NZ First has gone from hero to zero in the parliamentary support stakes while its coalition partners have soared. On election night the party had few answers as to where it would go next, Dileepa Fonseka reports. 

With zero chance of a late surge for NZ First and the chances of Shane Jones winning Northland at even less than that, NZ First’s one and only leader took the stage just after 9pm.

There was applause, and Peters started his speech with a reference to the economic downturn he saw coming.

“You’ll recall in 2017 on election night we predicted an economic crisis and sadly it’s here; its effects have not been well canvassed, but if there’s one cause for grave disquiet it is the nature of the economic crisis not being properly understood.”

During his 2017 speech, ushering in a new government and predicting economic collapse, he left out the global pandemic which would cause the crisis. 

He also did not mention the plummeting popularity his own party would experience as a result and the soaring popularity the governing coalition partner, Labour.

Such a call likely would have stretched even Peters’ powers of prediction given the radically changed position he was in back then. Three years ago he was not only back in Parliament, but choosing who the next government would be.

In the weeks leading up to Saturday it wasn’t clear if Peters saw this moment coming or had made plans for what would come next.

There was a subdued atmosphere at the Duke. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka

When the polls found the party below 5 percent he predicted a late surge and even encouraged people to vote on election day rather than earlier. 

Alas, even if his voters listened and decided to vote later, it wasn’t enough. If Peters didn’t see it coming, his team gave the impression they did and the revellers at the Duke of Marlborough seemed to too. 

For most of NZ First’s election night party, the sound of their voices barely hovered above a low hum. 

Outside on the verandah, a few would watch Newshub’s coverage of the election results, but seemed strangely disinterested. Perhaps they already realised what it would say. 

Organisers kept the media at bay confined to a small media room off to the side for a decent chunk of the night, and then public street outside the Duke for the start of the evening.

Inside there was plenty of standing room for anybody who wanted to listen to a lone guitarist strum out tunes like ‘Stand By Me’ as election results trickled in.

There were even three chairs empty amongst the 14-chair set for much of it. Even when everybody crowded inside for Peters’ speech there was plenty of space.

“For 27 years there’s one party that’s been prepared to question the establishment and challenge authority and tonight more than ever that force is still needed,” Peters told the audience.

Shane Jones says farmers who didn’t want NZ First now have a Labour-Green government. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka

“For in any challenge it is the preparedness to stand up and take on the challenge – win or lose – that really matters. As for the next challenge? We’ll all have to wait and see.”

Then Peters exited stage right, intentions unclear but with a broad grin on his face and Shane Jones waiting nearby to catch the flock of reporters hungry for quotes. 

Already red in the face from a day spent catching fish in Russell, Jones was visibly tired by the end of the 20-minute plus stand-up where reporters tried to wring out any indication of what anybody in NZ First – Jones included – planned to do now. 

“We’re both old fashioned and I’m a professional politician. He is the rangatira,” Jones said. 

“He has tremendous resilience. He has tremendous experience and when he said watch this space: I agree with him.”

Still, even Jones seemed a bit taken aback by the strength of the Labour Party’s resurgence and offered his condolences to the departing National MPs he’d had the “sweetest nights” with.

“There has been a literal tsunami from the red sea and that red sea is called Labour.”

Jones hinted this may not be the political end of NZ First. Photo: Dileepa Fonseka

He also tried to hint this wasn’t the end for NZ First politically. It had been booted out of Parliament before and returned.

Although what exactly that future would hold would have to wait for later. Even Jones’ future plans were uncertain. 

And although he ruled out a bid for the CEO position at Sealord he didn’t rule out a change of political tack.

“I left the Labour Party to work for John Key then I came back and worked for Winston Peters so watch this space.”

As for the Northland farmers who refused to vote for the electorate seat safety net NZ First needed he had one parting message:

“A number of farmers have been unforgivable in what they’ve said to me, but look for all the farmers of Northland who felt I wasn’t their man: they wake-up and they’ve got the Greens and Labour driving agricultural policies and only themselves to blame.”

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