The fact that NZ First was born in a hurry had important ramifications for the subsequent development of the party. In a matter of months, a party organisation had to be formed, policy developed, candidates selected and a general election fought. These formidable tasks were only ever partially achieved. The start-up was generally viewed as having been botched-up, as everything before and after the launch seemed to be mishandled. [Read more below]
In the tradition of Peters, there was a long build-up to the launch of the party – with Peters assiduously cultivating media interest and speculation. The new party was formally launched on Sunday 18 July 1993, at Alexander Park Raceway in Auckland. The launch was probably not as successful as Peters had expected it to be, especially since 'the projected 10,000-plus audience failed to materialise’ (Laws, 1998: p.233).
The event itself involved very little substance. Peters was unable to provide more than the most basic information about the new party. There was no naming of candidates, little information about the key figures in the party organisation and no policy details. The 15 so-called ‘policy principles’ included platitudes such as ‘putting New Zealand First’, ‘investing in health and education’, and ‘placing top priority on employment’. Peters continued to respond to questions about the party with the answer that all would be revealed ‘in due course’. This lent a certain irony to the launch, as Peters had previously ‘made so much mileage out of openness and democracy’ (Small, 23 July 1993:p.15).
The single biggest impression to come out of the launch – through the media – was that Peters was clearly pitching the party as one of populist nationalism:
There was no small measure of populist xenophobia in Peters' address. He told his audience the government had sold assets to people who did not even speak our language. Even the name of Peters' new party – New Zealand First – was implicitly a message of insularity: it was NZ against the world (Hames, 1995: pp.192-193).
The new name of the party was reminiscent of far right political parties such as “Australia First”. The title was also the same name as "New Zealand First" – the publication put out by the far-right League of Rights in Auckland in the early 1980s. However, the source of the name was probably from the New Zealand Liberal Party who used the slogan: "New Zealand First" in much of their political propaganda. The party colours – black and white – and party logo were also unveiled at the Alexandra Park Raceway launch – fitting in with the dominant nationalistic image.
In setting up NZ First, Peters did little to dispute the idea that he was a one-man band. There were few other prominent individuals associated with the party, and in the end, only one other parliamentarian joined the party: 'Gilbert Myles, having been in turn a National MP, an independent MP, a Liberal MP, and a Alliance MP, now discovered his true philosophical home as an NZ First MP' (Hames, 1995: p.195).
Two prominent individuals that became involved at this early stage were Cheryl and Ian Shearer who were key figures because of their significant political experience. Ian Shearer had been a Cabinet minister in the third National government, and was probably a conservative influence of the direction of the party (in particular with his early advocacy of an anti-immigration stance). Ian Shearer became party president and Cheryl Shearer became NZ First's office manager at Parliament.
[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.]