Shane Jones speaking at the NZ First conference

New Zealand First’s weekend convention sent a strong signal to National that the two parties could work together.

Delegates unanimously agreed to index income tax thresholds to inflation, a policy already confirmed by National.

Even party leader, Winston Peters, tried to explain away his 2017 decision to reject National and form a coalition with Labour.

“National simply didn’t make the sale so let’s forget about that now and let’s deal with the here and now and the future,” he told around 400 people at his keynote speech yesterday afternoon.

But what was also apparent over the weekend was that the party delegates were in a slightly different space to Peters.

That saw Shane Jones have a much higher profile role in the conference with Peters really only appearing for his keynote speeches and for some time on Saturday.

It was also obvious that the party has revived itself after the 2019 resignation of its then-president Lester Grey and the subsequent leaking of documents to Radio New Zealand allegedly pointing to corruption within its ranks.

Since then, a small executive led by president Julian Paul with the support of some key ex-MPs, Shane Jones, Mark Patterson, Fletcher Tabuteau and Darroch Ball, have turned the party into a more democratic member-driven organisation.

The changes have been enough to persuade former MP, Jenny Marcroft, to rejoin after she resigned in 2021, saying the party had shifted from her own personal values during its term in government.

POLITIK Former MP Jenny Marcroft with NZ First Leader Winston peters at the aprty’s convention in Christchurch this weekend

“I’ve seen that there are really good changes inside the party; more women on the board, and we’ve got a new president who’s been corralling all the forces together and really moving the party in a way that’s allowed everyone to become more involved,” she told POLITIK.

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“And so I think that has enabled me to come back.”

Marcroft has been appointed as a special advisor to new Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown, who has close NZ First links, so much so that he was described by Shane Jones as “the New Zealand First friend”.

New Zealand First runs the most open conferences of any New Zealand political party, and they spent the weekend ploughing through 26 of their proposed 34 remits, all in open session, which is something no other political party dares do on that scale.

The remits focussed on education, crime, the economy and race relations.

POLITIK Fiaola Satu’u moves the remit on co-governance

The remit on race relations called for NZFirst to continue its campaign to entrench its cornerstone policy of “one country; one flag; one vote – one person law for all New Zealanders and reject separatist apartheid framed racist co-governance ideology.”

Its mover, Fiaola Satu’u, a Coromandel delegate, said his electorate has listened to people in pubs, cafes and public places to develop the remit.

Initially, it was not approved for discussion at the conference.

“To say that we are disappointed is an understatement,” he said.

“In fact, some of our committee members thought we’d be much better off if we went fishing instead. “

But after a discussion with the party board, the remit was presented to the conference.

“This remit will unite  New Zealand, and when implemented, New Zealand will unite into one country, one people, one law, one flag, and it will also unite New Zealand to a cohesive, successful country that we will all be proud of,” Satu’u said.

Shane Jones said he wanted to direct the conference’s attention to co-governance.

“This is an ideology; this is a principle that has grown in stature over the last 18 months to two years, and why we in the north have become very, very leery about it because it is now being used and tried to allocate the 20 odd billion dollars worth of health resources,” he said.

“That is an absolute offence to democracy.”

POLITIK NZ First delegates voting at their conference

But then the remit ran into a dispute ignited by Winston Peters’ brother, Jim.

He moved an amendment to delete the word “apartheid”.

He succeeded, and then the motion without “apartheid” was approved unanimously.

But his brother, Winston, who was not present for the remit debate, took a different view.

“Co-Government separatism, the seeds of apartheid are being scattered throughout all of our laws and institutions,” he said in his keynote speech.  

His speech notes contained a second reference to apartheid when he claimed Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party were pursuing policies of apartheid.

However, he did not read that sentence out.

His party members did not want the word used in connection with co-governance, so how did he reconcile that with his use of it?

“I wasn’t at that debate, and perhaps it would have been changed if I had been, but they’re entitled to it; we do welcome open debate,” he said.

But it wasn’t the only difference between the party and Peters over the weekend.

The other, on tax, was more subtle.

“You hear parties at the moment saying we’re going to give you tax cuts,” he said in his speech.

“Well, that’s what Liz Truss said in the UK the other day; it lasted four days.

“Ladies and gentlemen, everybody believes in tax cuts; everybody in this room believes in tax cuts, and it is possible if you grow the darned economy rapidly, and that’s what our party is going to do.”

It was clear that Peters was cautious about tax cuts.

Nevertheless, the conference went ahead and unanimously approved a remit calling for the adjustment of all tax brackets “for a decade’s worth of inflation” and then “prevent fiscal drag by automatic consumer price index adjustments to tax brackets every 36 months.”

There was no qualification about growing the economy.

It was proposed by Shane Jones.

“The tone of our electorate committees in the north is that we do not support wholesale tax cuts,” he said.

“We must maintain and protect the revenue base to sustain our obligations, our borrowings, the cost of which are going to go up.

