The question of whether the New Zealand First party has a future is dealt with in a feature story by David Fisher in the latest Herald on Sunday. Entitled ‘Is he still the fairest?’, the story is not online (although the much shorter news version of it is). I was interviewed for the article, so I thought I’d briefly elaborate on my thoughts about the party’s future in a blog post and give further details of the Herald on Sunday feature. I argue that despite losing its parliamentary representation (due to the undemocratic 5% MMP threshold), NZ First actually had a reasonably impressive election campaign, but has no future. [Read more below].
New Zealand First has its first post-election conference next weekend, so the Herald on Sunday journalist David Fisher asked me for my thoughts on the state of the party. The following is the section that was published:
It flies in the face of results, but Dr Bryce Edwards, politics lecturer at the University of Otago, says that the party's failure to return to Parliament masks a campaign that was "possibly the most impressive and successful'' of the 2008 election.
In a soon-to-be- published review of the 2008 election, Edwards says by securing the fourth highest party vote, the campaign "belied the projections of most political commentators''. It was only the "undemocratic'' MMP threshold requiring a party to get 5% that kept it from Parliament.
Peters was beset by scandal, yet turned this to a common NZ First theme showing "democracy was under threat from the perennial elite forces that New Zealand First had always railed against - big business and media interests''.
“Campaigning as a suspended minister – albeit still with the privileges that it afforded – meant that he could once again play the outsider and underdog.”
Rather than the battle with the media, Edwards suggests it was National's reaction to that by deciding to "banish it as a governing partner'' that impacted on the party. Doing so "denied the party the strategic possibility of holding the balance of power between the two main parties''.
“National's maneuver pushed New Zealand First into a corner where it was essentially tied to the sinking Labour Party, with National arguing that 'a vote for New Zealand First is a vote for Labour'.''
If Key had not shut NZ First out, Edwards argues that Peters would have been able to campaign on the basis of “keeping National honest''.
NZ First's difficulty was compounded by National's shift to the centre. Edwards likens the difficulty to that faced by the Alliance in the late 1990s, when Labour was perceived to have shifted to the left. Just as the Alliance suffered when Labour moved into its territory, so did NZ First as National became a "moderate, populist and more nationalistic'' party.
Edwards says there is still a constituency for the party, with an "impressive'' vote of just over 4 per cent in the election. Grim economic times ahead also provide an opportunity to pick up support through discontent.
However, countering this is the party's “populist, nationalist appeal'' being lost to the Greens, while Act has an appeal for those with socially conservative leanings.
David Fisher also spoke to a number of the party faithful and ex-MPs for this story and heard a surprising level of dissent and open musings about NZ First’s problems. For instance, former MP and party president Doug Wollerton ‘has decided to move on from the party, and is seeking work as a lobbyist’. Hence he won’t be at next weekend’s conference. He says that reviving the party will be a ‘massive struggle’. Similarly, Deputy Leader Peter Brown admits ‘it might be mission impossible’. Fisher also spoke to Winston Peters, who told him: ‘Go have a wank somewhere else’.
Peter Brown is still very much involved, but is less complementary about his party’s campaign than myself: ‘In my view, we ran an awful campaign and we paid for it’. In particular, Brown’s complaint seems to be that Peters ‘didn’t sell the rest of us enough and the media didn’t pick up that there were a number of guys behind him who were working their butts off to achieve a number of things”. Furthermore there was a problem communicating what the party represented: ‘The public perceive we don’t stand for anything and think “what’s the point in voting for them?”’
The prospect of Peters being replaced (or supplemented) by another leader is discussed. Fisher writes: ‘Edwin Perry, a former MP, raised the possibility of high-profile MP Ron Mark, for whole he acts as electorate chair. Likewise, Edwards floats Mark as the only likely replacement with a shot at getting the party back to Parliament.’ Fisher states that Ron Mark ‘did not return calls’ about the article on NZ First.
There is particular unhappiness within the party about how Peters dealt with the media during the campaign: ‘All spoken to say the situation is intolerable. They say there must be a new relationship with the media, built on mutual respect, openness and courtesy. The party has even set up a special media subcommittee.’ Furthermore, ‘Party president George Groomsbridge also recognises the problem. “We can’t go on with this continual idea of working against the media. That type of approach has really got us nowhere. We need to have a different approach, a more amenable approach – probably a joint leadership approach.”’
Unsurprisingly, a number of those spoken to by Fisher were unhappy with how Peters dealt with the issues surrounding NZ First’s political finances in 2008. Fisher reports: ‘When questions were raised about NZ First funding, Brown says the public should have been fully informed, apologies made for any mistakes and then the focus should have been shifted to the issues the party was standing on’. Furthermore, it is revealing that although Peter Brown is the deputy leader, he complains in the article about the lack of ‘accountability or transparency’ in the party’s processes.
For those interested in NZ First’s party finance scandal, Fisher’s article has the latest developments:
Separate from the article, I’d make a couple further comments about NZ First’s future. Essentially, New Zealand First is a leftover from the 1990s breakdown of the party system and the neoliberalism radicalism of Labour and National. Just as the Alliance represented a left break from Labour over its neoliberalism, NZ first represented a left break from National over its neoliberalism. While both Labour and National remain relatively wedded to the same neoliberal economic framework that the Alliance and NZ First were created to oppose, the parties of neoliberalism no longer want to push forward the neoliberal programme, in fact both main parties are now committed to removing the rough edges from it. So now that New Zealand politics has returned to a more centrist and moderate nature, there is little room for Winston Peters and his party. Quite simply, the conflict over economic intervention no longer coheres electoral politics in New Zealand. And this is why there’s no strong future for any of the parties that were established over the neoliberal political conflict – the Alliance, New Zealand First, and also the Act Party. All three have been stuck in a time warp and thrashing around for a way to re-define themselves, but have largely failed which is why none of them seem capable of reaching the (undemocratic) 5% electoral threshold anymore.
Other parallels might also be found with the Alliance party’s failure to bounce back after losing its parliamentary representation in 2002. The Alliance soon found that it was greatly disadvantaged by the loss of all of its taxpayer-funded parliamentary resources. Small parties become incredibly reliant on the funding resources, the parliamentary staff and facilities to operate their parties, and when these are withdrawn a party can languish and no longer compete adequately with the other parliamentary parties. New Zealand First has always been incredibly dependent on its parliamentary funding. (See, the blog post I wrote last year on NZ First finances).