New Zealand First’s weekend 25th-anniversary celebration showed that there is more to the party than Winston Peters.
Of course, he dominated proceedings; shrunken full-length images of him were on display and wall panels of newspaper clippings laid out the history of the party from the day he was thrown out of National in 1992.
And the Tauranga racecourse venue for the conference was where he was first selected as the National candidate for the city in 1984.
But the party now has four Ministers and one undersecretary.
It has spent 18 of its 25 years of existence in opposition, and it is now having to get to grips with being in Government.
So there were times when the conference sounded like a conventional party conference as those Ministers reported on their portfolios.
However there were still faint echoes of the old immigrant loathing populist party that it began life as.
But after 25 years, the party is moving on and that was evident in the way that the Ministers and the MPs seemed to steal the show and leave Peters’ Sunday afternoon keynote address as something of an anti-climax.
Not that they showed anything other than intense concentration while he spoke.
The party had advertised the speech as being open to the public, but only a handful of non-party members turned up, and minutes before he began speaking, party officials hastily removed rows of empty seats presumably so that the TV images would show a packed room.
Peters announced no new policies and instead stuck to his persistent themes with a lengthy attack on the media and then an all-round attack on National yet some of what he had to say was in itself revealing.
It’s often forgotten that NZ First is a breakaway from the National Party and that the breakaway had a deep and bitter ideological motivation.
But Peters reminded his audience of why the party had been formed at the height of what he called the neo-liberal policies of Ruth Richardson.
’ New Zealanders were pitted against each other in a Darwinian race for economic survival,” he said.
“Families were dislocated.
“Old truths were forgotten.
“Hope was crushed.
“It was the moment in New Zealand’s political history when we lost our innocence.”
Peters repeated what has been a consistent theme since he left National that the change was “unmandated.”
“The battle New Zealand First waged against those malevolent forces was never a war of conquest; we fought in defence of our homes, our families, and posterity.
“The neo-liberals scorned our petitions; they ignored our pleas, and they mocked our appeals. But still we persisted and 25 years on we petition no longer; we petition no more, we plea no more, and we appeal no more.
“Today, by our very presence we defy them!”
Later, after the speech, he elaborated on the potential for any future NZ First deal with National.
“The National Party might actually reform itself,” he said.
“It might actually find a leader because they ain’t got one now.
“And they may actually reform themselves and get back to being the party they once were with a capital “N” rather than an international party.”
Peters – and the party members – believe in the kind of New Zealand that Sir Keith Holyoake or Sir Robert Muldoon believed in; a country where the state played a key role in economic development and ensured that wealth was equitably spread.
The nostalgia for the Muldoon era was demonstrated by one delegate who approached the media table to show off pictures of his prized veteran car, a former crown Ford LTD; he said it was the very CR1 that Muldoon used to be driven around in.
Talk to delegates, and you will find many who held office in the National Party in the Muldoon era.
Privately NZ First MPs will say that the party’s strategy is to peel off soft National voters with the promise that they can knock the left wing edges off Labour and the Greens.
This, however, requires the party to walk a tightrope.
On the one hand, it needs to let people know that it is effectively moderating the coalition, but on the other, it must not be seen to be dividing the coalition.
Peters, predictably, blames the media for any suggestion that the coalition is less than in total synchronous lockstep.
“Almost 1100 items have passed through cabinet and cabinet committees since the coalition was formed,” he said.
“That shows an incredible level of agreement between Labour and New Zealand First ministerial and caucus colleagues, as well as signifying the voluminous amount of policy change already agreed between us.
“Too many in the media instead targeted four policy areas that were still works in progress and then endlessly interviewed their keyboards, with each piece more breathless.
“More fool them because nearly all of those works in progress are settled.”
But questioned at his post-speech press conference, Peters refused to provide any details about any settlement of one of the “works in progress”, the Employment Relations Amendment Bill, with its provision to require employers to agree to multi-employer collective agreements, which NZ First Minister, Shane Jones, has said publicly the party wants provincial employers exempted from.
“We have the wonderful chance to lay that out before the country, in the future, probably when Parliament resits,” he said.
But the challenge of maintaining the NZ First brand goes further than simply dismissing any suggestion that there may be a difference between Labour and NZ First as a media beat up.
