From positions of pivotal power in governments to periods in the political wilderness, NZ First is the enigma of New Zealand politics. The party’s chances of a return to its glory days seem to rest, as they always do, with its long-time leader Winston Peters.
They’re out, but they’re not down.
Last weekend, the third most-successful political party of the past three decades – according to its admittedly biased leader – held its annual general meeting in Auckland.
On paper, it was an opportunity for New Zealand First to regroup: to analyse what had gone wrong in the 2020 election, which saw its share of the vote plummet from 7.2 percent and the role of kingmaker in 2017, to 2.6 percent and an unceremonious booting from the House of Representatives.
It was also a chance to address some stark realities: Winston Peters retains his charisma and effervescence, but will be pushing 80 by the 2023 election. With the end of his political career surely drawing near, and a recent exodus of MPs like Tracey Martin, Ron Mark and Jenny Marcroft, what does New Zealand First’s mid-to-long-term future look like?
Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks with Newsroom.co.nz political editor Jo Moir and political commentator and former NZ First staffer Josh Van Veen about the future of the party whose eye is arguably fixed on bringing back the glory days of the past.
“It was very … Winston”, says Moir of the NZ First AGM at Highbrook in Auckland over the weekend.
“He comes in, there’s lots of applause, people are very excited to see him, and then he gets up and says the same stuff that he said every other year, at the same conference.
“This was a conference talking about what went wrong at the campaign … and, I guess, I thought that may have sunk in a bit, that they might’ve learnt some lessons … but it didn’t. It was the same stuff: having a crack at everyone, and everything.”
NZ First is frequently mocked and pilloried by the political beltway as a cynical party, one that doesn’t stand FOR things, but AGAINST them; which looks to return New Zealand to an idealised period in the mid-1950s when life was simpler and moved more slowly.
But the party has been a mainstay of the political landscape: since its inception 28 years ago, it’s only missed out on two parliaments.
Political commentator and former NZ First staffer Josh Van Veen says the party’s path back to Parliament must focus on the voters who abandoned it in favour of Labour.
“Their path to victory has to be the conservative, blue-collar Labour voter.
“The sort of people who probably voted for New Zealand First in 2011, 2014, 2017 … those are the people they need to win back. And they’re not going to do that with fire and brimstone.
“Those people want a positive vision for the future, and they’re looking for some kind of meaning.
“That’s the kind of sentiment that New Zealand First needs to tap into, but they can do it in a positive and constructive way, rather than appealing to fear and prejudice, which they have, unfortunately, done in the past.”
2017’s election result was the worst in its history. Peters, the Lazarus of New Zealand’s political scene, is nearing his 80s; and while there’s precedent for politicians working well into their twilight years – 78 year-old Joe Biden being just the most recent example – there is the persistent question of who will take up the mantle of NZ First leader when Peters calls it quits.
The recent departures of Tracey Martin – who played a big role in the party’s resurgence after the 2014 election – and Ron Mark, who’s now left the party despite being many members’ preferred successor to Peters, has left it with a succession crisis.
Current deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau struggles with name recognition, Moir says, and while Shane Jones is a charismatic politician, his poor showing in the Northland electorate sends a bleak message about the loyalty voters hold towards him.
“Asked what the mid-term might hold for the party, Moir is unequivocal.
“I don’t see New Zealand First being a thing once Winston is done.”
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