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A buoyant Winston Peters says NZ First is back - and this time they’re coming for Labour’s core voters after the parties’ coalition crumbled. Audrey Young reports.
Winston Peters has changed markedly since he lost power in 2020 and not just in his new upbeat mood.
For the first time since MMP began, the former Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader has emphatically ruled out working with a major party.
He has hinted at it in the past. But he has not unequivocally ruled out a major party, until now in an interview with the Weekend Herald.
“No one gets to lie to me twice,” he says this week.
“We are not going to go with the Labour Party, this present Labour Party crowd, because they can’t be trusted.
“You don’t get a second time to lie to me, or my party and they did.”
Peters says when he was Deputy Prime Minister in New Zealand First’s coalition with Labour, he was kept in the dark over the commissioning of He Puapua, and what the Three Waters reforms looked like and described it as a “secret agenda”.
To double-check whether there was any wriggle room in his position on Labour, he is asked if he is ruling out working with a Jacinda Ardern-led Government.
“Most definitely,” he says and he reflects on his previous two stints in government, first with National and with the fifth Labour Government, which he described as trusted relationships.
“When I shook hands with Jim Bolger and Helen Clark, ask them whether I could be trusted. When I shake someone’s hand, and they deliberately mislead me and my caucus, who are a critical part of a coalition, they don’t get a second chance to do that again.
“I regret that. It’s sad that it has happened but those are the facts and they cannot deny it.
“You can take that as there is no way this present Labour crowd will ever be in a coalition with New Zealand First because they lied to us last time. We trusted them.”
But he offered little hope to National and the centre-right.
“It doesn’t mean we are rushing off to the other side. We want a better government in 2023 and a much better government than we’ve had for a long time.”
Peters also reiterated a long-held position of not working with the Māori Party, believing their very existence is racist.
He has started holding public meetings in provincial New Zealand and is clearly buoyed by last month’s party convention in Christchurch, an energised party board, rising polls and a string of successful court cases. That is in stark contrast to a seemingly perpetual bitterness in 2020.
Polls show NZ First on the rise
New Zealand First held the balance of power in 2017 and ended National’s three-term run by putting Labour into Government in a coalition.
The coalition held until the 2020 election, when Labour won a majority in a landslide with 50 per cent of the vote - and New Zealand First was voted out of Parliament altogether with 2.6 per cent and no electorate seat to save it.
Most polls this year show a National-Act Government or a close contest with Labour and the Greens. New Zealand First is currently hovering at about 3 or 4 per cent in the political polls, within spitting distance of the 5 per cent threshold.
This interview is held at a cafe near Parliament, partly over coffee and partly on video.
It’s near St Paul’s Cathedral where Peters is heading for the memorial service for Sir Wira Gardiner where many former parliamentary colleagues gather, including Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson.
The He Puapua report was commissioned in 2019 by Jackson’s predecessor, Nanaia Mahuta, without the knowledge of New Zealand First and was leaked after the 2020 election.
Jackson has announced that He Puapua is not Government policy and denied it was part of a secret agenda but that, in the Covid pandemic, it had not been a priority.
However, in unguarded comments, Jackson also said in retrospect, he was pleased Peters and his NZ First colleagues hadn’t seen it before the 2020 election.
“If they had got it, they would have utilised it and said ‘here we go, that’s why you have to vote for New Zealand First’,” Jackson told reporters in June 2021.
“You can see the strategy now. Imagine what they would have done during the election. Was it deliberately withheld from them? No. It’s just that other issues got in the way. But I am pleased they didn’t see it.”
Almost 18 months later, Peters is still using that comment to press his case about Labour having conspired to make sure New Zealand First did not see the report. He simply does not accept Labour’s explanation.
The group working on He Puapua was asked to come up with recommendations on how New Zealand could meet its commitments under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Treaty of Waitangi.
It promoted the principle of co-design and co-governance of services across all sectors that related to equity, a principle Peters would say is being implemented in policies such as co-governance boards with iwi and councils in Three Waters reforms.
And the impact of having two Māori campaigning against Māori co-governance – Peters and his de facto deputy Shane Jones – is a point of difference with its political rival, Act.
“That is going to be a huge issue in 2023,” says Peters.
“I’ve always been opposed to co-governance. I’ve been a big supporter of getting more Māori into Parliament because they have got what it takes to be in Parliament. I can’t stand tokenism.”
The party would still not stand in the Māori seats. Peters said the party had the same view that Brian Poananga had when Muldoon had asked him how many Māori were in the army.
“And Major General Poananga said ‘Prime Minister, we only have soldiers in the army.’
“That’s my view as well,” says Peters.
He does not deny people pride in their heritage “but we’ve got equal pride in our European heritage”.
“We’re not crapping all over our European background like so many in Parliament are today in Labour and the Māori Party.
“This is an anathema to a country going forward when our only chance as a country is unity.”
Peters says other key issues will be the economy “and the mess in our social services and education”.
“If we don’t recognise the connection between education and our economic future, we’re off to the third world.”
