New Zealand First turned 25 yesterday and in doing that demonstrated that its leader has persistence and determination, if nothing else.
What is often forgotten is that the party originally was a breakaway from National.
In the background from day one was Doug Woolerton, the party president for 14 of its 25 years and an NZ First MP for 12.
And Woolerton believes that the party could easily go into government with National sometime in the future.
Woolerton, a farmer, cut his political teeth in the old Waipa electorate National Party organisation with the late Kathryn O’reagan and Simon Upton — both Ministers in the Bolger Government.
He stood for National’s selection in 1990 in Hamilton West but missed out which as it was to turn out was probably just as well.
The person who won, Grant Thomas, lasted only one term and despite his own opposition to Ruth Richardson’s hard-line free-market policies, he lost his seat in 1993.
Woolerton also opposed Richardson’s policies after the so-called “Mother of All Budgets” in 1991.
“I got disillusioned, pissed off, all of those words,” he told POLITIK.
“It was just ridiculous.
“It was going to make a recession worse, and it was going to hurt a lot of people.
“But more than anything, I was getting pissed off with the new right, as Winston calls them, or neo-liberalism as we call it and the budget was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Because he was inside the National Party organisation at a relatively high level, he knew that Peters shared his views.
“So I wrote to him and said that I agreed with him and if he wanted me to help him, and I can remember the words, within or without the National Party I would do so.”
Peters then sent two people from his Tauranga electorate over to Hamilton, and they discussed with Woolerton the prospect of forming a new party.
Even before it had a name, he was the chairman.
At first, they relied on their National Party contacts to get the party going and then on July 18, 1993, there was the launch rally headlined by Winston Peters at Alexandra Park Raceway carried live on what was then Radio Pacific and support started to roll in.
What Peters and Woolerton both agreed on was a long-term strategy for the party.
“Winston had been banging on for some time about the ills of the new right, and I agreed with him, so we didn’t just wake up one morning and come up with that.
“I knew the party would be different.”
The new party organisation did a lot of work on the MMP model that New Zealand voted for in the 1993 referendum. And they looked at the home of MMP, Germany.
“The Germans always had a party in the middle which spent a fair bit of time in power, and we wanted to replicate that.
“So New Zealand First had a place.”
And that intention to occupy the middle gave rise to Peters’ refusal to say before an election who he would form a coalition with; instead he said NZ First would listen to the voters and begin negotiations first with the party with the largest share of the vote.
And though in 1996 they conducted parallel negotiations with both Labour and National as they did last year, they ended up with the largest party, National.
In 2005, NZ First did a confidence and supply agreement with Labour who had the largest share of the vote.
But that was to be the last time that approach was taken. Last year, though National had the largest share of the vote, NZ First has gone into coalition with Labour.
Woolerton believes this was because National still did not understand MMP.
”At first people didn’t understand that positioning strategy, National still doesn’t.
“Why would John Key slag Winston saying he would never work with him, virtually calling him a thief and a vagabond.
“Well, Winston is never going to forget that sort of stuff.
“Why would you say things like that?
“All that is an indicator that they don’t understand the role of a small party in an MMP environment.”
But for all that, he believes that in the long run, bad blood will not matter.
“That is unless you get a situation like you had at the last election where Winston was in the negotiating position and it was obvious the Labour Party would be more amenable to ditching the far right.”
Woolerton says small parties can never win a large share of the vote; that will always go to National and Labour.
“So the question is when will the big parties create conditions that allow the small parties to thrive because they are going to need them one day.
“So could New Zealand First go with National.
“Absolutely, no problems whatsoever because there is already a different leader and there will be more changes because all parties change from time to time.
“The next time National gets in it won’t be as extreme right as it has been for the past nine years.”
Because of its determination to stand in the middle and because it recognises that it is a niche party, Woolerton says the party represents those who the big parties do not.
“We’ve always thought the constituency was the guy who owns the shop, the guy who fixes the tractors.
“It’s not the farmers.
“It’s the people who service the farmers who do the grunt work day to day.”
That explains the party’s insistence on the Provincial Growth Fund being part of the coalition agreement and it also points to the importance of Shane Jones in terms of maintaining the NZ First vote.
New Zealand First does best in electorates like Northland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, Rangitikei or the Wairarapa.
And within those electorates, it does best in the smaller villages rather than the bigger towns.
“Those people are looking for a person who understands their problems, and with all the new right thing going on, it was New Zealand First who did understand them.
“It’s not a huge vote, and you don’t want to be forgetting too many of them because there aren’t too many of them out there.”
Woolerton has retired from Parliament and the Presidency, but he is still a force behind the scenes.
He says he writes two pages memos from time to time to NZ First MPs just reminding them of that constituency that the party represents.
Above all though, he credits Peters with the party’s success.
“It’s been a really hard road and when you have a road like that people can say what they like about Winston, but you need a leader that is always there and a leader that can take people with them.
“All leaders are going to have to do some things that are going to piss some people off.
“They are not always the wonderful pure people that they put on the posters.
“They are always tough bastards.
“So you have to have somebody who is going to be tough; has got that charisma to rally the troops, again, and again, and again.
“And he does.
“You have got to have that sort of leader.
“So it has sort of worked.”
That might be a good summary of the party’s 25 years; it has sort of worked.