It’s becoming increasingly problematic to try to squeeze New Zealand’s political parties into an ideological left-right analytical framework, and this is especially the case with NZ First. Right from the launch of NZ First, most political commentators and voters mistook the party’s disgruntlement with the new political order as indicating the essentially leftwing nature of NZ First. Its basic economic framework – greater social spending, government intervention and economic nationalism – appeared to align the party with Labour and the Alliance, while its Maori candidates tended to be very ‘pro-treaty’, which is a political position that is usually thought of as being leftwing. The leftwing nature of many of NZ First’s early ‘leftwing’ economic positions are very debatable, but essentially the new party was economically centrist [Read more below]
In many ways this ideological ambiguity is not unusual for a party of the “centre”, as the position usually entails not actually being centrist on all issues, but instead left on some issues and right-wing on others. To do otherwise – and keep a consistent middle line – is to risk being squeezed by the parties on either side that can collect large sections of the centre vote while maintaining voters to the left and right of centre respectively. Marcus Ganley (1997) also argued that a centre party must deviate from the mushy-middle of the political spectrum so that voters have a reason to support it: 'voters are attracted to parties which exhibit a more extreme positioning than the voters do, while being on the same side of an issue or ideological dichotomy as the voters' (Ganley, 1997).
Boston et al. also commented on the ideological ambiguity of the party:
NZ First is by no means a typical centre party in the European tradition. Such parties tend to have their origins either in nineteenth century liberalism or in the representation of agrarian interests. NZ First fits neither category. Founded by Winston Peters, the party quickly developed an image as being strongly nationalistic, anti-establishment, populist, and mildly protectionist. Its most publicised policy commitments emphasised the need to stop the sale of state assets, limit the sale of NZ land and resources to overseas investors, restrict immigration, protect local industry, and hold politicians more accountable. Hence, although it constantly referred to itself as a party of the centre, in many respects its policy positions on key economic and social issues gave it the appearance of a party off-centre to the left. The party's public image was also greatly influenced by the fact that from the 1993 general election its two MPs – Peters and Tau Henare – were both Maori (Boston and McLeay, 1998: p.217).
Peters claimed right from the beginning that NZ First would be a centre party and this was to be expected, as Peters had clearly been on the left of the centre-right National Party – that is, ‘left’ in the sense that he had been critical of the neo-liberal economic policies of his own government.
An economic raison d’être
For a party to establish itself and continue to exist, it must base its ideology and programme on some sort of substantial political issue or social cleavage. The raison d’être chosen by NZ First was basically an economic one. It decided to define itself by its opposition to the economic reforms carried out since 1984. It is not surprising, therefore, that most political commentators saw NZ First as standing to the left of the Labour Party, but to the right of the Alliance – and therefore labeled the party as “centre-left” (see Hames, 1995). However, Winston Peters was quite correct in describing NZ First as a centre party. It seems that most political commentators were prone to regard the party’s position as being “left” due to NZ First’s emphasis on economic politics, which have often been misread as being left-wing – perhaps due to the fact that they are anti-orthodox. As Colin James has put it:
This central positioning was obscured by Peters' personal opposition to Rogernomics from its very beginnings, a stance which glazed him with an apparent "left" orientation. This appeared to be underpinned by his relentless opposition to foreign ownership of NZ companies (James, Policies, Issues and Manifestos, 1998: p.77).
Martin Hames outlines the 1993 election manifesto:
The section giving NZ First's economic policies is brief and vaguely worded, but broadly represents a return to the "Fortress NZ" policies prevailing until 1984. Foreign investment would be restricted and in its place an attempt would be made to provide a pool of domestic savings for investment purposes. There would be tax breaks for business investment. Import protection would be increased. A new banking institution would be set up to improve access to capital for small businesses (Hames, 1995: pp.201-202).
Therefore, in 1993 NZ First’s economic ideology was not dissimilar from the Alliance’s – basically advocating a return to the more controlled and insulated economy of pre-Douglas years. Its 1993 Election Policy contained many overtly leftwing policies (which were, however, later axed). For example, their 1993 tertiary education policy promised to abolish tertiary fees and cancel all student loan obligations to students.
