Could it all have been different for New Zealand First and Winston Peters this election? Tim Murphy on a cumulative misjudgment.

So you’re Winston Peters. You’re down but not yet out. Again. 

What do you do now? How do you recover the party vote, and your dignity, over the next three weeks of a campaign in which the tide has gone so far out on New Zealand First?

The two major opinion polls over the past two days, 1News Colmar Brunton (1 percent) and Newshub Reid Research (1.9 percent) have NZ First at lows not even seen the last time the party failed to make it back into Parliament, in 2008.

In 2002, the last time the National Party struggled this badly in a campaign and achieved just 20.9 percent at the election under Bill English, NZ First had been a big beneficiary, boosted to 10 percent of the party vote and 13 MPs.

Not so in 2020. National under Judith Collins is marooned around the early 30s but it is Act, not NZ First that is enjoying the benefits of that slump. In the 1News poll, Act is on 8 percent.  NZ First is even with the Māori Party, New Conservative Party, Advance on equal sixth of the preferred parties.

As they’ve long asked in NZ First circles when facing a decision: What Would Winston Do (WWWD?)

First, he’d dismiss the polls and say election night will be an embarrassment not for NZ First but for the pollsters and the journalists asking him questions about the poll results.  And he has.

Second, he’ll blame the restricted conditions of the election campaign due to Auckland’s Level 3 and 2 status and the rest of the country’s time at Level 2.  How, quite, NZ First had less opportunity than any other party (except, perhaps, Labour, given the Prime Minister’s Covid-19 update press conferences) is unclear. Peters seemed matter-of-fact enough when Jacinda Ardern delayed the election by a month until October 17.

Third, he’ll blame James Shaw and the Greens, and weak links from within Labour, for having let their inadequacies and inexperience diminish NZ First’s record of mature achievement in the outgoing Labour-led Government.  

Fourth, he’ll blame a conspiracy by people ranging from big, foreign-owned businesses and the National Party to news media and certain, un-named, parties working against the interests of “this country.”

We can expect talk of dirty politics, of enemies overheard discussing NZ First’s demise, of a tape or a transcript or a part of a transcript that has fallen into Peters’ hands proving the conspiracy.  There’ll be a document, with an incorrect date and an X marking the spot where the conspirators unknowingly gave their game away.

With that kind of playbook, who needs those Brexit boys who are allegedly scheming NZ First’s campaign?

Will Peters’ tactics work? With advance voting beginning this Saturday, he’d better move fast.

Stuff writer Andrea Vance reckons the party’s blown its chance. She believes the Peters act is like that of an ageing magician, trying to pull an old rabbit and a tatty looking ribbon out of a worn hat.

It’s hard to disagree. It’s said that even Peters’ highest-profile MP, the candidate for Northland Shane Jones, no longer appears as motivated as he once might have been. NZ First’s other big name, the Defence Minister Ron Mark, was captured on an audio provided to Newshub encouraging voters to give him their candidate vote, not party vote. That’s some social distancing.

Some of the factors in New Zealand First’s descent were within its control. Some weren’t.

The pandemic and economic crisis neutralised three of its enduring themes – immigration (there isn’t any), economic nationalism (everyone wants to invest and buy locally) and superannuation (the elderly already face enough of a threat from the virus, no one is targeting touching their super right now). Emergency bailouts dwarfed the millions and billions being doled out under the NZ First-inspired Provincial Growth Fund.

But Peters’ dismissive criticisms of Labour and Jacinda Ardern these past months may well have been a final, cumulative misjudgment.

First, he had attacked the Greens. Then he increasingly felt emboldened to dump on Labour, its inexperience, lack of business nous, light rail plan, flawed Covid-19 response, big spending promises, its Matariki public holiday proposal and its plans to resolve the Ihumātao land dispute. An NZ First press statement on Peters’ speech about Ihumātao even described his comments as “blistering” and was headlined “Peters unleashes on Labour.”

While Ardern smiled and shrugged it all off as election season politicking, it looks increasingly likely the public was not so easygoing about Peters and NZ First white-anting the historically popular Prime Minister.

Perhaps this tactic had been encouraged by the UK team advising the party.

Certainly the received political wisdom – demonstrated by Peters and NZ First in the past as they sought re-election after being part of a government – is that during a campaign you have to differentiate yourself from your bigger ‘host’ to win yourself some votes and not be subsumed. 

But in 1999 and 2008 that didn’t go so well as NZ First twice exited government. Could 2020 have been different?

What if Peters, instead of thinking that hitting Labour was a way to win votes, had tried to bask a little in that party’s reflected electoral glory, had made a virtue of being Labour’s ally and support rather than its handbrake and irritant. 

If he had emphasised the success of his and Ardern’s Covid response in keeping most of the old folks alive, the farmers’ products feeding the nation and heading overseas, and the hospitals coping.

If he had shown how the combined government, with his people and policies at the forefront, had been able to call on a crisis-ready defence force and an expanded police force and had been able to adapt the Provincial Growth Fund to help areas and communities at risk from the economic downturn.

If he had praised Ardern for her leadership, and Labour for working with its conjoint partner New Zealand First to shepherd us all relatively safely to today. 

Because what is the point of a support party that is temperamentally unable to be of support to either side?

Newshub’s poll shows that 43 percent of poll respondents who voted for NZ First in 2017 – four in every 10 – now intend to vote for Labour.  That carries its own comment of how well the tactic of Labour-bashing has played.

So, turning on his only big party option was surely hubristic and reckless. Turning on Jacinda Ardern (‘Her Kindness’ as poet Victor Billot labelled her this week) could well have been a death wish.

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

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