Prior to New Zealand First moving right-wards in its economic policy during 1996, it also began to give more emphasis to the more socially conservative or right-wing policies and stances it held. In particular, Winston Peters revitalised NZ First’s electoral prospects in early 1996 by opening up a debate about immigration with his views that the number of immigrants to New Zealand needed to be further restricted. [Read more below]
The strategy began on February 1 when Peters gave a State of Nation speech in which he called for immigration to be ‘cut to the bone’. Two weeks later Peters upped the ante in the campaign with a strong speech in Howick. Immigrants to New Zealand, Peters proposed should be limited in number to ten thousand per annum. Immediately, NZ First’s opinion poll support surged, and by April it had reached 29% – easily beating both Labour and the Alliance into third and fourth place.
NZ First’s stance was a thinly disguised attack on immigrants and in particular on Asian immigrants. Peters blamed immigrants for everything from ‘placing a significant strain on education and health services’ to causing high home mortgage rates (Peters quoted in Geddis, 24 June 1996). Peters’ advisor Terry Heffernan attempted to dispute the charge of racism etc by saying: ’We are not anti-immigrant. We are pro-New Zealand’ (quoted in James, 17 Nov 1995: p.17).
Essentially the anti-immigration campaign was a continuation of the party’s shift to the right. It reflected the populist right-wing element of NZ First’s ideology being re-asserted – probably encouraged by the many members of the party with backgrounds in the old Social Credit Political League and the One New Zealand Foundation. Michael Laws later credited the Shearers along with Heffernan and Wilderstrom with the responsibility for NZ First’s immigration stance:
Although superficially, this conservative-populist strategy appeared to conflict with the party’s general “left-of-centre” or anti-establishment image, in reality it actually dove-tailed very logically with NZ First’s economic and social nationalism. For if a party is anti-foreign capital and yet pro-local capital, then there is a logic in also adopting a stance of being pro-local citizens and anti-foreign citizens.
Previously the party had been unable to break out of the 5-10 per cent mark in opinion polls, but in April NZ First surpassed both the Alliance and Labour, receiving almost 30% support in a number of polls. The dramatic surge in public support for NZ First took the party to a whole new level in the party system – suggesting that the party might replace Labour as the main opposition to the National Party.
Tapping into the discontent of the masses
Unquestionably this upsurge in support was largely a result of the anti-immigration campaign. However, the party was also boosted by the arrival of the three defecting MPs who immediately increased the profile of the party in Parliament and the media. Also working in their favour was NZ First’s questioning of the level of foreign ownership of NZ assets, and the revelations in the wine-box inquiry.
The surge in support reiterated, therefore, that NZ First and its popularity needs to be explained in terms of the appeal the party had to the insecurity and fear many voters felt, rather than explaining it in terms of Peters’ personal characteristics – as most political commentators have been inclined to do. NZ First’s boost in support was clearly achieved through the use of racial stereotypes and fear of change, rather than the exposure of the public to the personalities of Winston Peters.
In a sense, NZ First’s success at this time was due to the fact that it was able to link the backlash against economic insecurity with an easy-fix solution. As Chris Trotter has pointed out, ‘NZ First was the first political party to successfully latch on to the politics of resentment generated by neo-conservative thinking’ (Trotter, 12 Dec 1997). Essentially the party proved to be the best at tapping into the discontent of the masses.
As the election came closer, however, support declined. Interestingly, the party’s rightward shifting economic ideology and its refusal to rule out the National Party as a coalition partner appeared to account for the decline. To NZ First insider and dissident, Rex Wilderstrom, such a decline was therefore to be expected, as the party was softening ‘its stance on the very issues that had defined it' (Widerstrom, 11 Jun 1996: p.). The Laws-driven moderation of NZ First’s extremes meant that the party was now more like ‘a soft-centre party hoping to win some concessions on issues like health and superannuation’ (Widerstrom, 11 Jun 1996: p.).
[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.]