New Zealand First’s decline inevitably led to a large degree of friction and infighting within the party. The firing of Neil Kirton is one example. Other friction included the resignation of Jenny Bloxham as party vice president after she fell out publicly with party president Doug Woolerton and whip Ron Mark. With such strong factions within the party, it was hardly surprising that there was friction. [Read more below]
Some NZ First MPs blamed Peters for the party’s decline, such as Tu Wyllie, who claimed in early 1998:
I will be sitting on the opposition benches unless Winston pulls finger…. Winston has had long enough to learn the Treasurer's job and it's time for him to front. He's the only one who can get to the people and inform them about what we have achieved…. He has to take more responsibility than he has for fronting for the party. I accept it's been enormously difficult for him learning a new job, but that's not an excuse for him any more (Laugesen, 15 Feb 1998: p.F1-2).
During 1997 the party’s revitalisation strategy appeared to rework the classic centre party message of showing voters that it is a party which could moderate the excesses of National (Laugesen, 15 Feb 1998: p.F1-2). This was message was not entirely without substance, as the party did have some evidence of policy changes to point to in favour of this argument: free healthcare for children aged six and under, the repeal of the superannuation surtax, pay parity for primary school teachers, creating a single national health funder, and playing a part in settling the Taranaki land leases issue. However, in reality, many of these claims were debatable (Laws, 21 April 1998: p.6).
The general consensus amongst political commentators is that Peters was failing at his strategy of positioning NZ First as the moderating party of the centre. They pointed out that the 1998 Budget, together with the other conservative NZ First initiatives, constituted movements by the coalition to the right, rather than towards a more moderate position. Outwardly, this indicated that NZ First was failing in their centre strategy. For example, Chris Trotter wrote that 'The sequence of back-tracks, side-steps, and running-around-in-ever-diminishing-circles which has characterised the behaviour of the NZ First caucus during the past six months make it clear that the party has become completely blind to the political logic of its situation’ (Trotter, 8 Jul 1998).
With Michael Laws now out of the party and out of favour, Winston Peters was without his key strategist. Peters then apparently turned to ‘Peter McCardle for day to day support and advice' (Gordon Campbell, 16 Nov 1996: p.27).
However, instead of being read as an attempt to improve the party’s popularity with the public, Peters’ maneuverings in early 1998 could also be read as an attempt to improve the popularity of his conservative Pakeha faction of the party with the National Party. If this was the case, then he had essentially given up on resurrecting NZ First as a moderate centre party and had recognised that his future was bound up with the National Party in some form or another. It also perhaps pointed to a divergence of interests between Winston Peters and the party.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that Peters’ survival plans – and perhaps also the plans of the conservative Pakeha faction – were based around separating themselves from the Maori element of the party caucus.
[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.]