As New Zealand First prepares to bask in the glory of surviving 25 years at this weekend’s party conference, Winston Peters tells Laura Walters now isn’t the time to be smug.

Ahead of last year’s election New Zealand First’s future was looking unsure.

What were rising poll numbers took a swift hit when Andrew Little stepped down as Labour leader, and Jacinda Ardern took up the reins.

“Labour dropped its bundle and grabbed a new leader; the media went off their heads about it, and we realised we were in a fight for our political survival,” Winston Peters says.

The New Zealand First leader jumped in his bus and hit the road; driving from one end of the country to the other. “And we knew there was going to be payback when people remembered who was on that bus.”

The life or death campaign seems like a lifetime ago, with New Zealand First becoming the kingmaker of the 2017 election, deciding to create a coalition with Labour, with Peters taking on the role of Deputy Prime Minister. As he recounts the roller-coaster campaign in his Beehive office he’s holding the role of Acting Prime Minister while Ardern addresses the UN in New York.

About half an hour after this conversation his so-called waka-jumping bill (Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill) passes into law – another item ticked off the New Zealand First-Labour coalition agreement, along with promises like Pike River re-entry, increasing funding for family violence organisations, re-examining the defence procurement programme, and recording a Cabinet minute regarding the “lack of process followed prior to the National-led government’s sponsorship of UNSC2334”.

Some of the items are big social policies, others seem to stem from personal hang-ups. Either way, the coalition Government is steadily making its way through the agenda.

The party has a coalition tracker pamphlet delivered to members. It’s colour-coded – and it’s looking pretty good at the moment, Peters says.

“But there’s no cause to be smug. We’ve got to do the things we promised to do as comprehensively as we can, so that we hit the trail in 2020 with a record of achievement.”

New Zealand First is committed to making its unlikely coalition with Labour and the Greens work, but when 2020 hits, it’s each man for himself. “We don’t admit a gender bias here, so each man or woman for themselves, politically speaking,” Peters corrects with his trademark grin.

New Zealand First won’t be tying its horse to any other party’s cart. Because that’s what MMP is about, he says.

In 2020, the party will start from a better position than in 2017 when the election was widely described as a two-horse race, with smaller parties gasping for air and New Zealand First, the Greens, and ACT having to claw their way back into Parliament. The Maori Party never made it back. New Zealand First secured 7.2 percent of the vote – enough to get nine seats.

Peters knows the party can’t rest on its laurels; government support parties often don’t fare well in subsequent elections. After being a confidence and supply partner to a Labour-led government in 2005, New Zealand First failed to make it back into Parliament in 2008.

“I can tell you now that the level of political thinking now, and the preparation for New Zealand First going into 2020 is superior to anything we’ve ever done before. We know that we’re going to have to do all that work now, so we hit the ground running in 2020, with an achievement sheet that no one can deny.”

This weekend’s party conference and AGM will be held at Tauranga – where Peters held the seat for 21 years before being ousted in 2005 – at the racecourse (of course). It will be a chance for the party to celebrate 25 years, but also to look forward. 

New Zealand First is inextricably tied with Winston Peters; his personality, and his style of politics. But he gets frustrated at the commonly held belief that he is the party.

“The reality is no party survives 25 years without hundreds and hundreds, indeed thousands and thousands, of hardworking, committed people.”

The party doesn’t have big money behind it – in 2017 it was donated $546,254, which comes to less than $3 per vote.

“So that being the case, I think the one-man-band allegation falls apart immediately. Who fills those halls and organises everything? Teams of hardworking people who have been trained to deliver showtime, when showtime in politics is called for.”

The annual conference is going to be one of those showtime events, with hundreds of people expected to attend. Peters’ Sunday afternoon speech in the racecourse’s Sir Tristram Lounge is picked to be the grand finale.

The speech will also be about reminding the party of the fundamental reasons it’s lasted 25 years – “a seriously long time in this business”.

Consultation, clarity of brand, and bringing on board a broad range of groups, including a young supporter base are all key to New Zealand First surviving another 25 years, Peters says.

The party has a loyal base of older voters thanks to the SuperGold Card and superannuation policies, but Peters says New Zealand First is a party for young Kiwis too. One of the party’s core foci is creating a fairer country for the next generation, he says.

“You cannot just look at a society where there’s been such a concretisation of wealth, in so few hands, without having plans with how you deal to that. We know full well that you don’t make the poor rich, by taking from the rich to give to the poor. You’ve got to have better plans than that.”

The party is working to figure out how to make New Zealand fairer, and go back to the good old days of accessible health care, dental care and housing, “which is not a nostalgic pipedream, but achievable by us.

“The kind of society where we were regarded as one of the finest societies in the world for the egalitarian sharing of wealth and opportunity”, Peters says.

You can’t talk about New Zealand First 25 years from now without talking about who will lead the party, because even with his track record of political longevity, Peters will probably not still be kicking around. “I think you could be quite safe in thinking that,” he laughs.

But the next leader will not be a cookie cutter or clone of the man who has made New Zealand First, it will be someone who is right for the party in the future, Peters says.

“The key thing for that person to understand is this is a voluntary organisation, and appeal and persuasion is the order of the day, not autocratic decision-making from the top.

“That’s what keeps parties as growing organisations. The autocratic side of things that I’ve seen in other parties means they collapse and die, and they have – whole scores of them have collapsed and died in the last 25 years.”

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