NZ First is creeping up in the polls. It might be margin of error stuff but few, if any, political commentators are now willing to predict Winston Peters and his party won’t return to Parliament. Since late July, three polls (Roy Morgan, Essential and Curia) have NZ First above the 5 percent threshold, while three (Reid, Talbot Mills and Verian) have the party sitting between 3 and 4 percent.
A popular theory is that Peters is starting to attract supporters away from the fringe parties that popped up in the wake of Covid mandates and lockdowns. On current polling these parties have no chance and Peters may be the best option for the ‘angry’ part of the electorate to make its vote count. Peters, with his usual touch of indignation, sees it differently.
“We’ve had 72 political parties in the last 40 years … they don’t last five seconds because they don’t know how hard it is or what it takes. We are the most successful third political party over the years in this country’s history so don’t put it down to anti-vaxxers.
“New Zealand, since the 80s, has had a penchant for extremism on both sides [right and left] and this penchant has cost us a lot of money because it is not just extremism but it is experimentalism with policies that have never worked in any country at any time anywhere in the world, so you have got a lot of people who find this disquieting. They are what I call ‘responsible capitalists’ who are socially conservative and that is where NZ First’s support is coming from.”
“I was in Invercargill and this question came from the floor about swimming baths and what you had were men going into the women’s changing sheds and toilets and I just made it clear that this was not acceptable to NZ First. It is not an attack on anybody.”
– Winston Peters
Political studies lecturer and commentator, Bryce Edwards, says it is likely Peters’ focus on social issues is resonating with people who are uncomfortable with the pace of societal change in New Zealand.
“They have always been a centre party in terms of economics but not in a boring middle-of the-road way like United Future. To some extent they have used social issues to distinguish themselves and Winston Peters would see himself in tune with middle New Zealand on social issues.
“Some of these people are alarmed by changing social mores on things like gender. Some older women for example feel strongly about this and Peters is raising questions they probably agree with.”
Two weeks ago, Peters announced NZ First’s new ‘bathroom’ policy. All new public organisations would be required to have separate unisex and single sex bathrooms. Existing public facilities would have to prevent anyone accessing facilities designed for the opposite sex to use.
He also announced that any sporting body that did not have an exclusive biological female category would immediately be ineligible for government funding.
Peters said on Facebook at the time: “The minority liberal elite are trying to decide for all New Zealanders that the removal of women’s safety, privacy, and freedoms is an expected sacrifice for the elite’s woke ideological and social crusade.”
The policy seems to partly have had its genesis back in May when a dispute arose over who could use which changing rooms at an Invercargill aquatic centre. Some locals expressed anger at the city council’s practice of allowing anyone who identified as female to enter the female changing rooms at Splash Palace.
Peters says his party’s policy is not anti-trans.
“I was in Invercargill and this question came from the floor about swimming baths and what you had were men going into the women’s changing sheds and toilets and I just made it clear that this was not acceptable to NZ First. It is not an attack on anybody, it’s really that women and girls have every right to safety. It is preposterous that something that is so obviously right and fair is even being challenged by anybody. It is an upside-down world, but I am not going to stand by, I’m going to defend that to the max.”
“My Facebook is bigger than Luxon’s, bigger than Hipkins’ and the rest of them by miles and they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost their numbers.”
– Winston Peters
Peters’ attacks on the “elite woke” get plenty of traction on social media. Edwards suspects Peters’ success on social media is a source of pride for the 78-year-old politician.
“I think he probably goes ‘I am this old guy, but I am up on the technology’. It is pretty clear he does a lot of it himself and there is no professional sculpting of his message. Political outsiders do become very well equipped at using Facebook.”
Peters confirms that his strong emphasis on social media is a result of being left “outside” by the mainstream media.
“For obvious reasons, if you have been treated like a pariah by the commentariat and self-appointed experts, the great thing about modern society is you’ve got social media and without any boosting [paid promotion] we have got past all the rest. My Facebook is bigger than Luxon’s, bigger than Hipkins’ and the rest of them by miles and they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost their numbers.
