Winston Peters has now been the leader of NZ First for 30 years, and as far as he is concerned, nothing much has changed over that time.
His presence is now both the party’s comparative advantage and, increasingly, its challenge.
He has name recognition; he has a faithful if diminishing following and, for many people, is New Zealand First.
But the party is starting to attract a number of candidates with substantial CVs and name recognition in their own right which raies questions about whether there is a succession plan.
Peters can still draw a crowd as he did yesterday with his rally wrapping up the party’s annual convention when over 500 turned out to hear him speak, albeit that he had forecast he could get up to 1000.
But much of what they heard could have been heard at any Peters speech over the past nine or ten years.
It was long on what was wrong with New Zealand but short on specific solutions.
“We are a Party that for thirty years has put New Zealanders First,” he declared.”
“Certainty, common sense, and experience are desperately needed in New Zealand now, and even more so after this coming election.
“It’s with that in mind that we ask you to get ready, to make a commitment, right here, right now, to save our country.
“If you do, the future is certain; democracy will prevail, but it is now or never.”
That sort of rhetoric is how it all began back in 1993 when he founded the party.
It was a past that was celebrated at a black tie dinner on Saturday though that threatened to go off script when former long-time party president Anne Martin was asked to nominate the highlights of her time in the party, and she recalled the two occasions when she had been interviewed by fraud squad detectives over irregularities in the party’s funding.
She then helpfully suggested that the Serious Fraud Office hold off on making a decision whether to appeal the SFO’s failure to convict NZ First of campaign funding breaches until after the election.
But alongside Peters and his populist rhetoric and possibly despite him, the party has become a much more professional organisation and now contains a growing group of candidates with confidence in their own political agendas.
Heading that list is Shane Jones, whose conference speech at the weekend was a rousing, tub-thumping oration strong on his condemnation of the place that the Treaty of Waitangi now occupies in New Zealand politics.
He will now be reinforced by Casey Costello, the former deputy chair of Hobson’s Pledge, who has joined the party and is now a candidate.
From within the party, the former MP, Mark Patterson, is now the president of Otago Federated Farmers and a highly credible voice within farmer politics.
However, there are still ghosts from the old days.
A new candidate, Dr Michelle Warren, said she had joined up because of Peters’s support for the anti-vax protesters outside Parliament.
And during a debate on requiring the banks to maintain cash, Kirsten Morfitt, the party’s Bay of Plenty candidate, said ending cash would give power to large corporations.
“Cash doesn’t track us or check us,” she said.
That suspicion of “large corporations” is classic NZ First, and this conference focused on the Australian-owned banks.
Mark O’Neil, Christchurch Central, moved a remit calling for the Commerce Commission inquiry into banking to be extended to cover the same grounds as the recent Australian Senatorial inquiry.
“In the last year, they pulled out $7.15 billion of profits from New Zealand,” he said.
“That’s the equivalent of 1300 dollars for every single man, woman and child in New Zealand.
“You’ll like this because when the ANZ boss Antonia Watson was asked about the $1.6 billion of after-tax profit, she admitted it’s a lot of money.”
The remit was passed unanimously, and yesterday, Peters announced extending the Commerce Commission inquiry would now be party policy.
However, the party was more accommodating to big corporations when it agreed to back the long-standing pharmaceutical industry’s campaign to abolish Pharmac.
The debate was reinforced with emotional presentations from Patient Voice chair Malcolm Mulholland and the acting CEO of the rest home group, Aged Concern, Katherine Rich, both of whom attacked the whole concept of Pharmac.
Former NZ First MP, Jenny Marcroft, has been behind the move to get the party to support the abolition.
“When we get to government, we will ensure that we scrap the Pharmac model,” she said.
“We will double the Pharmac budget to $1.3 billion, which means we will fund all of the medicines currently on the medicines waiting list.”
Marcroft’e remit was initially not supported by any speakers at the conference. Those who did speak said they couldn’t see the need to scrap Pharmac when really all that was required was an increase in its budget.
But Peters, who rarely attends conference remit debates, was present for this and made an even rarer intervention.
He said the Pharmac model had removed political accountability from drug-buying decisions.
“What we’re saying is we need a model where the politicians should raise themselves and say that they will be honourable and they’ll be in inverted commas, kind, and actually be held accountable for the number one thing that concerns every life, health,” he said.
The sum proposed by Marcroft is massive by any budgetary standard; it would amount to nearly a 50 per cent increase in the overall annual health budget, but this did not appear to phase leader Peters who coupled the Pharmac announcement with vague promises of tax reductions.
