As the party system fragmented during the parliamentary term of 1993-96, NZ First recruited a further three MPs: Michael Laws and Peter McCardle from National, and Jack Elder from Labour. NZ First was not necessarily the first choice of a new political home for any of the three defectors. Before swapping to NZ First they had all shown an interest in the then impending development of a new centre party involving Mike Moore. [Read more below]
Michael Laws was the first MP to defect to NZ First – on March 6 1996. He had been working hard to create a new centre party involving Mike Moore, but this fell over on the intransigence of Moore and the general lack of dynamic amongst the other MPs involved. Once Laws was a member of the NZ First caucus he continued to pursue a number of other Parliamentarians and he was instrumental in finally recruiting McCardle and Elder, who both announced their defections on April 3 1996.
In the case of Peter McCardle, the defection actually came after McCardle had already made his "final decision" to accept a National Party nomination. Michael Laws’ persuasion apparently became more compelling for McCardle after NZ First experienced its swift and dramatic rise in the polls. Commentators agreed that his decision also seemed to be driven by a single-minded desire to implement his work-for-the-dole employment scheme which he was not making progress with while he remained in the National Party (Wilson, 8 Apr 1996: p.9).
Jack Elder had long been on the outside right flank of the Labour Party caucus. Like Peter Dunne, who had left the party before him, Elder had been a moderate Rogernomics supporter. He was also somewhat socially conservative and had therefore become completely out of sync with the dominant social liberalism of the Labour Party organisation. Elder’s final dissatisfaction with the Labour Party came when the MMP party list came out and he was placed well down the list at number 40, and was therefore almost certainly going to be out of Parliament after the 1996 general election.
Welcoming the defectors
That NZ First accepted the defectors indicated a change in NZ First’s policy on MPs changing political parties. Previously, NZ First was ‘sworn against accepting defectors who don't submit to a by-election’, yet the three new MPs were incorporated into the party with no such fuss (Clifton, 29 Oct 1995).
NZ First had also previously carried out negotiations with the Right of Centre party in September and October 1995 with a view to merge. As Jane Clifton pointed out, such an ‘alliance between Peters and Ross Meurant would not have been unnatural, as they had had a long personal association’ (Clifton, 29 Oct 1995). That these talks came to little, was partly due to the influence of Tau Henare, who had ‘strong objections to Mr Meurant's views on Maori grievances’ (Clifton, 29 Oct 1995).
The integration of the new MPs was not without ideological difficulties. This was mainly due to the fact that all three MPs were supporters of the “open economy”. Elder was well known for his commitment to open trade and the retention of the Reserve Bank Act, support for asset sales, and his general right wing economic approach. McCardle was not dissimilar and had also been publicly critical of NZ First and Winston Peters in the past (Edwards, 6 Apr 1996: p.2).
Therefore there was an obviously large question of how these MPs were going to reconcile their economic politics with that of NZ First's more protectionist sentiments. Jack Elder explained that he was ‘going to work through those difficulties’ (Wilson, 8 Apr 1996: p.9). In the end, it seems that both the party and the new MPs made some ideological movement towards each other – but with the left of the party ultimately making the biggest concessions.
The impact of the new MPs on the development of NZ First in 1996 was quite considerable. For a start, the addition of the three experienced politicians helped boost the party's profile in the House and media. But in particular they all had an important impact on the party’s policy development. For instance, almost immediately, party insiders saw Mr Laws' hand in NZ First’s softening stance on economic protectionism and regulation.
[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.]