As ‘W R Peters’ loans another $120,000 to New Zealand First, some are turning their minds to the party’s future. Can the party again return to Parliament against the odds, or is this the end of the road?

If New Zealand First’s political prospects after dropping out of Parliament are as good as non-existent, nobody has told W R Peters of Whananaki.

After loaning $60,000 to the party in October, Peters – who has the same initials and Northland retreat as the veteran politician and incumbent leader – has put another $120,186.57 towards the cause the following month, Electoral Commission returns show.

Like the first, the latest loan has an interest rate of two percent and must be repaid within 12 months, providing at least some suggestion Peters expects New Zealand First to remain a going concern until at least the end of 2021.

But the party’s social media pages have not been updated since the immediate aftermath of the election, while the most significant media coverage it has received in recent weeks relates to the eponymous foundation whose alleged fraud is currently before the courts.

So what might the future hold for New Zealand First?

Getting an official answer is not particularly easy: Peters, with several of his former colleagues and candidates, did not return a request for comment from Newsroom.

But Josh Van Veen, a former New Zealand First member and one-time parliamentary researcher for its leader, argues rumours of the party’s demise may be greatly exaggerated.

Van Veen says the party was always likely to struggle at this year’s election, with the traditional problem for a junior coalition partner of being overshadowed by their big brother.

“Winston needed to play an elder statesman role, and he needed to offer a positive vision for what New Zealand First would do if it got a second term in government.”

Covid-19 had also buried some of New Zealand First’s traditional campaign issues, such as immigration, making it harder for Peters and company to get traction.

But that is not to absolve the party – and its leader – of its own, avoidable failures.

“Winston needed to play an elder statesman role, and he needed to offer a positive vision for what New Zealand First would do if it got a second term in government.”

Peters did start doing that towards the end of the campaign, Van Veen says – “but by then it was too late”.

While the party’s repeated claims of being a “handbrake” on the coalition also attracted criticism from some, he believes the message could have worked with voters had it not been for the pandemic.

The fact that Peters has now lent close to $200,000 to New Zealand First offers some idea of the cash crunch the party may be facing.

“I would say the financial state of affairs is pretty dire – I think it would have to be dire for Winston to personally loan that sum of money,” Van Veen says.

The Serious Fraud Office investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation, and subsequent criminal charges, is widely believed to have hampered the party’s ability to attract donations, and may continue to do so moving forward.

But Van Veen does not believe a lack of funds would be an insurmountable obstacle to a parliamentary return, pointing to the last time New Zealand First staged a revival after falling out of power in 2008.

Young New Zealand First members like Rob Gore may need to step up if the party is to resonate with the public in the coming years. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

“If you look back in 2011, they did it on the smell of an oily rag – they had hardly any money then. I think it’s possible to campaign from outside of Parliament without vast sums.”

He argues the party still fills a niche as “an ideological counterweight to what I call the cultural left”, such as Green MPs like Marama Davidson who he describes as wanting to “deconstruct national identity and remake New Zealand into this cosmopolitan utopia”.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in Parliament now who is really challenging that ideological agenda: I’m not saying it’s got the salience that these kinds of cultural issues have in other countries…but I do think we will see that in this term of Parliament more than we have previously.”

Advancing that ideology, along with the economic nationalism which has guided many of the party’s policies, might require New Zealand First to come to terms with some of the factional conflict that reared its head at points during the last term on social issues such as abortion reform.

Speaking to Newshub the week after the election, former MPs Tracey Martin and Jenny Marcroft said the party had not modernised enough or done enough to represent women (Martin declined to speak to Newsroom about the future of the party, saying she was now just a member).

Van Veen believes New Zealand First could afford to be seen as more liberal on issues like abortion and gender equality, with the party’s newer supporters more progressive in outlook than some assume and attracted by cultural issues and economic nationalism rather than moral stances.

A ’50/50′ shot?

He is also keen to see younger members of the party play a more prominent role at a board level and within the organisational structure, with the youth wing showing its ability to win over the wider membership in the run-up to this year’s election.

But while new blood may rise up, a familiar face could lead the party into 2023.

While he is no longer a member, Van Veen still stays in touch with people within New Zealand First and believes Peters is planning to stay on as leader and contest the next election.

Others such as Shane Jones may leave politics altogether, but he says there is still a sense of energy among some staff and party members.

Perhaps surprisingly, when asked for the probability of the party returning to Parliament in 2023, Van Veen says in his mind it’s a “50/50” shot.

“I think the chances are reasonably high: a lot depends on what happens between now and then, but my sense is they will make a strong showing.”

If that does turn out to be the case, then for W R Peters they will have been loans well made.

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

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