In a surprising move the New Zealand First Party President, Lester Gray, resigned from the Presidency and the party last night.
Lester Gray, a Tauranga petrol station proprietor, was elected President at the party’s annual convention almost exactly 12 months ago.
He announced his resignation on his Facebook page but gave no reasons for it.
“I am no longer a member of the Party,” he wrote.
“Please direct all New Zealand First enquiries to another member or the Party website.
“I will always treasure the wonderful people I have met and the friendships we have started.
Signing off, Lester.”
He was not replying to phone calls or messages last night; nor was his close friend, NZ First MP, Clayton Mitchell.
Gray is Mitchell’s electorate chair.
NZ First Leader, Winston Peters, is overseas.
However, there are hints on Gray’s Facebook page that he may have suffered a mental health episode.
“On September 20 he posted: “A week ago today I found myself at the doctor’s experiencing something I never believed a strong wiĺled, strong-minded, upfront, honest person could suffer from.
“Thank you Mike King, John Kirwan and all the people working in this area!
“You helped me ask for help!”
Mike King and John Kirwan are both well-known campaigners on mental health issues.
Gray’s resignation comes just two weeks before the party’s annual convention in Christchurch.
The party’s rules say that nominations for the Presidency and its board must be in 28 days before the convention and the positions are voted on by the convention delegates.
And in the absence of the President, the Leader can preside over the convention.
The resignation will be a blow for the party because Gray brought some new energy to what had previously been a low-key position playing second fiddle to Peters.
His resignation means the party has lost two high profile members from Tauranga this year with the death of close Peters confidante, Tommy Gear back in April.
The city has always been the party’s spiritual home because it was Winston Peters’ electorate when he left National in 1992.
But with that came a tinge of the conservatism which occasionally veered into racism that traditionally flavoured Tauranga politics.
The anti-Semitic extreme right-wing League of Rights had its home in the city in the 1970s.
This was reflected in a remit that Gray moved at the last NZ First Convention 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 bad habits of their countries to this country,” he said.
He encouraged NZ First members to speak up, and the topics he nominated for them to address were all favourites of the populist right.
“The UN compact on immigration, 1080 and capital gains tax are the hot issues that many people are talking about, and we will never shy away from answering the balance that New Zealand First brings to these topics,” he said in a newsletter to party members last March.
In Tauranga’s place new centres are emerging from within the party; in Northland where both Peters and Shane Jones have strong local support; in Auckland where a number of younger NZ First members have attracted attention and in the south where Mark Patterson has established a strong base in Southland and Otago.
The complexion of the party is changing away from its conservative “grey power” Tauranga origins, and the departure of Lester Gray is just one more sign of that.