After the 1996 general election, Tau Henare’s position as deputy leader continued to be precarious – in particular because of his terse relationship with Peters. The eventual firing of Henare was not so much an issue of personalities, but one that was representative of the increasing breakdown between the Maori and Pakeha factions. [Read more below]
The party tension increased markedly from about September 1997 when ‘Henare championed the cause of his constituent, Rau Williams, who had been refused kidney dialysis. Mr Henare broke ranks with Cabinet ministers who had defended the refusal as one for clinicians to make’ (Hubbard, 11 Jul 1998). A ‘blazing row’ subsequently occurred in the NZ First caucus, and Henare reportedly ‘told party MPs to "stuff the deputy leadership up your arses" and stormed out of the caucus meeting after an argument over Cabinet collective responsibility’ (Hubbard, 11 Jul 1998). The dispute remained unresolved for a number of weeks, during which ‘the party was effectively without a deputy leader’ (Hubbard, 11 Jul 1998).
The relationship came to a head in July 1998, when Henare was officially dumped as deputy leader. Prior to this Henare’s behaviour had been becoming increasingly unacceptable for the majority of the NZ First caucus. First, media speculation had been increasing as to Tau Henare’s involvement in establishing a new Maori party, to which Henare had only given public responses such as ‘the time is not right for such a party’. Henare had also created controversy by flying to Britain to retrieve a number of tatooed Maori heads.
The firing of Henare that occurred soon after this was not so much an issue of personalities, but one that was representative of the increasing breakdown within NZ First between the Maori and Pakeha factions. It seems that the Pakeha section of the party was increasingly blaming the Maori electorate MPs as a cause of the whole party’s unpopularity. It seems therefore, that the Pakeha faction were interested in either provoking a split in the party to remove the unpopular section, or at least be seen to reassert their dominance over the Maori MPs. This explanation corresponds with Henare’s belief that his ‘axing as deputy leader had been planned at a strategy meeting in Mr Peters' office in the week before the caucus meeting’ (Hubbard, 11 Jul 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.]