That may preserve coalition tempers, but it ignores reality.
NZ First have studied previous coalition governments and they know that they have to preserve a distinctiveness otherwise they risk going the way of the Alliance, ACT, United Future or the Maori Party.So how do they do it?
Regional Economic Development Minister and scourge of the “big end of town”, Shane Jones admitted to the conference that there had been some “colourful outbursts.” (A reference to his attacks on Fonterra and Air New Zealand.)
“But we are a fire eating party,” he said.
“Our leader has always had a fire eating quality about him; a combative quality.
“It’s in our DNA.
“It is a bit discordant the way I articulate it but I never once articulate any of thee jabs at corporate excess without the support of our caucus.
Jones said that the Provincial Growth Fund’s $3 billion allocation as a consequence of the coalition agreement was a huge accomplishment for NZ First.
He said there had not been such a large allocation of money to the provinces since Sir Julius Vogel.
“But unless we profile ourselves on a regular basis; this is all of us putting putea; putting our dollars and cents into an electoral bank so that we have got something profound to campaign on in two years time.”
Two other MPs, Mark Patterson and Tracey Martin who has a clutch of portfolios including Internal Affairs, Seniors and Children, gave the conference some insight into the mechanics of the coalition.
What is perhaps surprising is how much paper flows across the desk of each NZ First MP. Virtually every Government move is run past NZ First to be ticked off.
That means that someone like Martin who already has a heavy Ministerial load, finds herself having to deal with a range of issues beyond her portfolios because she is the spokesperson on them.
“Any Cabinet papers, or anything coming out of the Green Party as well, in my spokesperson role I am consulted on those and I have to put in the New Zealand First perspective,” she told POLITIK.
She said often that meant taking the proposals to the New Zealand First caucus.
“But not always.
“If I’ve developed the policy in that space, the caucus generally takes the spokesperson’s word for it.”
Mark Patterson, a first-term MP, handles the delicate issue of primary industries.
New Zealand First, as Peters told the conference, likes to think of itself as the party of the regions.
“We know they represent the best of this country and for the first time in nine years they know that their government, with New Zealand First at its heart, are with them,” said Peters.
Patterson has been working with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and as a consequence must navigate some difficult political territory, particularly the upcoming review of the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act — the legislation which essentially allows Fonterra’s near monopoly.
Jones has already argued that the review should look at Fonterra’s structure. O’Connor is believed to be sympathetic to that view.
Patterson is proposing to tour New Zealand seeking dairy farmers’ views.
“It’s very much about consultation,” he told POLITIK.
“To be honest, there is a variety of views within our caucus.”
What he appears to be hoping is that the weight of evidence from dairy farmers will be enough to counter any threats from Jones and possibly Peters to break Fonterra up.
It is this potential to counter Government moves across a broad range of policy areas that distinguishes this NZ First time in Government compared with the Peters’ presence in the 1996 National government or the 2005 Labour Government.
Another obvious example is Defence Minister Ron Mark who has been able to convince sceptical Greens and left-wing Labour MPs of the need to spend more on defence procurement.
However there were also discordant notes during the conference.
The former MP and three year President, Brent Catchpole, was more or less thrown out; he was the first to drop out of a five person slate running for the presidency.
The victor, Lester Gray from Tauranga who had been heavily promoted by MP, Clayton Mitchell, began his presidency by moving a motion calling for immigrants and refugees to “respect New Zealand values” which he said were founded on Christianity.
“It’s very easy for people to come to this country and to bring the band habits of their countries to this country,” he said.
Another delegate, Roger Melville from the Wairarapa called for a citizenship “because they have got to learn to be disciplined in our contry’s ways.”
“I’m afraid we are getting certain types of people, various nationalities, and various ideas that are not actually kosher.”
It’s plain there is still a streak that one Maori delegate described as “verging on racism,” that runs through part of the party.
No one seems yet able to deal with it.
In some ways NZ First’s problem is Peters — he is so high profile, so full of bluster and so controversial that he can obscure the Ministers and MPs who make up the rest of his caucus.
But the party in its 25th year has a logic and a talented bunch of MPs. It has found a place in New Zealand politics, somewhere in between National and Labour, albeit possibly sometimes still back in 1984.