In light of the defeat of New Zealand First at the recent general election, the following blog post series focuses on the history of the party. Little academic research has been published on the Winston Peters phenomenon, despite the fact that he and his party have been central to parliamentary politics in New Zealand since the 1980s. This series – which focuses on the early history of the party – attempts to help fill this gap. This first post concentrates on the origins of the New Zealand First party, which can be traced back to the Muldoonist milieu in the National Party of the early-to-mid 1980s – both in personnel (the “Rob’s Mob” party members and the centrist MP Winston Peters) and ideology (economic and populist nationalism). This milieu was more characterised by its adherence to the ideology and political style of Muldoon than it was typical of the National Party tradition. [Read more below]
The existence of such an aberrant and dominant current in the National Party rank-and-file membership was due to the fact that throughout his time as National Party leader, Rob Muldoon had drawn into the party a non-traditional type of National Party member. Instead of being ideologically right-wing, those that made up “Rob’s Mob” were people whose politics were driven by practicalities rather than National Party philosophy, and were responsive to Muldoon’s populist policies aimed at “middle New Zealand”.
Despite Muldoon’s loss of both the 1984 general election and the leadership of the party, his influence remained formidable and as a result, the party continued to be characterised by political infighting and philosophical divisions over the direction of the party. Slowly the anti-Muldoonist majority of the party elite took obvious control of the party organisation and attempted to place National on a new, but more traditional, ideological trajectory.
In 1985 an internal-party organisation calling itself “The Sunday Club” started up within the party as an outrider for Muldoon and “Rob’s Mob” members. Run by ex-National Minister Bert Walker, the Sunday Club held a series of rallies throughout the country that aimed to bring down the leadership of McLay together with the party organisation chiefs Sue Wood and Barry Leay.
Although he was never closely identified and aligned with Muldoon, Winston Peters did join with Muldoon in the post 1984 struggle for control of the direction of the party. This struggle was fought most openly against the dominant modernising force within the party organisation. For example, in April 1985 Peters joined Muldoon in calling for the director of the National Party, Barrie Leay, to resign. This consequently led to a sharp public exchange between party president Sue Wood and Peters (Hames, 1995: p.36).
Ideologically, Peters was now moving away from the free market principles that he displayed in his first term. On the all important post-election debate within the party over whether the party should distance itself from their previous administration, Peters was firmly of the belief that they should not. Peters staunchly defended the Muldoon government, and in particular defended the “Think Big” project, claiming that history would be on the side of Bill Birch.
Despite Peters’ obvious siding with the Muldoonist tendency in the party, his stance was not so much about being pro-Muldoonist and anti-freemarket, but instead about advocating pragmatism over what he called ‘cavalier theoretical experimentation’ (Peters quoted in Hames, 1995: pp.40-41).
That the Muldoonist faction in the National caucus was still very strong was made evident by the Bolger Coup of January 1986 which replaced leader Jim McLay. This coup represented a reassertion of the Muldoonist faction, and as a result:
Peters, [Tony] Friedlander and Muldoon all received their payoffs for helping to destabilise McLay. Peters went up seven places to No.15 in the new line-up....[and] Muldoon came back on to the front bench and took foreign affairs. [Correspondingly, the freemarketeers] Ian McLean, Doug Kidd and Ruth Richardson all lost their front bench places. [Michael] Cox … lost the main finance job to George Gair. Birch was also back on the front bench (Hames, 1995: p.41).
The 1987 general election defeat led to another intense period of infighting after which Peters made it onto the front bench. Although the party was in turmoil, there were obvious signs that the National Party modernisers and free-marketeers were in decline.
Bolger, however, was not actually of the Muldoonist faction but occupied instead a centrist position in the fight. Likewise, the elevation of Peters et al. did not really represent a dominance on the part of the Muldoonists, but simply their temporary accommodation by Bolger into the new National Party order. Peters’ biographer, Martin Hames, explains that, 'Just as Bolger saw the need to accommodate the forces [Ruth] Richardson represented, he also sought to accommodate the very different forces Peters represented' (Hames, 1995: p.58).
