The election result in 1993 was largely a defeat for the party – as it came a distant fourth in the contest and did not breakout of single figures in their voting percentage. Election defeats generally bring about re-evaluations of party direction and thus the possibility of substantial policy and identity transformations. After 1993 this was true for NZ First, and Peters seemed to be struggling for direction. [Read more below]
At an ideological crossroads
The party was clearly at a cross-roads. There were many questions about the party’s future: Would NZ First become a quasi-Maori party? Would it continue to be a quasi-movement or a more institutionalised party? Would it continue to be basically anti-freemarket in ideology, or would it accept the new economic status quo?
Essentially NZ First continued to be a party adrift from any political moorings and this was reflected by the fact that it took so long to resolve these questions of direction and the party continued to exist in some kind of political limbo.
In 1994 NZ First appeared to be taking a turn to the left. This shift was probably the result of the political signals given by the 1993 election – with that election generally being perceived as representing a swing to the left. After this the neoliberal economic reforms looked increasingly unstable. The influence of the (then) left-leaning Tau Henare was also an obvious factor.
Throughout 1994 Peters seemed to be mimicking the Alliance in ideology as it steered a path to the left of the Labour Party. For example, Peters
attempted to introduce [to Parliament] a private members bill to include employment along with low inflation as one of the objectives of the Reserve Bank. This idea had been missing from NZ First's 1993 policy, which had talked only of aiming for an inflation rate slightly below the average of our trading partners. In 1994 Peters also changed his stance over the ECA. In 1991 Peters had voted in favour of it. The 1993 NZF policy had not mentioned the Act at all, though "a spokeswoman" had told the media that NZF supported the Act. Now in 1994 Peters criticised the ECA and supported an Opposition bill aiming to set up a council to draft new legislation (Hames, 1995: pp.208-209).
NZ First also showed itself to be left-leaning in its opposition to: ‘bulk funding of teachers' salaries, students' fees, user-pays and privatising moves in health, and asset- and income-testing of elderly beneficiaries and superannuitants, as well as its enthusiastically regulatory approach to environment policy’ (James, 17 Nov 1995: p.17). The theme of opposition to foreign investment was also suddenly pushed especially hard by Peters. Chris Trotter later wrote about this:
Heffernan has told this writer that he was absolutely determined to have Peters outbid the Alliance on the Left when it came to foreign investment policy. His success in doing so stripped the Alliance of two-thirds of its vote in the space of three months. Had Michael Laws not deposed Heffernan and driven NZF economic policy back towards the Right, Peters might now be commanding not 17, but 34, MPs (Trotter, 30 May 1997: p.8-9).
[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.]