The number of New Zealand First party members is especially difficult to ascertain. The high secrecy of the organisation is such that all internal party information is kept as close to the leadership as possible. Early in the party’s life NZ First claimed to have more than 10,000 members, and Winston Peters often claimed the party was the second biggest in NZ. However, as former NZ First MP and adviser Michael Laws explained, ‘Like many of Winston’s claims this one also exceeded the straitjacket of actuality’. [Read more below]
Laws has also written that while he was involved in NZ First he had observed that the party organisation was very centralised and correspondingly weak throughout most of the country. Laws discovered that interested supporters of the party ‘had no focus for their energy, no representative to lobby local voting blocs and no contact for prospective members…. I received bashful reminders that New Zealand First scarcely existed south of Taupo with the exception of the internecine Christchurch factions’ (ibid: pp.337-338).
Laws also revealed that prior to the 1996 general election ‘the party was being inundated with "one-dollar memberships" as potential candidates sought to secure their candidacy selection by enrolling family members, the local sports club and the not-so-occasional random phantom’ (ibid: p.348). It was also reported that NZ First activists in Hawke’s Bay were signing up unwitting students of a Maori language school as party members. A letter was produced in Parliament ‘from the school to prospective students which told them that as well as paying their tuition fees the school had also paid their $1 membership fee to New Zealand First’ (Scherer, 1996d).
When it came to applying to the Electoral Commission for election broadcasting money in 1996 – and thus submitting the party’s membership numbers – NZ First sought assurances from the Commission that such information would remain confidential. It seemed, according to Laws, that the party leadership was concerned that the public might discover the true low level of party membership (ibid: pp.347-348). In 2002 the party suggested that it had a membership figure over 4000 when party president Doug Woolerton claimed the party had more members than the Greens (3370) and ‘a damn sight more’ members than the Progressive Coalition Party (2000) (quoted in Tunnah, 2002). [The 2002 allocation of state broadcasting money was also partly made on the basis that, according to Electoral Commission chief Dr Paul Harris, NZ First had ‘significantly more members’ than other parties (quoted in NZPA, 2002d).]
This history of NZ First’s membership numbers in this blog post is informed by only a very small number of estimations and statements made on the topic by commentators, politicians and the parties. There are too few estimations to warrant a scatter-plot.
[This blog post is to be updated – any feedback or further information is very welcome]