Peters vs Richardson
By 1988-89 Peters and Richardson were the two dominant personalities in the National Opposition, with Peters now overshadowing Muldoon as the “leader” of the anti-Richardson group. The rivalry and [dialectic] between Richardson and Peters would turn out to be an important dynamic over the next six years, and it continued to be both a problem and solution for Bolger:
Bolger did not want to get rid of Richardson. She had sizeable caucus support that he did not want to alienate, and she was a major plus with the business sector. Nor did Bolger want to get rid of Peters, and for an equally obvious reason: Peters was hugely popular with the public and with many of the party rank and file (Hames, 1995: p.93).
A decade later, of course, neither of the two “left” and “right” faction leaders remained in the National Party – with Peters breaking off to the “left” to form NZ First and Richardson breaking to the “right” to join Act NZ.
Throughout the factional fights of the late 1980s, the possible Peters supporters in the 1989 National Caucus, according to Michael Laws, included: ‘Wyatt Creech, John Carter, Neil Austin, Roger McClay, Venn Young, Robert Anderson, Philip Burdon, Merv Wellington, and Rob Muldoon. Nine MPs including Winston. By contrast, Richardson, was deemed to have the support of ‘Simon Upton, Maurice Williamson, Murray McCully, Jenny Shipley, John Luxton, Denis Marshall, Ian McLean, Doug Graham; with Ruth that equalled nine' (Laws, 1998: p.153).
According to Hames, by the late 1980s, 'Peters was now a politician entirely adrift from any moorings except those of public opinion' (Hames, 1995: p.78). He took up political positions and populist campaigns with little apparent caution or strong ideological principle. Examples of ill-informed Peters campaigns included allegations about the Inter-Island Ferry becoming grounded, bizarre conspiracy theories about the sinking of the Russian cruiseliner, the Mikhail Lemertov, in the Marlborough Sounds. Other Peters’ populist campaign included: opposition to the ANZAC frigates project, and advocating electoral reform.
However Peters’ main campaign, and a large part of his appeal, was his outspokenness about the new Maori politics of the late 1980s. Peters was generally opposed to the new liberal approach to Maori affairs that was demonstrated by the Fourth Labour Government. This motivated his exposure of the so-called “Maori Loans Affair”.
In 1989 Peters also made a strong call for the Treaty of Waitangi to be “reassessed”, claiming that ‘A review of the Treaty's relevance to the NZ of today is long overdue’ (Peters quoted in Hames, 1995: p.81). However, it did not appear that the party leadership shared Peters opinions. As a counter to Peters’ call, a remit was put forward to a National Party conference by Graham Latimer and Jim Bolger seeking ‘that the party resolve all Maori land and fisheries issues within ten years’ (Hames, 1995: p.81). The remit was carried unanimously and Peters was widely seen to have been defeated in his whole campaign (Hames, 1995: p.81). However in May 1990:
Peters told the media he believed he had caucus support for wiping the Treaty from all existing legislation and settling grievances through direct negotiation between the government and Maori. He repeated his call for the Waitangi Tribunal to be downgraded to research unit status: its job would be to establish the historical facts (Hames, 1995: pp.102-103).
Again Peters had no real chance of gaining National Party backing to eliminate the Treaty from legislation. All he achieved, it seemed, was to alienate the Maori members of the party.
The renegade Peters was becoming unpopular within the party leadership and was demoted in 1989 in the National caucus. It was now apparent that the whole balance of forces within caucus was quickly shifting in favour of the Richardson camp. Slowly throughout the late 1980s many of Peters allies and friends, such as Philip Burdon and Paul East, deserted him, taking on the political persona of free marketeers (Hames, 1995: p.98).
[This blog post is part of a series about the history of the New Zealand First party. These posts are being published following the recent decline and then defeat of the party at the 2008 general election. Little academic research has been published on the Winston Peters phenomenon, despite the fact that he and his party have been central to parliamentary politics in New Zealand since the 1980s. Although this series focuses on the early years of New Zealand First, the later years will be dealt with in the future. Considered feedback from readers is very welcome.]