The opening day of the New Zealand First 25th anniversary conference was a day of celebrating the underdog, writes Laura Walters.

Former world heavyweight champion Joseph Parker was a fitting guest speaker for the New Zealand First conference.

About 200 people gathered for the first day of the conference, with a sea of mostly silver hair filling Tauranga Racecourse’s Sir Tristram Lounge.

Parker was the first boxer from either New Zealand or the Pacific to win the world title, and New Zealand First MP Clayton Mitchell was happy to draw comparisons between the professional sportsman, and his party, which “just gets out there and does the business”.

Parker is also the nephew of National MP Judith Collins, but New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said the decision to invite him to speak wasn’t about family politics.

“This is about values and a belief in ordinary people, and this guy has been a standout New Zealander, and personally I’ve always been a huge supporter of his.”

Would Peters be happy for his nephew to appear at a National Party conference?

“Of course. We’re a freedom party… we don’t impose our views on everybody else like some Stalinist dictatorship, what’s wrong with you people?”

Senior party MP Tracey Martin also used the opportunity to point out the achievements of a party that’s come from behind.

In 2011, New Zealand First became the first party under MMP return to Parliament, after it failed to secure 5 per cent of the party vote in 2008.

Martin shared a story of former speaker of the house David Carter from 2011: “He took me into his limo and he said: ‘Now tell me Tracey, how did New Zealand First get back? Because we thought you were dead’.

“I said to him, ‘you need to take a pulse before you walk away’.”

Recently, the party “travelled the path of greatest resistance”, Martin said, when it chose Labour as its coalition partner to form “the first truly MMP Government this country has seen”.

Some New Zealand First diehards weren’t sold on the coalition.

“When I hear comments about New Zealand First going rogue, I just laugh and get on with it,” Peters said.

Winston Peters has long been a fan of former world heavyweight champion Joseph Parker.

New Zealand First’s female track record

Martin said the conference was also a chance to celebrate women’s achievements in the party.

Between 2008 and 2011, the New Zealand First board of directors was 60 percent women.

“When the going got tough, the women of this party got going and they got us back.

“This is not a them and us situation, this is just recognition of those women. It’s not to take away from anybody else – it doesn’t have to be.”

Many of those women were at Tauranga on Saturday, including Martin’s mother Anne Martin.

Long-time party member Cheryl Gemmell recounts being at Alexandra Park in 1993 for the party’s inception.

It took her five years to manage to get a handshake with Peters, and at this year’s conference, she would finally be made a life member.

Constitutional changes

New Zealand First president Brent Catchpole’s message to members was one of thanks for their support during last year’s election.

The post of president will be voted on this weekend, with Catchpole, former MP Ria Bond, 2017 candidate Lester Gray, John Hall, and former candidate and North Island vice president Julian Paul all throwing their hats in the ring.

Before the conclusion of the conference, the membership will also vote on a raft of constitutional and policy remits.

The constitutional remits have the power to update the party’s 2018 constitution, however, there is no proposed amendment to get rid of the current clause that states any of the party MPs who resign or are expelled from the party are personally liable for up to $300,000 if they don’t leave Parliament immediately.

The clause is now redundant thanks to Peters’ waka-jumping bill passing its third reading earlier this week. Despite the clause no longer being relevant, no one had proposed to get rid of it ahead of the conference. But there is the ability to amend or remove the clause during the course of the weekend.

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