The National Party’s 1990 general election campaign and manifesto essentially represented a hybrid between the Winston Peters and Ruth Richardson factions. At the same time that the party promised some sort of continuation of Rogernomics-style economic management, it also posed reassuringly as the party of stability and integrity with policies such as its promise to halve unemployment by 1993. Therefore, while Peters’ own economic ideology was now clearly out of step with that of the leadership, it was not necessarily inconsistent with the party’s election campaign. [Read more below]
Peters continued to campaign on a traditional National Party platform of economic interventionism together with populist issues such as anti-corruption and political accountability. Consequently he continued to top the public opinion polls as the preferred Prime Minister.
After the 1990 election win, Winston Peters was given the ministerial portfolio of Maori Affairs in the new National Government – probably with the intention that the collective responsibility rules of cabinet would serve to limit the damage he might inflict on the government. This strategy did not prove effective, and in October 1991 Peters was dismissed from the Cabinet for failing to abide by Cabinet’s collective responsibility.
A year later Peters was also expelled from caucus by a vote of 50 to twelve (Laws, 1998: p.219). Consequently Peters’ public popularity sky-rocketed. Following the expulsion, Michael Laws approached Peters and six other MPs with the idea of forming a breakaway party. Over the months of August and September 1992, Laws and Peters discussed the ideas with MPs Cam Campion, Brian Neeson, Ian Peters, Peter McCardle and the two Liberal Party MPs of Gilbert Myles and Hamish MacIntyre (Laws, 1998: p.223). According to Laws: ‘We were reasonably confident that Winston could garner seven or eight MPs for a "New National"-type party that might tap into disaffected National supporters but also cross over and gain support from potential Labour voters' (Laws, 1998: p.223).
However, at this point Peters was adamant that ‘he would not be leaving the National Party. His intention was to win reselection for National for Tauranga in 1993. He also said he would seek legal advice on the expulsion' (Hames, 1995: p.175). However, in March 1993 the National Party Executive ‘used its constitutional powers to veto Peters as a National candidate for the coming election, the first time such powers had been used to reject a sitting member' (Vowles, 1994: p.384). Peters then resigned from Parliament, fought and won a by-election in the Tauranga electorate as an Independent candidate.
The winning of Tauranga as an Independent was an important part in laying the ground for the creation of a new party. Firstly, it meant that Peters was returned to Parliament with an income and the resources to set up a new party. But more importantly for Peters it meant that he could switch allegiances to a new party without the ethical problems of being specifically elected as a National MP.
[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.]