The 1996 election was relatively successful for New Zealand First. But this was despite a myriad of internal problems occurring, including discontent and factious rivalries inside the party, a malfunctioning parliamentary unit, controversy over the creation of the party list, and a relatively uncoordinated campaign strategy. [Read more below]
NZ First was advantaged in the 1996 general election by the political culture shift occurring where, as Michael Laws has put it, 'The petty demands of television have also obliged political parties to abandon any attempt at rational and constructive policy debate, and to engage instead in "presidential-style" campaigns centred on the party leader' (Laws, 1998: p.345). This suited a party which was clearly arranged around its charismatic leader and mainly populist campaigns.
Generally the election campaign did not go well for NZ First. As Laws pointed out 'all modern campaigns are initially determined by their ability to raise money, and this would be NZ First's largest hurdle. In short, the party had no money' (Laws, 1998: p.346). While other parties like National had sophisticated fundraising operations, Peters had burned off possible corporate support with all his various parliamentary allegations' (Laws, 1998: p.346).
Another problem was the discontent and factious rivalries inside the party. According to Laws, 'Everywhere there was petty conflict, organisational disorder and a dumb naivete that had long passed beyond negligence' (Laws, 1998: p.330). The campaign problems that did occur were then ‘compounded by a series of disastrous internal ructions that laid out the party's inexperience, incompetence and indiscipline for all to see' (Laws, 1998: p.331). For instance,
The party list controversy
The party list also caused some controversy, with various disputes about the legality of the list creation process. Ruth Laugesen outlined the official NZ First process for creating the list:
This process was of some contention to party members, as the whole process was closed to public, media or party member observation. This situation appeared to conflict, according to the dissenters, with NZ First’s ‘repeated claims to having a commitment to open, accountable and transparent democratic processes’ (Wilderstrom and Stevenson quoted in Evening Post, 27 Sep 1996: p.2).
In 1997 Wilderstrom and Stevenson took legal action against the party over the construction of the list. Their action had two parts. ‘The first is that a number of party rules were neglected in the procedures that party chiefs followed to construct the list…. But the second and more dangerous listeria threat is the litigants' determination to prove that NZ First did not order the list according to the votes' (Clifton, 26 Apr 1998: p.16). Their case was eventually ‘dismissed on a technicality – neither Stevenson nor Widerstrom being financial members of the party when they lodged their action' (Laws, 1998: p.395).
Later, in 1998, it was revealed by Michael Laws in his book The Demon Profession, that the list creation process was indeed a sham. According to Laws, the creation of the list was left to himself, Peters, and his assistant Sarah Neems:
The party list served to bring into the NZ First caucus a number of MPs who had only very brief histories with the party. This created a small stir within the party which was reminiscent of the selection of Tim Shadbolt for the NZ First domination in the Selwyn by-election in 1994 when Shadbolt was chosen by the head office on the same day that he joined the party – much to the displeasure of the local party organisation.
Building a capable party leadership
Despite these recruitment efforts, NZ First still lacked the mechanisms that the other major parties possessed for building a capable party leadership:
Electoral recruits of note included the ex-Labour Candidate Ron Mark, Michael Laws’ electoral chairman Neil Kirton, Police Association general secretary Graham Harding, a Labour list candidate and Anglican priest and peace activist Ann Batten, and ‘Whakatohea negotiator and former National Party nominee John Delamere' (Laws, 1998: p.321).
By the time of the election campaign the parliamentary unit of the party was still malfunctioning. Michael Laws ascribed this failure to Peters’ ‘legendary disinclination to make any hard decisions where staff were involved’ (Laws, 1998: p.316). Consequently Laws, together with staffers Sarah Neems and Louise Sampson, constructed ‘a separate Leader's Unit so we could work around, over or through the rest of the staff' (Laws, 1998: p.316). This party mechanism delivered Laws the ‘day-to-day control of the party's responses on matters economic and from there it was but a short step to annexing entire responsibility for the party's policy strategy by controlling the spending agendas of all the other shadow portfolios' (Laws, 1998: p.319).
Peters had essentially launched his general election campaign early in 1996 with his anti-immigration controversy. This revitalised the party’s support in the six months leading up to the election. But according to Widerstrom, the biggest impact was meant to have come from the offer to be made during the election campaign to Mike Moore of a place in a NZ First Cabinet:
However, the plan backfired when Mike Moore rallied instead behind Helen Clark, and thereby improved Labour’s fractious image. A further blow was dealt when the defamation court case being brought against Peters by businessman Selwyn Cushing was resolved. When the judgement went against Peters the credibility of the party was badly damaged. Subsequently, 'One public opinion poll recorded an eight-point drop in both Peters and the party's ratings' (Laws, 1998: p.332).
When Laws joined the Parliamentary office, he found that in 'the previous three years there had been virtually no campaign fundraising nor strategising nor pre-planning' (Laws, 1998: p.318). Even during the campaign, Laws was amazed that 'At no stage did the campaign committee, or even Winston and I in private discussion, decide on the campaign's key objectives' (Laws, 1998: p.350).
Part of the problem, according to Laws, ‘was that NZ First had been unable to afford any polling or attitudinal research prior to the campaign; no commissioned overview, no focus groups, no random telephone polling – nothing' (Laws, 1998: p.363). So although the NZ First party had moved beyond the old style type of political parties – shedding traditional forms of policymaking, communication, promotion and hierarchy, it had not been able to transform itself properly into a well-organised, well-funded professionalised party. This lack of organisation and finance had serious ramifications in an election campaign. For example, ‘NZ First's second promotional pamphlet remained locked in a printer's warehouse because the party had run out of money for its distribution' (Laws, 1998: p.368).
The party was severely weakened by its weak party organisation and lack of extra-parliamentary links and allegiances. NZ First was therefore in a situation where it ‘could not compete with the money of National, the networks of Labour or the activist passion of the Alliance' (Laws, 1998: p.351).
On election day NZ First won the five Maori seats as well as Tauranga. They also won 13.35% of the party vote, which entitled them to a further 11 list MPs.
Beyond the commonly-known Maori-Pakeha support base, NZ First was also well supported in the 1996 general election amongst rural voters (Vowles, 1998: p.33). To a lesser extent, NZ First support was also found disproportionately amongst ‘skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers’ (McRobie 1998: pp.171-172). Furthermore, their support was ‘most marked in those electorates with the largest number of voters whose incomes were below $15,000 per annum’ (McRobie 1998: pp.171-172). There was also an age-bias, with NZ First’s 1996 voters tending to be significantly older than average. According to Vowles, the probability of voting NZ First ‘increased about 2 per cent for each 10 years of age’ (Vowles, 1998: p.35).
Ominously for NZ First, the party’s ‘loyalty rate’ and ‘party identification’ rate was calculated as being relatively low by political scientist Peter Aimer. Of those that had voted for NZ First in 1993, only 52% voted the same way again in 1996, which compared to a loyalty rate of 56% for Labour and 71% for National (Aimer, 1998: p.62). And only 31% of NZ First’s 1996 voters were prepared to say that they identified with the party they were voting for (Aimer, 1998: p.62).
[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.]