The post-1996 coalition combination of National and New Zealand First was always going to be a fraught affair due to the very different ideological and personality factors of the two parties. Because NZ First based its credibility on its promise that it would get rid of National, much of that credibility was immediately lost after they signed up to the National Party. That immediately alienated a huge number of supporters. But the party’s hold on supporters was irretrievably ended by the seemingly endless troubles and scandals that occurred in the first 18 months in government; ‘the Tuku Morgan affair, the Henare swagger, the McDonald shopping trip, the Banks dustup, the Bloxham resignation, the "neutered Treasury poodle" epithets, the 3 percent poll ratings, the Winebox and Cushing debacles’ (Laws, 16 Dec 1997: p.6). [Read more below]
A steady decline
A steady decline occurred for NZ First in the opinion polls throughout early 1997 and over the rest of 1997 and 1998 the party constantly scored below five per cent support. Even an opinion poll in the Tauranga electorate, during 1997, showed Winston Peters as an unpopular choice amongst his once solid support base – running at third place behind National and Labour (NZPA, 16 Aug 1998). This fact seemed to concur with the argument that the most militant anti-NZ First voters are in fact their ex-supporters.
A large part of the reason for NZ First’s rapid turnaround in support was due to a perceived hypocrisy about the party. This began to show up during the coalition negotiations, in which NZ First became, in some people’s minds, everything it had once railed against: ‘A secretive coterie of lawyers and dealmakers, fortified by taxpayers' money, deciding the nation's future in bug-free rooms and bars' (Trotter, 29 Nov 1996). And as the mini-scandals and mishaps occurred, NZ First’s defense of their misbehaving MPs only fuelled feelings of hypocrisy:
NZ First arose out of anger and protest. New Zealanders flocked to Mr Peters because all others had betrayed them. His greatest attraction (apart from his smile) was his clean record…. When Mr Peters campaigned promising to keep Jim Bolger and National out of office and then unapologetically anointed them, he betrayed his supporters and proved he was no different to the other leaders he so despised. NZ First has never recovered (Linda Clark, 3 May 1998).
No longer radical
The lack of differentiation pointed to the underlying problem. NZ First was in trouble because it suddenly became apparent that the party had no core philosophy – it did not stand for any real principles. Even although the party had managed to bring brand-enhancing and differentiating policies into the Coalition Agreement, many of these were ultimately compromised.
As Prebble has pointed out, the fact that NZ First was formed on Winston Peters’ personality, was once its strength, but now its weakness:
The thing is, Winston's made no attempt to develop NZ First beyond an expression of his personality. Indeed, he is actively hostile to any such development – hence his purging from the party of all those people who could have brought some practical experience with them (Prebble, 1997: p.65).
In reality, the NZ First caucus shared little in common philosophically, apart from their respect for Peters. But the downfall of NZ First could be found, most of all, in that NZ First was no longer radical:
What most of Peter's supporters thought they were getting in voting for him was a scourge of immigrants and foreign companies, a dam against the tidal wave sweeping them into the open, lightly regulated economy, a flame-thrower that would burn National out of office. What they got was a pussy-cat, an apologist for foreign influence and Rogernomics, indecently in bed with National (James, Sep 1997: p.58).
They lost support therefore, because they were now implementing rightwing policies. John Delamere confirms that NZ First let National push the coalition too far to the right, and he regretted that in 1997 they did not put they foot down more often: ‘We should have said "no" [to National] some of the time rather than trying to please everybody’ (quoted in Laugesen, 15 Feb 1988: p.F1-2).
Even in their brand-defining area of nationalism, NZ First made little progress:
NZ First notably failed to deliver on its nationalistic promises to slash immigration and restrict foreign investment. In the event, the coalition merely held immigration at the level to which National had already reduced it in 1996. Changes to foreign investment rules were minor (Hubbard, 2 Aug 1998).
Because NZ First had made such issues their brand-defining politics, the party’s future was bound up with its success in those areas. As Boston points out: ‘The rhetoric was designed to mobilise support with popular slogans and so on, but generated expectations that have not been fulfilled. In a sense, NZ First has been hoist on its own petard’ (quoted in Hubbard, 2 Aug 1998).
