Peters and his supporters had done little to establish any sort of organisation prior to the public launch of NZ First and it was some time before any elections were held for the position of party office bearers. In the meantime, Peters appointed a management committee to oversee the administration of the Party until such time as elections could be held. This six-person interim committee basically ran the party and selected all the candidates for the 1993 general election (Hames, 1995: p.194). [Read more below]
The structure of the party was, therefore, originally very minimalist, but even when the party was in a position to develop more fully, the minimal framework remained. According to Miller, 'Although the NZF constitution provides the outline of a complex organisation, with a tiered committee structure operating at electorate, regional and national levels, and with the management of the party being vested in the NZ Council... in reality decision-making is highly centralised' (Miller, 1997).
In many ways the rudimentary nature of the party organisation reflected the fact that NZ First was really still just the personalised expression of a vague “movement” rather than a proper political parliamentary party. And, as a consequence of Peters failing to set up an organisational apparatus, the party suffered because, according to Trotter, ‘there has been no structure outside of Parliament capable of delivering coherent feedback to its representatives. It has been working in a vacuum' (Trotter, 6 Dec 1996: p.13). This was a problem that would continue to create difficulties and erratic behaviour and policies.
NBR journalist Jonathan Underhill outlined the dominance of the Peters and the parliamentary wing:
NZ First leader Winston Peters has told his management committee it will not be allowed to dictate policy to the party's parliamentary wing. Management committee secretary Cheryl Shearer has confirmed that at a conference call meeting last Wednesday, the first management meeting since the election, Peters "made it perfectly clear" that the parliamentary wing is completely separate from the party. While feedback on non-manifesto issues will be sought form party members, "all other decisions are to be made by the parliamentary wing and will be based on the judgment of our MPs," she says (Underhill, 14 Nov 1993: p.A3).
The disorganised state of the party was made very apparent in the 1993 general election, when there was ‘none of the traditional activity, such as billboards and leaflet campaigns that goes with a party on a roll' (Kilroy, 6 Sep 1993: p.2).
The NZ First organisation also carried out its functions in a very non-typical way. For example, in contrast to usual party organisational practice, all NZ First candidate selections were held in secret and without the usual pretence of internal party democracy. This became especially apparent in 1994 when the NZ First central party office selected Tim Shadbolt as its candidate for the Selwyn by-election against the will of the local party organisation. Furthermore, despite the usual practice of parties requiring that candidate nominees belong to the party for a minimal and specific period of time before contesting the selection, Shadbolt had not been a NZ First member at all prior to the selection.
Indicative of Peters’ controlling and idiosyncratic dominance of the party, was the establishment of the NZ First headquarters in Tauranga, rather than in Wellington (the political capital) or Auckland (the main city). However, the membership of the party was quickly rising and by mid-1994 the party claimed to have a membership of more than 10,000 (Scherer, 18 July 1994: 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.]