A left-glaze of economic nationalism
The left-glaze of anti-internationalism and opposition to deregulation obscured the real political nature of NZ First’s more reactionary and conservative ideology. Instead of being seen as leftwing, James suggests that NZ First can be seen,
as a poujadist or "small-people's right wing", the sort of illiberalism mixed with fear that fuels xenophobia, racism and opposition to migration and minorities, which is as wont to turn on "bludgers off welfare" as on big foreign companies and which seeks solace in strong, protective government (James, 1998: p.77).
Also central to the political-economic identity of NZ First was a ‘suspicion of big business’ (Laugesen, MMP Elections, 1996: p.44). This feature, too, was reminiscent of “small-people’s right wing parties” in western Europe. Such a position of opposition to big business allows a party to achieve a radical or socialist-like gleam, thereby giving the party the potential to attract the support of the working class – without having to oppose capitalist relations, or make very specific promises to the working class electorate. The anti-big business position also appeals to many voters of a petty-bourgeois class position, who might be being squeezed by the business operations of much larger companies.
NZ First also expounded corporatist political sentiments in its economic policy. Again, although there is nothing particularly left-wing about corporatism, its association with “collectivism” and “cooperation” and its disassociation with new right political process of the 1980s and 1990s added to the leftwing image.
In fact, on the whole, the economic nationalism espoused by NZ First (or indeed by the Alliance) was not essentially left-wing in ideology at all. The internationalist element of the Labour Party’s open-boarders economic approach was arguably more progressive in terms of ideology. After all, the main current of traditional leftism has always been essentially anti-nationalist – in terms of being in favour of globalisation and breaking down the boarders between nation states. Likewise, the Keynesianist economics of NZ First was never necessarily left wing.
Contradictions and problems in economic policy
There were some contradictions and problems with NZ First’s economic policy mix. The first was that NZ First also deviated from Keynesianist-type economics, in its advocacy of the impossible mix of both higher spending and lower taxes. Again, this approach conformed to the party’s general ideological approach of combining left-wing positions (ie higher spending) with right-wing positions (ie lower taxes).
Another contradiction was brought about by the fact that NZ First was attempting to appeal, not only to blue collar workers, but also to small business owners. As a result the NZ First programme promised new financial institutions and support for business from government. However, the contradiction of NZ First’s ostensive support for both workers and business owners came to a head in the party’s labour relations policy, due to the fact that many of Peters' supporters in small businesses had found that the ECA was beneficial in lowering their labour costs. Peters’ orientation to the ECA therefore appeared to transform from initial revulsion, towards a new position on labour relations that proposed new legislation which actually differed very little from the existing ECA.
In social policy, too, the effect of the orientation to middle-class support was also obvious. For although NZ First stood somewhere between the Alliance and the Government – in that it was more willing to spend money than the government – it also had a strong political ethos against a hugely expanded state sector (Hames, 1995: pp.193-194). Furthermore, although NZ First were relatively left-wing in social policy, the higher social spending always went hand in hand with deeper social welfare messages which entailed conservative notions about “bludgers on welfare.”
In terms of economics NZ First could be seen to be taking up the old Social Credit position in the party system. Like Social Credit, NZ First was anti-big business, anti-big unions, and anti-big government, economically moderate and nationalist. Just as Social Credit had been ‘for taxpayer-funded social services and a partially regulated economy but not socialist’, NZ First now pushed that same message (James, 17 Nov 1995: p.17). This Social Credit connection was made even more thorough by the fact that so many ex-Social Credit members were involved in NZ First. For example, one of Peters’ key advisers and speechwriter, Terry Heffernan, was an ex-Social Credit party activist. Other ex-Social Creditors included Chris Leitch and Garry Knapp.
Interestingly, Michael Laws purports to have been warned by NZ First lawyer Brian Henry about ‘a Democrat conspiracy involving Heffernan, former leader Garry Knapp and former Alliance candidate Chris Leitch, who intended to promote Knapp and his supporters to key leadership roles within the party' (Laws, 1998: p.398). While this appears to relate to the paranoia of one individual, it does also illustrate the extent of the involvement of ex-Democrat Party members in NZ First.
So while in general it is becoming increasingly problematic to try to squeeze New Zealand’s political parties into an ideological left-right-centre analytical framework, this is especially the case with NZ First. As James puts it, ‘The point about a large proportion of Peters' support is its disgruntlement, not its ideology' (James, The Future, 1994: p.166). Therefore NZ First is, in a sense, less about ideological positioning than about giving expression to the disgruntlement and grievances of a section of society that has been ill-affected by government reforms in recent years.
[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.]