It appears that the chances of New Zealand First being returned to Parliament in this year’s general election are becoming rather slim. Although the party’s just received a fair bit of media attention this weekend because of its conference and Winston Peters’ usual capacity to get headlines, he doesn’t really seem to be coming up with the goods in the way that he used to. Peters has always been a dynamic political campaigning, who shouldn’t easily be written off, but it finally appears that he’s becoming rather lacklustre and tired. Certainly his attempts at differentiating NZ First from the other major and minor parties are looking fairly weak. His latest policy focus seems particularly ineffective. So is there actually a political-electoral space for Peters and his party? Does anyone really want to buy what Winston Peters is selling? This is still a partially open question, and so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether NZ First will be victorious in its quest to return to Parliament this year. The party will obviously need to cross the crucial 5% threshold to do so, and most polls suggest that NZ First is well short of being within striking distance. I was interviewed on the subject last night by TVNZ7 News – which you can watch here – and this blog post elaborates on some of those points made. [Read more below].
Peters’ latest political target: child abuse
Winston Peters always comes up with a new political target each year that is essentially a populist-style, issue that attempts to connect with discontent. He usually finds something that he considers the other parliamentary parties are not fully addressing, leaving a gap in the market to exploit. Therefore he often campaigns on issues such as immigration, law and order, race relations, Treaty settlements, foreign investments and land sales, the Foreshore and Seabed, etc. And often he’s particularly adept and finding issues in which the other parties are largely in agreement but the general public isn’t. So exploits the difference between the “elite consensus” in parliament and the public’s discontent. He can therefore pose as the “tribune of the people”. He scratches those itches that the other parties aren’t or can’t.
It’s not clear that the “child abuse” issue that Peters has used to launch his annual conference is one in which the other political parties have been too quiet on. Yes, there is significant public disquiet about the “child abuse” issue in New Zealand, but Peters and his party have not got any open field to exploit. The National Government, in particular, has already been focusing strongly on this area, and proposing some hard line ‘solutions’. What’s more, the issue of “child abuse” is hardly a new and fresh issue, but something possibly a bit stale for a minor party to focus on.
There are some other problems for Peters and NZ First:
Opinion polls – creating a negative narrative
According to various opinion polls, NZ First appears to currently have the support of about 2-3% of the population. While this suggests that he could indeed still be in the running to get up to the 5% threshold, voters are normally very cautious about gifting their party vote to a party that is not clearly likely to be in Parliament – they don’t want to “waste their vote”. So without a constituency seat to rely on like United Future or Act, people don’t like to take a risk, so a narrative is set up that NZ First isn’t likely to make it back into Parliament and therefore it becomes a self-perpetuating truth; the polls – regardless of their reliability or truth become reality.
The Public’s dislike of minor parties:
In the first MMP election in 1996, minor parties received nearly 40% of the popular vote, but going into this sixth MMP election in 2011 there appears to be less than 20% of the public interested in voting for minor parties. This drop from 4 out of 10 voters opting for minor parties – to only 2 out of 10 voters, shows that the novelty and appeal of minor parties has really dwindled. Quite simply, the minor parties face an uphill battle trying to win people over. And Winston Peters just doesn’t seem to have the ‘old magic’ that he used to utilise in the 1990s.
Other radical parties are stealing Winston Peters’ thunder:
In the last three months we’ve seen a rather boring-looking election year spring into life. But it’s mainly due to the reinvigorated Act Party on the right and the newly-launched Mana Party. These rather radical parties are really stealing the thunder and appear of many people that are feeling discontented with the major parties.
What’s more, the most successful minor party – the Greens – increasingly appeal to the old constituency that Winston Peters used to aim for: nostalgic, anti-Establishment, partially-xenophobic opponents of change. The Act Party often caters for this type of voter too – especially on race-relate issues such as the Foreshore and Seabed and Treaty settlements.
The organisational barriers for Peters:
There are a number of barriers for Winston Peters and his party to get over in order to be a potential player in next year’s general election. The first one is simply that he and his party are no longer in Parliament. The incumbency factor is very strong in the New Zealand political system, especially because of the 5% threshold required to get into Parliament, but also because of the parliamentary funds and resources that incumbents have to wield.