Attacks on the media, repudiations of the polls, and jabs at National – it was business as usual for Winston Peters on the first day of New Zealand First’s conference, although not without some obstacles to navigate.

Christchurch was once renowned as the home of boy racers – just ask any local about the infamous “Colombo Run” down the city’s main street.

So it was apt that Winston Peters reached for vehicular metaphors to describe New Zealand First’s influence within government at his party’s conference in the Garden City.

“We’re a supercharged turbo when it comes to good ideas and a handbrake for unsound ideas,” Peters told media, having earlier reminded the party faithful of the occasions when he had stopped the coalition getting out of first gear.

“We have kept the Government on the right track by stopping economically damaging policies, like the complex capital gains tax, or dare I say it 1970s-style industrial relations rules, where an employer in Southland has to offer the same terms and conditions as an employer in Auckland,” he said in his conference opening speech on Saturday morning.

The conference’s first guest speaker was BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope, who thanked the party for its role in putting an end to plans for a capital gains tax.

Peters and his MPs are increasingly pushing the idea that New Zealand First can act as a check on the worst impulses of Labour and the Greens, perhaps in the hopes of peeling some soft National voters away should Simon Bridges’ party start to fade on the home straight to election day in 2020.

If that is the goal, it is tempered by its leader’s inability to resist taking jabs at both the current opposition and the previous government – including the so-called “fiscal hole” raised during the last election campaign.

“You all remember it, the tawdry endless headlines from a guy called Joyce, Steven Joyce that is, and the cacophony of journalists and media commentators prepared to repeat that drivel.”

NZ First MP Ron Mark sits with fellow Wairarapa party members. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Peters insisted New Zealand First could yet move from Labour to National if the conditions were right next year, but he offered a hint of the road blocks which remain in the way.

“It’ll be difficult, but no party is beyond redemption – if the National Party recovers and goes back to what it used to be, a National Party with a capital N, but right now the only national party in this country is the one you’re looking at.”

National may yet be redeemed but there was less charity for Newshub, with Peters offering up a rhetorical burnout in MediaWorks’ parking lot over the news it would sell or close its television arm.

“I’ve got a message for my friends in the media, and it’s all bad. It was announced yesterday certain sections of them are going – and are they shocked? And I’m sorry for some of them because they deserve to stay, but for some of them, good riddance.”

Cheers mixed with sympathetic groans in the crowd – perhaps as good a response as could be expected about the potential loss of hundreds of jobs – but Peters was not done there.

“My message to the media is, don’t dare write this party off or cover your derriere by saying that you can’t rule New Zealand First out.”

At four percent in current polling, the party certainly cannot be disregarded, nor is it a shoo-in, although those numbers were treated with predictable derision.

“For the umpteenth time, I’m not going to bother giving you answers about your polling…when we walk in in 2020, I want to look at all of you who believed in the polling and ask you to resign – is that a deal?”

Winston Peters addresses a crowd of gun owners calling for change to the Government’s firearms reforms. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But Peters cannot (rather, should not) deny that the inevitable compromises of government may chip away at New Zealand First’s vote.

A case in point is the firearms law changes: about a hundred people gathered outside the conference venue calling on New Zealand First to scupper the reforms, brandishing placards and photos of party MPs Ron Mark and Shane Jones with firearms.

Peter Weusten, a firearms licence owner for the past 47 years, had voted mostly for National but backed New Zealand First once and Labour at the last election – although that was likely to change over his concerns about the gun laws.

“All through that time I have demonstrated that I am a fit and proper person to own a firearm, I’ve always behaved responsibly, I’ve been very careful with the storage of my firearms…

“I am concerned that a sport which I’m just starting to get more time to enjoy, the ability to go out and shoot is going to be taken away.”

Peters shot across the road to hear their concerns and offer an assurance that his party was “not out to get you”.

“If you’re asking me, do we support the right of genuine licensed gun owners for legitimate purposes, the answer is yes…

“Our job is to make sure it’s balanced and we treat people fairly, and whatever you might have heard, this party is intently watching every submission as it comes through.”

His remarks were received warmly, but the real pressure will come when the second tranche of firearms reforms heads to its next vote at Parliament.

There were less testing votes during the party’s policy remit sessions, although not without rigorous debate.

NZ First chief of staff Jon Johansson and party leader Winston Peters look over some notes at the party’s conference. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Two “law and order” proposals, one to implement a split drinking age and the other to introduce degrees of murder and manslaughter to the Crimes Act, both narrowly failed (the first by four votes, the second by just three).

More successful was a plan to let employers use 90-day trial periods to employ high-risk workers like recently released prisoners, and a proposal to investigate compulsory community service for all Kiwis aged 15 to 19.

Another passed remit, a commitment that “the sovereign state of New Zealand will maintain its own currency of meaningful denomination”, offered a reminder of the party’s more fringe elements as its submitter spoke darkly of “a cashless society which like globalism is intended to benefit the few to the detriment of many”.

“The opening of our borders even more widely to immigration invites further incursions on our sovereignty, and financial instruments will be among them.”

Just because a remit is passed does not make it party policy – just ask MP Clayton Mitchell about his “Kiwi values” test for migrants and refugees, which is in purgatory after getting the nod last year.

But the rubber will hit the road for real on Sunday, with Peters confirming there will be a policy announcement during his public address – although to nobody’s surprise, he was offering no hints beforehand.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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