rob Muldoon when he died, he was claiming he had news for those doubting his longevity and stamina. If Peters truly thinks he could become Prime Minister after the election, stitching together the remnants of Labour, the Greens and his party or strong-arming a marooned National Party into acknowledging his prime-ness, he would be the third oldest leader of the country after Walter Nash (75) and Francis Bell (74). The latter lasted 20 days in office in 1925.

Which makes his choice – the party’s choice, he insisted – of the deputy leader after the election vital to not only New Zealand First but to the possible future of a government. Jones is in the ascendancy. In one small way yesterday he showed Mark who is boss-to-be.

* The party opposed to foreign dominance, and globalisation, suspicious of China and immigration and in favour of New Zealand manufacturing and workers has a new campaign T-shirt with the 2017 logo on sale at the conference for $20 each. In the era of post-irony politics, the shirts are, of course, Made in China.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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