The mythical centre ground
Part of NZ First’s flaw was therefore that they had tried to occupy a mythical centre ground:
the centre is not a distinct electoral base into which the foundations of a long-lived party can be driven. Rather, it is the breeder of occasional and usually short-lived populist movements. Long-lived parties operate form a strong social base. Beetham understood that and aimed to supplant Labour; Peters appeared to understand it when he declared last year his aim was to supplant National. In New Zealand's political culture the centre is the historical battleground between Labour and National. As Labour recovered strength in the later Muldoon years, it pushed back across the battleground, evicting Beetham and Social Credit in the process. The same happened this year as Labour has mined a disaffected NZ First vote (James, 16 May 1997: p.19).
Attempting to cover such a broad and contradictory part of the political spectrum was also probably a mistake. For example the party ‘attempted to follow a left-of-centre approach in social areas, particularly health and education. This is high risk stuff, as such a dual approach is inherently contradictory’ (Gamlin, 12 Sep 1997: p.20).
In fact, the NZ First strategy in government was to spread itself across the entire spectrum of policy. According to Neil Kirton, ‘NZ First should have staked out a few areas: such as health, preschool education, employment. It should have taken the entire portfolio in each case, and got the Treasurer to attach the dollars to those policy planks….. Instead, NZ First has been carted along… everywhere National has gone, without any control of the direction' (Campbell, 1 Nov 1997: p.37).
An empty, yet large, party
A further problem for NZ First was the simple fact that the NZ First caucus lacked the talent and calibre of MPs required for a governing party. As Prebble pointed out, ‘They were great oppositional campaigners – but they had none of the qualities needed for government’ (Prebble, 1997: p.69).
Shifting so quickly from a party caucus of two MPs to one of 17 also brought problems. Firstly, Peters had management problems, as ‘the party proved even to be without spin or spin doctors. Once again, no one but Peters seems to have the authority or the experience to run a line' (Clifton, 1 Mar 1997: p.32). This was especially apparent in the controversy over Morgan and his involvement with the Aotearoa Television Network: ‘Given a situation where a novice MP was being ritually dissected down to his underwear on nightly television news, no one in the party had the authority to take the problem by the scruff of the neck' (Clifton, 1 Mar 1997: p.32). In general it seems that there was a lack of organisational leadership from Peters, which meant that there was little to stop the ‘inexperienced and naïve group of NZ First MPs’ straying into trouble (Laws, 16 Dec 1997: p.6).
In fact NZ First was vulnerable because 'The [party] machine appears to consist, as ever, of Peters alone. The parliamentary operation has struggled to find savvy political operatives, and it has no safety net of a strong party head office. Its president, Doug Woolerton, is now an MP, so cannot be a fulltime party fixer. NZ First has no chief executive, so unlike the other parties, has no one committed fulltime to party organising' (Clifton, 1 Mar 1997: p.32).
A pakeha backlash?
John Delemere found his own explanation for the decline of NZ First, in the belief that their decreasing popularity was due to a Pakeha backlash against the greater voice that NZ First was affording Maori MPs in the operation of government. Despite some logic in Delemere’s argument, it was somewhat flawed by the fact that Maori voters, too, had a low opinion of NZ First. Opinion polls in 1998 canvassing Maori voters indicated that the Labour Party had recaptured its traditional Maori support and NZ First had slipped to a very distance second place in the Maori electorates.
The credibility of NZ First was dealt a further blow when in 1998 Peters was successfully sued for defamation by Selwyn Cushing (totaling $125,000 in damages and costs). Then in August 1997 the commission of inquiry into the “wine box” affair further discredited Peters when it cleared former Inland Revenue head David Henry and former Serious Fraud Office head Charles Sturt and their departments of any wrongdoing, and instead labelled Peter's allegations as ‘false and completely unjustified’ (quoted in Bain, 14 Aug 1998).
[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.]