To use the rugby cliché, it was an election of two halves for New Zealand First, writes former director of operations, Api Dawson.

The year began with great excitement. The polling numbers were strong, Labour looked as weak as ever and a tired National Party were seeking the elusive fourth term.

When July rolled around the excitement reached fever pitch.  Labour was collapsing in the polls and we were rising quickly. There was euphoria at the realisation of the very real prospect of being able to overtake Labour and become the second-largest party behind National.

Over drinks with some senior Labour figures they appeared already defeated.  They peered into their glasses looking for a solution, a Hail Mary that might save the furniture.  When relaunching their capital gains tax was suggested as the answer, I thought to myself, “We’ve got them now.”

Indeed there was only one answer to their problems, and I was made aware of it one rainy night in Tauranga a few months earlier when discussing the Labour Party.  “Are any of you going to vote Labour?” someone asked.  “No, but I like that Jacinda girl, she’s great, I wish she was leader.”  Everyone else in the room nodded.

The prospect of Labour changing leader was always there, but the chances of it happening appeared remote, particularly after the hoardings had been erected, the ads launched and the flyers delivered.  But so great was their collapse that they had to do something drastic. Their caucus chose well, proving that the best body of people at choosing a leader for a party is its caucus and not a mess of unions and party members at large.

This created the most dangerous situation for New Zealand First, indeed for any minor party – a two-horse race between the two old parties.  Most voters still identify with, or at least have a preference over which of the two old parties should govern.  And when there is a clear and present danger that the other side might form a government, all these voters go running home to mama.

I don’t believe that New Zealand First voters simply switched over to Labour as a cursory reading of the polling data may suggest.  I believe we lost a lot of grumpy National voters, who had become frustrated with their party over nine years and wanted to put the boot into them a bit.  They felt able to do so when Labour was in the mid 20s and there was no fear that their political infidelity would lead to a change of government.  But as Jacindamania took over they felt that they couldn’t risk it and had to hold their nose and vote National.  This shift was, I suspect, masked by a similar-sized shift of voters from National to Labour at the same time.

Historically speaking, 7.2 per cent is not a bad result for New Zealand First, and in the context of this election, it was a very good one.  But it was a sad result in many ways too, losing MPs like the loyal and dependable Pita Paraone and Richard Prosser, who did a lot of good work behind the scenes gaining support from groups such as hunters and firearm owners, and who worked well on the Primary Production select committee.  Denis O’Rourke did much of the heavy lifting in debates in the house and his colleagues in caucus, including Peters, often called upon his skills as a lawyer.  All are losses to the party.

Going forward, New Zealand First will face a number of challenges.

The coalition squares off against powerful opposition.  National don’t look like a party that lost and they aren’t acting like it, as Simon Bridges demonstrated during the election of the speaker.  There is no party as pragmatic or as ruthless at executing a plan as National and they will no doubt be planning retribution on New Zealand First.

The country is still getting over the shock of the largest party not winning government.  While academics, pundits and those in the beltway will argue it’s a natural evolution of MMP, many Kiwis still believe that the biggest party should be the government.  For them the moral mandate does exist.  And for them there is only one person responsible for this not coming to pass – Winston Peters.

New Zealand First did well in the regions and were expanding their support base from the traditionally strong areas of Northland and the Bay of Plenty, to provincial New Zealand more widely.  But there is a vulnerability here – the Greens.  New Zealand First’s decision to go with Labour and the Greens would have gone down like a cup of cold sick in many parts of provincial New Zealand.  While Labour’s water tax policy was clever politically for alienating people that will never vote for it, policies like this will carve votes off New Zealand First, reducing the combined vote of the coalition.  If National is smart, it will blame every unpopular policy that Labour and the Greens enact on New Zealand First in the provinces.

To combat this, Labour will need to give its coalition partners room to breathe and to disagree.  Both the Greens and New Zealand First have to keep their respective flocks happy.  That will sometimes involve needing to have fights to illustrate differences and prove to supporters that they haven’t sold out.  But like fights among family, squabbles will need to end with all parties making up and carrying on.  Managing these squabbles successfully will be difficult, but if Labour doesn’t allow this then they risk killing off the very parties that gave them the treasury benches and will consign themselves to another long spell in opposition.

The loss of the Northland seat is a big deal for New Zealand First.  That was the insurance policy for the party if it dropped below the dreaded five per cent threshold.  Without it, the party must cross the threshold to stay in Parliament and on current numbers it would be a near-run thing.

Caucus discipline, while pretty good in recent years, has been an issue for New Zealand First in the past.  The names of those traitors in the Tight Five are still hissed through clenched teeth.  But Peters is a man who learns from his mistakes.  If he’s smart, and he is, and if he doesn’t completely trust his caucus colleagues, then expect to see a waka jumping bill on the order paper early in the new year to prevent any defections.

New Zealand First normally has an election for the leader and deputy leader after an election, and while the election of the leader is a foregone conclusion, the deputy leadership is the item of much discussion.  I personally doubt whether New Zealand First will have a vote on the deputy leadership. The shrewd move would be to avoid it. Their caucus doesn’t need the inevitable whispers in the corridors that leadership spills create. They are destabilising and the last thing they need now with so many new ministers trying to find their feet is the chaos of a leadership spill.

All in all, 2018 looks like a challenging year for New Zealand First. They face a strong opposition and are part of an unlikely coalition. But if any one can navigate it, Peters can.  Love him or loathe him, Winston Raymond Peters is a political force of nature, and you can never underestimate him.

Apirana Dawson was New Zealand First’s director of operations and a consultant for the party. He now runs Dawson Consulting.

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