During its early years New Zealand First had a large number of members resigning, and number of other internal party disputes. In particular, the party organisation continued to be unstable. According to Laugesen, writing in 1997, 'Of NZF's original management committee of seven, only Mr Woolerton and Mr Peters are still members, let alone actively involved in the party' (Laugesen, 31 Aug 1997: p.C2). The dissenting ex-members all left the party. [Read more below]
The internal critics included Ian and Cheryl Shearer, Terry Heffernan, Rex Widerstrom, David Stevenson and Mr McKenzie, Neil Atwood (Peters' Tauranga campaign manager), Judith Surgeoner (the former Liberals party chair), Roly Hammond (Peters’ campaign chairman), and Malcolm Wright (another ex-Liberals Party stalwart) – all of whom had been involved with the party since its early days in 1993.
Winston Peters’ falling out with Ian and Cheryl Shearer was particularly messy. Cheryl Shearer had worked as Peters’ office manager in Parliament. According to Hames, ‘In the space of two days Cheryl Shearer left her job and Ian Shearer resigned from the party. Both had concerns about the running of Peters' Parliamentary office (Hames, 1995: pp.219-220). The Shearers ‘alleged financial impropriety within Peters' parliamentary offices and the gross misuse of parliamentary mail and travel privileges. A subsequent internal investigation failed to substantiate these claims but the whole incident left an unpleasant odour' (Laws, 1998: p.295).
Another series of defections occurred in the run-up to the 1996 general election, after some of the party’s long-serving parliamentary staff were demoted or ostracised and ‘a significant number of relatively new members were given high places on the party's list' (Boston and McLeay, 1998: pp.217-218). In particular, Rex Wilderstrom and David Stevenson had been employed in the party’s parliamentary unit, and were first sidelined within that structure after Michael Laws joined the party. Later when the party list for the 1996 election was drawn up, they alleged that they had been the victim of an illegal process. They stated: ‘Every step in the NZ First party's procedure for selecting candidates and ranking those candidates for the party list was secret closed [sic] to the public and closed to the media despite Mr Peters' often repeated claims to having a commitment to open, accountable and transparent democratic processes’ (quoted in Evening Post, 27 Sep 1996: p.2). Subsequently, Wilderstrom and Stevenson made a complaint to the Electoral Commission and a filed a law suit against the party.
Laugesen categorised the dissenters into two groups:
NZ First's many dissenters are divided into two types. The first group, its secret dissenters, loathe the "she'll be right" figure of Mr Woolerton and see him as an imperfect instrument of Mr Peters' will…. The second group, who are irredeemably disillusioned, may have started off by blaming the leader's henchmen, but now hold Mr Peters ultimately responsible for the party's internal chaos and periodic witchhunts (Laugesen, 31 Aug 1997: p.C2).
Undoubtedly, part of the explanation for the high amount of personal dissention and personal infighting in the party comes down to the fact that the basis on which NZ First was formed and grew was that of a charismatic personality cult. As Laugesen argues, ‘With one powerful individual dominating the party, the only way individuals can get ahead is to compete for his favours and attention. Trivial wars for his affection have blossomed' (Laugesen, 31 Aug 1997: p.C2).
[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.]