While the leftwing label put that was put on many of NZ First’s early economic positions is debatable, the party’s positioning on many other issues has clearly been very socially conservative. For example, NZ First’s early positions on social issues, such as immigration, race-relations and gender relations, clearly cast it as a conservative party – in the tradition of Muldoon. [Read more below]
The contradictory statements being presented about NZ First’s ideology, together with the lack of policy detail, meant that NZ First continued to be somewhat ideologically ambiguous. But on social and moral issues Peters had also generally shown himself to be somewhat conservative. For example, in 1986, he opposed the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. According to Gordon Campbell, Peters voted this way because he saw the bill as ‘a threat to Maori youth’:
Xenophobia and anti-immigration
It was Peters’s populist conservatism that also led him to push a nationalistic agenda. For despite its tendency to associate itself with the economic cleavage, NZ First actually found its greatest potential to attract support whenever it promoted New Zealand nationalism. Winston Peters expressed New Zealand nationalism most overtly with his ‘queries about migration, a plan to enhance national savings and investment, an emphasis on children as the nation's future, by controls on foreign ownership and by fiscal and monetary policies which will decrease unemployment and encourage autonomous national growth’ (Bennett, 29 Nov 1996).
A tough line on immigration was a part of NZ First’s identity right from the start, with Peters hinting that immigrants were taking the jobs of New Zealanders. Therefore, as distinct from the Alliance’s nationalism, NZ First’s anti-internationalism was largely founded by illiberalism, rather than any coherent leftism. Despite their competition for similar types of voters, NZ First possessed an inherent right-wing conservatism that was not ingrained in the Alliance’s political character.
NZ First was right from the beginning distinctly populist in its ideology. This was apparent, firstly, in that the party was being ‘built not around a programme but protest at the policy changes since 1984' (James, On the Outer, 1993: pp.108-109). The conservative flavour of populism was articulated by founding party stewards Cheryl and Ian Shearer. In an article on the party they had written that NZ First’s philosophy ‘would be to concentrate on political accountability, service to the country, and representation of the people in the electorate by the candidate or Member of Parliament.' (Shearer, Ian and Shearer, Cheryl, 1994).
It seems that while the Alliance and Labour had enthusiastically embraced the "new politics” of the new social movements, NZ First set itself apart by its adoption of old-style social conservatism. For example, in the 1993 general election, NZ First chose not to have a policy for women but instead, a "family" policy (McLeay, 1994: p.57). In this policy, NZ First illustrated its socially conservative credentials by stating that the party was committed to the ‘concept of the family as the keystone of Society’.
There was also a certain conservatism in the way NZ First believed political process should be carried out. NZ First’s ideological identity carried the promise of a return to “old-style” type of politics and the opposition to the “new political establishment”. In this, NZ First had some further similarities with the Alliance. According to Ruth Laugesen, the two new parties share ‘a claim to represent a new, more accountable, style of politics. Both have identified themselves with the new era of MMP, and again place themselves in opposition to the two old parties and their practices' (Laugesen, 2 Sep 1996).
For NZ First this focus on a “old-style” type of politics has involved utilising all manner of conspiracy theories – about politicians, big business and the banking system. In this, NZ First shares another characteristic with the old Social Credit party, who were also prone to grand conspiracy theories – especially about the banking system (Trotter, 18 June 1993:).
Part of NZ First’s appeal was less about policy than about political process – the party is strong on “doing things right”, rather than on policy details. This emphasis on process over policy was illustrated throughout the 1993-96 Parliamentary term, when Peters constantly rejected the idea of political parties sitting down together and working out policy compromises. To Peters, this represented some sort of betrayal to their constituencies. For example, Peters refused an invitation for NZ First to join in the multi-party superannuation accord talks, labelling the accord a "betrayal and deceit", and preferring to retain the promise of axing the surcharge (Hames, 1995: p.198).
NZ First’s diffuse and contradictory principles
The eclectic, contradictory and ambiguous ideology of NZ First largely evolved from the fact that the party began life with few principles or policies apart from a vague populist nationalism. Michael Laws later commented on the ‘diffuse and contradictory’ principles that the party started out with: ‘I failed to detect a philosophy, a principle or even a defining policy that would flame the Peters personality into the kind of all-encompassing prairie populism needed to win general election' (Laws, 1998: p.233). To Laws its seemed that Peters had wasted the opportunity ‘of promoting innovative and exciting methods of democratic representation’ or of embracing any radical or alternative future' (Laws, 1998: p.233). He had ‘instead resurrected the much-abused and now neglected National Party manifesto of the previous election as some kind of political nirvana’ (Laws, 1998: p.233). As a result the ideology of the party turned out to be somewhat more backward-looking and ambiguous than it needed to be.
Despite the ambiguity of NZ First’s ideology, eventually most commentators saw NZ First as being 'left on one scale (economics); right on another (nationalism and social issues), and therefore a party of the centre or perhaps left of centre. However, by mid-1996, it was more correct to describe NZ First as being centrist on economic policy and highly conservative on social policies.
The true nature of NZ First was always deep-down, that of a right-wing ideology:
Peters’ advocacy of increased social spending disguised his essentially old-fashioned conservatism, and his right-wing approach to welfare dependency and his willingness to cut fat on government spending (Laugesen, 15 Feb 1998: p.F1-2).
NZ First’s support base
Partly because of NZ First’s confused and changing political identity, political commentators had problems identifying just where support for NZ First was being taken from. Early on, the National Party claimed that their own polling had shown that Peters was taking most of its votes from the Alliance and "soft votes" from Labour. Meanwhile according to the Labour Party ‘the values of Mr Peters' supporters are more often in step with National's philosophy than Labour's, and his pitch is to National voters' (Kilroy, 6 Sep 1993: p.2). The question therefore has been: Is NZ First’s constituency the disillusioned National Party voters or has NZ First been fighting the Labour Party and Alliance for the anti-National vote?
The answer seems to vary for different periods during NZ First’s existence. It seems that in the 1993 election, NZ First’s vote was gained largely at the expense of National. However, in the 1993-96 Parliamentary term – and especially in 1996 – it seems that Labour’s misfortune in the opinion polls often corresponded directly with NZ First’s elevation. When for example, NZ First hit its 29 per cent high, Labour correspondingly dropped to 16 per cent and the Alliance to single figures. Then in early 1997, when NZ First originally fell to the low single figures, the Labour Party rose to record levels of support.
While Peters' constituency always included blue collar workers, it generally consisted of disaffected elements from middle NZ – labeled “the angrys” by some commentators. In addition, wealthy superannuatants had formed an important constituency for him ever since National's broken promise on the surcharge (Hames, 1995). Consequently, NZ First was basically an “old person’s party”. For example, at their post-launch peak NZ First was getting half their support from people who were retired (Mannion, 20 Sep 1996).
This original constituency was altered as time went on and especially after the seat of Northern Maori was won for NZ First by Tau Henare. After that, NZ First had two quite different constituencies: Maori and the wealthy elderly.
[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.]