New Zealand First Leader, Winston Peters, yesterday launched his party’s election campaign trying desperately to put some distance between himself and Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led Government.
The only problem, of course, is that he and the three other NZ First Ministers have been an integral part of that Government.
So on the one hand, he claimed that NZ First had “opposed woke pixie dust” while at the same time he also boasted that the Government had increased police numbers; had increased defence expenditure; had increased aid to the Pacific and spent millions on the Provincial Growth Fund.
He wound up his launch speech, repeating what appears to be the party slogan for the election campaign: “Back our future”.
During his post-speech media conference, one journalist misquoted it back to him as “back to our future.”
Peters objected, but his reply suggested that might have been nearer the mark.
“We understand that the massive majority of New Zealanders are doing their best, but they’ve got serious doubts and huge anxieties because they don’t think that anyone seriously listens to them or understands,” he said.
“We’re signalling that we’ve never forgotten them and we never have for 27 years.”
That allusion to the past was there when he was asked about the difference between NZ First Minister Tracy Martin’s proposal for a universal family benefit and the existing Working for Families programme.
”Working for families was the massive failure of Rogernomics,” he said.
“So when it all hit the fan to try and save themselves, they brought in the biggest social welfare benefits ever; working for families.
“Farm communities and farmers were on it.
“That’s what happened under the disastrous neo-liberal experiment.
“I don’t forget that some of you should remember.”
In fact, he had forgotten a few basic facts.
“Working for Families” was introduced by the Clark Labour Government in 2004, 14 years after the Lange/Palmer Labour Government in which Roger Douglas served as a Minister was defeated.
And all weekend at the party Convention which attracted only about 150 delegates compared with the 300 or so who showed up last year, there were constant references to the past.
Only the current MPs — apart from Peters — seemed to want to talk about the present.
Defence Minister Ron Mark said that the value of all the defence procurement projects he has in train was worth $7.737 billion dollars.
He said the whole of life value of the P8, C130 and ship purchases was $16 billion.
“This is what successive governments are now committed to,” he said.
“That’s our commitment to the future.
“We have rebuilt the Air Force. We have rebuilt the Navy.”
Mark is a popular figure within the NZ First Party, and he has even recorded a country song to help with fundraising.
The party’s most well known MP, apart from Peters, is Shane Jones and he was somewhat subdued over the two days of the conference but finally emerged yesterday with a rousing speech to delegates.
Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund is a core New Zealand First plank and fits with his proposition that the party is the party of the provinces.
Whangarei delegate, David Wilson, said it was the party’s most successful policy within the coalition.
“When you’ve got two large entities both trying to shake us out, both fearful because they cannot control either the manifestos or the agenda we brought to politics,” he said.
“That’s controlled by you, the members and the public who stand up and vote for us.
“The big parties do not want to give power and authority to those voices.
“So this election coming up is not only a watershed event in relation to where the big parties are currently heading, but it is also us legitimizing affirming and announcing that we are a permanent feature of the New Zealand political landscape.”
NZ First is the only New Zealand political party which allows its members to freely debate a wide range of remits in public in front of the media.
Those debates allow a unique look into the DNA of the party.
Opposing a remit calling for better resourcing of community workers to work with minority ethnic groups, former NZ First MP, Mahesh Bindra said it was his job as an immigrant to learn the language.
At that point, he was interrupted by applause.
“I do not seek any special treatment,” he continued. (More applause)
A remit calling for a review of the Freedom Camping Act produced a stream of speakers concerned about the impact tourists were having on their communities.
Speakers wanted foreigners prohibited from freedom camping.
“If you are a New Zealand citizen or have New Zealand residence you should be able to freedom camp,” said Jamie Arbuckle, the party’s Kaikoura candidate.
“It goes back to the principles of New Zealand First.
“New Zealand First is about New Zealand and New Zealanders first.
“We should have that right.
“The issue really is the excess of numbers coming in through tourism.”
Even a remit calling for the removal of GST off food items brought a suggestion that it should apply only to New Zealand produced food.
On a more practical level, Otago-Southland MP, Mark Patterson, got conference approval for a remit calling for Landcorp to use their balance sheet to provide finance to enable young farmers to purchase their first farm.
Delegates spoke of the impact that the replacement of family farms with equity partnerships and corporate farms was having on rural towns and community life.
But the focus kept coming back to “New Zealand for New Zealanders”.
And Peters brought it back to an old New Zealand First favourite; immigration.
He proposed that immigration be limited to 15,000 people a year.
“What was happening, pre-Covid; you’ll know full well that the drop was not nearly what it should have been,” he said.
“And then all of a sudden we get caught with Covid-19 we realise the cost of this nonsense.”
Peters was reminded that he was deputy prime minister while this happened.
“So you essentially oversaw what you’re saying?” said Jason Walls from the NZ Herald.
“You cannot over leverage your power in being in government,” replied Peters.
“We had seven-point two per cent of the vote.
“I want to say to New Zealanders, if you want change, give us the muscle, and we’ll finish the job.”
And that defines the New Zealand First dilemma. They must now campaign on the basis that they were part of a Government so they can’t credibly attack it, but they were not a big enough part to have a major influence.