“Three of us meet every day by phone, early in the day, and discuss issues. We give them [posts] the litmus test of credibility and then I get the final say and sign off everything.”
“There are now more poor people in this country and more people living in cars, and we had the money to fix those things and as a person that comes from very poor circumstances, I find it the most contemptible behaviour. They claim to be labour – they wouldn’t know what the word means any more.”
– Winston Peters
Peters has 121,000 followers on his leader’s page – ahead of Christopher Luxon (81,000) and Chris Hipkins (52,000).
Newshub Nation’s digital editor, Finn Hogan, says Peters does well with his overall interaction rate “where people either click, like or share”.
“He is in the ‘culture games’ and the way the algorithm is set up it amplifies anything in this space. It is a measure of how engaged people are – they can be approving or disapproving but they are engaged.”
Earlier this week, in a wide-ranging attack on his political opponents, Labour leader Hipkins ruled out working with NZ First. He hardly needed to bother. Peters has ruled out working with Labour since November 2022. Last month he repeated the vow in a tweet: “New Zealand First will not be forming a government with the Labour Party. Period.”
The bitterness Peters feels towards his former coalition partner is palpable. Labour, he says, didn’t just betray him during the time they were both in government (2017-2020) but they abandoned the working class by pursuing a ‘woke’ agenda.
“When we put the handbrake [on] and stopped those things, the mainstream media attacked me for being counterproductive but once we were gone, they became an unholy mess. Our job was to rein it in so therefore certain things were hidden from us. When you say woke that is a very moderate word for it, it is Marxist – it is how you change a society without the democratic right to do so.
“The Labour party of 2017 and 2020 had a hidden agenda and we found out at the very end, a month after the last election that He Puapua had been hidden from me.”
Peters denies that he is shifting ground on his long-held position that NZ First will look at what the electorate wants before ruling out possible coalition partners.
“That’s always been our position but there are consequences when a party lies to you and the inner sanctum of that party were part and parcel of that lie. Why did they do that? Well, I can’t explain that because Helen Clark and Michael Cullen never did but this was a different lot. It is the reason why they are going to get smashed in this election probably.
“And it is not just me; they deserted the New Zealand working class for those woke projects. There are now more poor people in this country and more people living in cars, and we had the money to fix those things and as a person that comes from very poor circumstances, I find it the most contemptible behaviour. They claim to be labour – they wouldn’t know what the word means any more.”
Edwards thinks Chris Hipkins has given Peters an opportunity to pick up working-class votes that started to drift away from Labour under Jacinda Ardern.
“At the start of the year when Hipkins replaced Ardern he started repositioning himself in a working-class way. He changed the language to resonate more with traditional Labour voters, but he hasn’t managed to finish it off and really lock in his appeal to that group. I think Peters is coming through a gap in the middle and is using language that is aimed at the working-class battlers.”
NZ First could also benefit from worries voters might have about Act taking a National-led government too far to the right, according to Edwards.
“I think he is increasingly being seen as the left flank of the National Party. Someone who can stop the right-wing Act Party selling everything off. He could possibly be that handbrake.”
Act leader David Seymour has ruled out working with Peters, but Luxon has remained silent on the issue.
Peters says Act has had little serious scrutiny of its people and policies to date but that is starting to change and will intensify over the next six weeks. Act’s recently been on the back foot over historical remarks made by three of its candidates. These included blaming a spate of drownings on vaccinations, equating the mandate with concentration camps, and denying the impacts of climate change.
When Newsroom put it to Peters that NZ First also has some controversial candidates in its ranks, including an anti-vaxxer, he indicated that changes were on the way.
“They will not be there at the end when the final list is decided in September if they don’t stack up. As all political parties find, you have people that turn up and suddenly you find they are not up to it or there is something adverse for the party or what this party believes in.”