The existence and potential future of the Maori faction within New Zealand First was obviously one of the more interesting developments in the party during the 1990s. Because NZ First lacked the alignments or institutional ties to powerful social, ethnic or economic forces outside of Parliament, it was relatively easy for the Maori faction to assert some control within the party and build up an effective powerbase. [Read more below]
The assertion of the Maori faction
Tau Henare had made it his mission in his first term to establish a strong collection of candidates to stand in the five Maori seats in 1996. The Maori MPs were in a relatively strong position from which to consolidate its grip on the Maori seats and improve their position within NZ First, as the size of the Maori seats meant that the Maori MPs each qualified for two electorate offices (Campbell, 16 Nov 1996: p.27).
The existence and assertion of the Maori faction inevitably led to some volatility, as the politics of the Maori faction of NZ First did not coincide with those of the conservative Peters factions, nor with that of those in the party wanting to be a moderate centre party. Instead, as David Lange argued,
the younger Maori wing is not interested in moderation in the quest for stability for everyone else. The Maori wing, of which Winston Peters does not form part, fits naturally with the Left of the political spectrum, which makes the party's division no merely inevitable but desirable (Lange, 14 Oct 1996: p.12).
An example of the Maori faction’s attempt to assert itself came in early 1998 when a NZ First hui of Maori delegates unanimously moved that ‘Maori representation on the national council of NZ First comprise the chairperson of each Maori electorate' (Bell, 10 Mar 1998: p.2). A letter was subsequently sent to the party president, Doug Woolerton, demanding representation on the 19-member council.
The Maori members of the NZ First caucus had never been especially comfortable with the decision to coalesce with National in government. This was mainly due to the more left-wing politics of the Maori MPs and their constituents, and also quite obviously because NZ First’s Maori supporters had more in common with Labour than National.
Rumours of a breakaway Maori Party
Throughout 1997 and 1998 there was speculation that the Maori NZ First MPs would at some stage leave the party and establish a Maori-based party. Early in 1997 rumours existed that the Maori faction was discussing whether or not to leave NZ First and launch their own political party. However, the huge public hostility to Alamein Kopu’s recent departure from the Alliance worked against such an event.
The decline of NZ First led to a new assertion by the Maori faction, and the chance that the party might become a Maori party. Rating so lowly in the opinion polls, some of the Maori electorate MPs apparently figured that they stood a good chance of inheriting the party when the (Pakeha) list MPs and Peters lost their seats in the next general election.
These different strategies therefore made a split in the party inevitable. The question remained whether Peters and his faction would split leaving the Maori faction to convert “NZ First” into 'something like "Tahi Aotearoa" or whether the Maori faction would be the one to break away.
There was a sense in which much of the media believed that a quasi-Maori party already existed within NZ First. After all, the Maori members of NZ First were said to caucus separately every week. However, it was a mistake to over-estimate the formal existence of a Maori Party before the formal split in NZ First.
[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.]