The most notable outcome of the 1993 general election for NZ First was the election of Tau Henare in the seat of Northern Maori. Henare had initially sought to stand for the Alliance in the seat – as he had become involved in politics through Alliance constituency party Mana Motuhake - but failed to be considered for the nomination over Matt Rata. Henare thus stood instead for NZ First. Being the great grandson of a former Reform party MP for the electorate Taurekareka (Tau) Henare (and also a nephew of Sir James Henare), Tau Henare hence had highly respected Maori surname and thus a very strong chance of winning the seat, no matter which party he represented. [Read more below]
Henare’s win over Labour’s incumbent Bruce Gregory was a surprise none-the-less and it was to have a profound affect on the development of NZ First. Obviously it improved the size of the party by providing a second MP and all the additional resources that accompanied him.
A new mass Maori constituency
Henare’s win indicated that NZ First was clearly starting to attract a substantial Maori constituency – one that did not fit well with NZ First’s predominantly elderly and conservative Pakeha support. However, there was a sense in which Peters already appealed to Maori voters. Certainly, as Neville Bennett commented, Peters already appealed to the more ‘professional, de-tribalised Maoris. They see Mr Peters as a man who made it in the Pakeha world of politics and then was dumped by pakehas there who felt threatened by him’ (Bennett, 29 Nov 1996).
Then, of course, there was Maori support for Peters simply due to the fact that he was the leading Maori politician. Regardless of his politics, some Maori have probably supported him because he represents an opportunity to create the first Maori Prime Minister. In fact prior to Henare’s win in 1993 NZ First was regarded to be somewhat conservative on Maori issues. Certainly Peters had in the past been very critical of the Treaty. NZ First's 1993 Maori policy had scarcely mentioned the Treaty
Tension between Peters and Henare
Naturally there was some tension between Peters and Henare, which increased over time as Henare’s status grew as the informal leader of the growing Maori faction in the party. Also ‘Henare had strong views on Maori issues, and on the Treaty, that were well outside the co-ordinates of middle New Zealand; [and] Peters did not want his party to have a Maori flavour that would consign it to the fringes of political life (Hames, 1995: p.205).
In 1994 ‘the first major sign of tension between Peters and Henare opened up in public. Henare told The Dominion that he favoured a coalition between NZ First and Labour, rejecting the Alliance as "too wacky" and National as less compatible than Labour' (Hames, 1995: p.219). In contrast, Peters refused to rule out a coalition with National.
Henare’s politics were clearly more left-wing than either Peters’ or the party. He had come from a background in trade unionism and Maori radicalism. His union sympathies naturally led him to oppose the Employment Contracts Act (in contradiction to NZ First policy), and even to promise to a Trade Union Federation conference that NZ First would re-introduce compulsory unionism – a stance which no other MP was advocating.
Henare’s more liberal political views also put him out of favour with the larger political party. He was therefore in a minority amongst the party elite, and then later, in 1996, after three more conservative MPs defected from their parties and joined the NZ First caucus, rumours persisted that the right-wing of the party were wishing to replace Henare as Deputy Leader with one of the new MPs such as Peter McCardle (Armstrong, 1997: p.58).
Evolution into an ethnic-orientated party
With the new influence of Henare, NZ First was showing signs of beginning to evolve into an ethnic-orientated party – perhaps anticipating the gap in the party system that was said to exist under MMP for a Maori party. Henare played a conscious role in this regard, in particular ensuring that well-known and capable Maori candidates were selected to stand in 1996 for the five Maori seats.
With increasing Maori support for NZ First, however, the support base was becoming even more complicated, as NZ First now had a dual- and perhaps incompatible constituency. It always appeared as if these two groups would never be able to co-exist as a support-base, especially due to the lack of sympathy that many of the aging Pakeha group have for Maori concerns. As a result, Peters was concerned to ensure that 'Henare's campaigning efforts were to be confined to the Maori constituency seats where he could do the least verbal damage' (Laws, 1998: p.359). Again, at the time of the Taranaki-King Country by-election in 1998 the NZ First Maori MPs were not involved in the local campaign.
The fact that the electoral appeal of NZ First was based on this complex and contradictory balance meant that there was always a reason to doubt the party's sustainability. However, the party leadership found that there were, in fact, certain political stances that could satisfy both of its constituencies. These generally evolved around issues of nationalism and sovereignty: immigration, economic protectionism, and nostalgic appeals to patriotism.
Strategies for two support bases
While it is unsurprising that the elderly, Pakeha, red-neck type support was receptive to Peters’ anti-immigration messages, it is perhaps more surprising that NZ First’s Maori support was so receptive to anti-immigrant ideology. However the very nature of Maori nationalism is founded on opposition to immigration, due to the belief that Maori – being “tangata whenua” – are oppressed, as a people, by colonisation. Duncan and Cronin (1997) point out how reactionary attitudes towards “foreigners” have indeed been strengthened by the political development in recent years of a new Maori nationalism:
Maori radical Moana Maniapoto Jackson argued that Asian immigration should be stopped until “Treaty issues” had been settled…. [Likewise] Fifteen years ago, Donna Awatere… supported the NZ government’s attempts to deprive thousands of Samoans of citizenship rights, arguing that Samoans were only in New Zealand at the pleasure, and as guests, of the “tangata whenua” (Duncan and Cronin, Dec 1997: p.18).
These anti-immigrant sentiments were echoed by Henare, who asked the question of immigrants: ‘How come they can get help straight off the plane, when Hone Bloggs from Manurewa, who's been trying to get on the invalids benefit for years, or climb up the cataracts waiting list, cannot?’ (quoted in Geddis, 24 June 1996).
What was particularly interesting about NZ First accumulating mass Maori support, was that it was occurring at the same time that the leader, Winston Peters, was attacking the whole Maori ‘grievance industry as a tool of aspiring Maori business interests, denouncing Maori sovereignty and pointing out that the real problems that face Maori are the lack of jobs, health and education and hope for the future’ (Jones, 17 Oct 1996). In this, Peters contrasted with the other major parties who were basically supportive of the direction that elite Maori politics were travelling in. Therefore, while Peters attracted Maori nationalists, he did not do so by appealing to Maori militants or radicals, but paradoxically while playing on conservative Pakeha fears about race relations and lecturing Maori on their need ‘to pull their socks up’.
In 1996 NZ First usurped the Labour Party as the first choice of those on the Maori Electoral Roll. Interestingly, NZ First won over the Maori support with a Maori policy that was much the same as Labour’s. The conspicuous advantage that NZ First had over Labour was that NZ First had two Maori parliamentarians at number one and number two in their line-up, whereas Labour had few Maori MPs in its line-up at all. A large part of NZ First’s Maori support therefore came not as a reward for any ideological substance, but for its most superficial identity aspects.
[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.]