“However, we do feel that as a consequence of inflation, people stranded at the median wage or other increments above are paying an unfair amount of tax.

“And what we are asking for is from time to time to take account of the inflationary pressure on a person’s earnings and ensure that they are not overtaxed by adjusting the tax brackets.”

Nevertheless, the remit was very similar to the National Party’s income tax policy.

POLITIK NZ First Leader Winston Peters during an at-times acrimonious session with journalists at this weekend’s party conference

 However, National intends its indexation to go back only to the fourth quarter of 2017 (after Labour became the government), whereas NZ First would go back ten years. National’s moves would raise tax thresholds by 11.5 per cent, whereas NZ First (going back to 2011) would increase the thresholds by a more generous 18.8 per cent.

So isn’t New Zealand First’s policy much the same as National’s?

Peters: “It’s not the same policy as National at all. The National Party announcement sounds a bit like Liz Truss. What we’re saying is if you want stagflation to damage the economy ignoring what’s going on, and that’s why we want it backdated and every so many years brought up to the scale, so we don’t have the kind of stagflation that this country has experienced in the past.”

Media: “The Nats want to move the tax thresholds with inflation.” 

Peters: “No, no, he didn’t say that he said he is going to have tax cuts. He might have given you a more sensible, rational answer to that later on. But when Luxon first made that statement, as you well know, he didn’t say that at all. I follow this guy very closely.” 

Media: “It is one of their policies. The difference between theirs and yours is you want to push tax brackets for ten years of various, whereas they want to do four years of inflation. 

Peters: ‘I am glad that you point out the difference.”

Media: “Would you push the National Party further on it; Is that a bottom line?”

Peters: “Oh, excuse me, don’t come to me this far from the election, having ignored this party all this time, saying that our cause is hopeless and then start talking about bottom lines. Which part of this narrative is not being very consistent? We know we’re coming back, but please don’t go to the most experienced politician and political party in this country and talk about bottom lines this far from the election.”

As Peters’ media encounters go, this was typical. The media left not really much the wiser.

POLITIK Winston Peters addresses his party conference

But perhaps the party remit had struck a raw nerve; the new assertiveness in the party debates and the members’ willingness to ignore the leader’s personal policy preferences were both new and possibly slightly unwelcome.

After all, as he pointed out, he is the country’s most experienced (for which read, longest serving) party leader. He has been the leader of New Zealand First since it was formed in 1993; that is for one year less than Stalin ran Russia and two years less than Castro was President of Cuba.

He will be 78 at the next election. New Zealand’s oldest Prime Minister last century, Walter Nash, was 78 when he was defeated in 1960.

This raises the question of succession; not that anyone dares talk about it within New Zealand First.

But what was evident over the weekend at the conference was the dominant role now being played by Shane Jones.

He delivered his own keynote address on Saturday and frequently spoke during the remit debate. He introduced the guest speakers, Cameron Bagrie and Sir Graeme Lowe and Peters himself.

He will lead the debate from the party on co-governance because he has impeccable Te Ao Maori credentials.

Delegates got a taste of the rhetoric he would use.

“I  sit through, and I listen to these elites from the universities and various other places, and they tell me that the whole of the North, the Tai Tokerau,  the tribe I belong to; we’re victims, we’re being oppressed,” he said.

“Well, fellow members, no one, not even my wife, oppresses me, but she does impress me. 

“We can no longer tolerate, and we must not acquiesce with the notion that the arrival of Christianity in 1814 or the musket wars 200 years ago and colonisation is the reason that we have the problems that afflict us throughout New Zealand.

“We use the treaty of Waitangi as an excuse for ongoing social and economic disparities, we diminish the treaty, we corrupt the treaty, and we run the risk of the treaty being cremated by the ACT party.” 

The credibility that Jones brings to the co-governance debate is echoed by another high-profile former MP, Mark Patterson, currently the president of Otago Federated Farmers.

He played a prominent role throughout the weekend chairing the remit debate, but he will also have a big voice in how the party responds to the government’s response to the He Waka Eke Noa farm greenhouse gas emissions pricing mechanism.

POLITIK Former NZ First MP Mark Patterson

For those who might expect NZ First to take a position out on the fringe nearer the groundswell campaign, Patterson’s position might come as a surprise.

“I think there is a willingness among farmers to do something,” he told POLITIK.

“There’s not an appetite to be seen as climate change deniers.

“We don’t want to be seen to not be doing our bit.

“But there’s a limit to how far you can take that.

“And there are some economic realities that need to be addressed as well.

“We just simply cannot afford to decapitate the second major export sector.”

It was clear over the weekend that the party that began as a populist protest party is now morphing into a conservative party. At one point during a debate on whether to establish a Minister to oversee a Youth Crime Unit, a delegate interjected that maybe what we needed was a “Ministry of Respect.”

As National focuses on winning urban centrist votes and ACT stays out on the libertarian right those signals this weekend might be the beginning of NZ First looking to fill the space for a conservative party on the centre-right of New Zealand politics.