Upon becoming a New Zealand First MP, Michael Laws became Winston Peters’ chief adviser, reorganising the Parliamentary office, and generally managing events and the party direction. Laws grew to hold a status as “the man behind Peters”. Party insiders made claims much like those made by Labour Party insiders about the influence of Margaret Pope over David Lange and about Heather Simpson’s influence over her boss Helen Clark. [Read more below]
Laws wrote many campaign speeches and apparently most of NZ First’s election policy (Campbell, 16 Nov 1996: p.26). Later after Laws fell out with Peters he continued to have a similar influence with rebel NZ First MP and short-term cabinet minister Neil Kirton.
In reality Laws was merely replacing the influence of other party members behind the scenes at the NZ First party/Parliamentary office. Before Laws joined NZ First, Peters had been particularly reliant on his staff of Rex Wilderstrom and Terry Heffernan who wrote his speeches. Laws’ arrival thereby greatly reduced the influence of Wilderstrom and Heffernan.
Laws later pointed out that Peters’ refusal to delegate responsibility meant that he would always be the prey of his closest advisers – reliant on their information, perceptions and judgements' (Laws, 1998: p.294). Consequently the politics of Peters and NZ First originally reflected Wilderstrom and Heffernan’s particular brand of economic nationalism. So unsurprisingly, when Laws took over Heffernan's speech-writing duties, a more "responsible", “centrist” economic policy was delivered, the anti-big business rhetoric was softened, and NZ First's position on foreign investment was watered down.
The decline of Michael Laws
Michael Laws’ membership of the NZ First caucus came to an end when he resigned from Parliament after admitting to misleading the House about his involvement in a somewhat bizarre local government affair. The incident was of particular interest because of NZ First’s apparent adherence to political accountability and honesty. Its high-mindedness on standards of political conduct meant that NZ First’s credibility was on the line over the affair. However, despite appearances, Laws’ resignation was not exactly voluntary, and his departure was to a large part due to intra-party rivalries and jealousies. For although Laws expected that he would get out of the mess with an apology, Tau Henare issued an ultimatum that Laws should go or else Henare would. Peters was eventually obliged to take Henare’s side and accept the resignation from Laws.
As Michael Laws points out, the resignation was not necessarily bad publicity for the party:
Perversely, Winston and NZ First would gain public kudos from my resignation; the party had proved their MPs were accountable while Winston was perceived as having sacrificed his closest colleague on the altar of political principle. A further sharp incline in polling support was recorded, with the party now vaulting to a record 29 per cent in various media polls (Laws, 1998: p.315).
The personal divide between Tau Henare and Michael Laws was symptomatic of a number of divides within the party. While the divide obviously might have represented the divide between the Maori and Pakeha factions, it also represented the conflict between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the party – with Laws leading the rightwing (which included the other defecting MPs and the conservative ageing Pakeha members of the party) and the left led by Henare (and involving the growing Maori faction).
The resignation of Michael Laws was therefore partly the outcome of a power struggle within the party, with Laws’ ‘left’ opponents seizing their opportunity to dispose of Laws. This event would have important repercussions for the subsequent development and trajectory of the party.
Laws not only resigned from Parliament, but also resigned from the party and did not seek re-election at the general election. Instead Laws returned to the Parliamentary office of NZ First under the title of Winston Peters’ "special advisor" (Laws, 1998: p.316). Later he turned up again working in Parliament as a professional political consultant to the Coalition’s Associate Minister of Health, Neil Kirton, until that Minister’s dismissal in 1997.
[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.]