Asked where he was going to get $1.2 billion to fund drugs from, he said: “From the same place they got $29 billion from for light rail.”
When it was pointed out to him that the light rail project would be funded from the capital budget, whereas drugs would come from the operating budget, he simply said: “We’re not going to waste our time with that sort of distinction.”
Potentially more embarrassing for NZ First was that as they were announcing their support for the patient advocacy groups and their opposition to Pharmac, the British newspaper “The Observer” was publishing an investigation which showed that drug companies were systematically funding grassroots patient groups that lobbied for the approval of the rollout of their drugs.
The investigation found that of 173 drug appraisals conducted by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence since April 2021, 138 involved patient groups that had a financial link to the maker of the drug being assessed or had since received funding.
There have been similar findings in Australia related to Patient Voice in that country.
However, Marcroft told POLITIK she was unaware of any drug company funding being involved in New Zealand’s Patients Voice organisation.
When Peters was asked by POLITIK about a possible link, he said he had taken on white-collar crime and white-collar influence like no other politician,
“And I do not need you to tell me anything about that,” he said.
“That’s all I can say to you that I’m not out and have never been bought by anybody.”
Ironically there is an element of “me too” about NZ First’s Pharmac policy in that ACT want a review of the agency and has catapulted a prominent figure from Patient Voice in Australia into number four on their list.
And in another “me too,” NZ First, like National, is proposing to index income tax rates to inflation.
However, the New Zealand First version was even more bereft of detail than the National proposal.
“We’ve got a senior economist working on those facts, and as a former Treasurer, I know how it is done,” he said.
The party has also adopted a remit calling for the removal of GST from basic foods.
And its law and order policy now includes gangs-only prisons and declaring gangs to be terrorist organisations.
But if there was a theme to the conference, and certainly on Saturday, its highlight was two speeches about the Treaty from Hobson’s Pledge deputy chair, Casey Costello and NZ First Northland candidate Shane Jones.
Costello focused on the He Puapua document, the draft of which has been drawn up to suggest how New Zealand could implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“Despite various protestations by Ministers and both Prime Ministers of this Labour government that He Puapua is not a plan, nor is it government policy, it has to be one of the greatest coincidences in our history that the objectives of this plan that is not a plan have been realised or at least are in the process of being realised,” she said.
Costello highlighted a long list of co-governance proposals in legislation ranging from Te Aka Whai Ora (Maori Health Authority) through to the various changes to planning legislation and proposals for local government reform.
“Those who try to defend governance demonise democracy as the tyranny of the majority,” she said.
“Is the option better to say we have a tyranny of the minority?”
But it was Jones who scored the line of the day.
Bro, it’s time to put the K back in Iwi,” he said.
“We are all Kiwis.
“As someone who grew up learning our Maori language from my grandmother, born in 1892, we were reared to celebrate all of our whakapapa, be it Croatian, European or Maori; there was no tolerance for accentuating one part of your being to demonise another part of your being.”
Jones was critical of the way the Treaty was being used to solve modern-day issues.
“Like it or not. It was New Zealand First, in particular, Winston, who always forced, always attacked the notion that you cannot use the Treaty of Waitangi served up in 1840 as a modern-day recipe to reorder, re-empower and reorientate whanau Maori,” he said.
“I’m sick of that mentality of victimhood.”
He also attacked Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson for her proposal that private land should be able to be returned to Maori claimants where it had been illegally obtained in the 19th century.
“What that party is trying to do is to memorialise, internalise the perpetual grievance mentality within the Maori population,” he said.
“Those of us who don’t believe it need to attack it and dismiss it.
“There is no place in the development of our nationhood for perpetuating a victim mentality challenging or a victimhood ideology.
“It will corrode us at a time when New Zealand internationally and in the Pacific should be indivisible and forward-thrusting in terms of what our interests are.”
It remains to be seen what Jones’ role in the campaign will be. He is fighting a high-profile battle for the Northland seat, and a large number of his supporters, many Maori, turned up at the conference in custom-designed jackets and tee shirts with his name and webpage details printed all over them.
In the past, the best a party member seeking a high profile could do was what Ron Mark did and have his delegation turn up in matching 10-gallon hats.
But Jones is the rising star in the party; he represents a different generation to Peters, so perhaps it was no surprise that Peters did not respond when the right-wing blogger Whaleoil asked him what his succession plan was.
It should have been obvious.