Whether Peters’ new unequivocal position on Labour is even tested will depend on New Zealand First holding the balance of power after the 2023 election and on the party’s board, which makes post-election decisions, taking its lead from Peters.
But the positioning could attract some of those who are abandoning Labour, after its unsustainably high vote in 2020.
It should not be difficult for New Zealand First to improve on the 2020 result of 2.6 per cent - the party’s worst election result despite a reasonably solid record in coalition.
With the health and economic crises associated with Covid in 2020, and a popular Prime Minister, New Zealand First fought for relevancy, and turning on Labour didn’t help. With National in disarray, Act got the anti-establishment vote.
‘A defamatory, malignant attack’
Another big factor frequently cited by Peters was that within weeks of the election, the Serious Fraud Office had laid charges against two people in relation to New Zealand First donations.
Peters has long held disdain for the Serious Fraud Office dating back to the 1990s when he pilloried it for not taking a prosecution over the Winebox saga. That disdain has deepened with the donations court case.
“It was a defamatory, malignant attack on a political party and its leader – and they have not heard the end of it by a long way.”
It was the not guilty verdicts on July 22 this year which Peters cites as the day he decided he would definitely be contesting the 2023 election.
“I made up my mind that I was never … going to become the victim of what was virtually a conspiracy to take someone out of politics. It’s that simple.”
It is the third court case associated with Peters that he has won in five months.
The others were a declaratory judgment stating that a since-rescinded trespass order against him from entering Parliament grounds had been unreasonable and irrational, and a recall judgment issued this week by Justice Jan-Marie Doogue, In it, she acknowledged that a speech made by Peters under parliamentary privilege should have played no part in her previous determination of a defamation suit (she reduced the damages award from $350,000 to $120,000 as a consequence).
Voter behaviour data from Vote Compass (developed by political scientists from Auckland University and Victoria University), comparing New Zealand First’s 2017 result (7.2 per cent) and 2020 result (2.6 per cent) found that 35 per cent of New Zealand First voters changed to Labour in 2020, about 20 per cent went to National or Act and about 15 per cent did not vote at all.
Clearly, Peters is looking to recapture some of his party’s former supporters falling away from Labour. But he plans to do that by targeting more than the grey vote and provincial New Zealand.
He says he is going to go after Labour’s core vote for the first time in his career.
“This present crowd has absolutely abandoned its core voter, the ordinary hard-working man and woman that used to be a core Labour voter.
“I’m going to go and talk to that core vote because I, in my long career, never have.”
New Zealand First brought in funding for free doctor visits for under sixes in 1997 which was offered by the majority of general practices, and which was expanded in 2007. The party rarely gets credit for it.
Peters says he has done a stack of things for blue-collar workers including big shifts in the minimum wage from 2005-2008 and in the 2017 – 2020 years, which Labour claimed credit for.
“We are a conservative party but the essence of conservatism is responsibility to the ordinary people.”
So what is he going to do differently? There will be a greater reliance on social media to get out New Zealand First’s messages and the party and Peters is excited by the Facebook numbers – he has 114,000 followers compared with National leader Christopher Luxon and Act’s David Seymour who both have 75,000.
The party’s top 10 electorates last election in terms of party vote were Northland, Whangārei, Tauranga, Wairarapa, East Coast, Coromandel, Rangitīkei, Rotorua, Whanganui and Bay of Plenty, most of which may now be benefiting from New Zealand First’s $3 billion provincial growth fund last term.
Peters himself did not stand in a seat last time, and it was just too soon to say whether that would again go list-only.
He says the party will stand in as many seats as it had “respectable candidates”.
“We are not putting anybody up that’s not up to the job,” he says.
“We are not putting anyone up who would be an embarrassment if perchance the polls turn and we start getting people in Parliament in far greater numbers. We owe the public that.”
He reckons there are about 28 serious contenders already who will measure up, including some of the former MPs - those at the recent annual convention were Shane Jones, Fletcher Tabuteau, Jenny Marcroft and Mahesh Bindra – as well as some young people.
“We are way ahead of where we have ever been this far out from an election.”
The NZ First record
1996: Party wins 17 seats in the first MMP election. Nine MPs get ministerial posts in coalition with National. Winston Peters becomes Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.
1998: Coalition ends when National PM Jenny Shipley sacks Peters from Cabinet. Eight NZ First MPs defect from NZ First, allowing National to govern without Peters.
1999: NZ First come in under threshold with 4.3 per cent of party vote but Peters keeps Tauranga by 63 votes. The party survives with five MPs.
2002: Party rebounds with 10.4 per cent of the party vote and 13 seats, including Peters in Tauranga.
2005: Peters loses Tauranga but the party scrapes in with 5.7 per cent of the vote and seven MPs. Peters made Foreign Minister outside Government in confidence and supply agreement with Helen Clark’s Labour Govt.
2008: Party gets just 4.07 per cent of the party vote and no seats, in the wake of inquiries into party donations. Out of Parliament altogether. Before the election, John Key rules out working with NZ First. Labour loses office.
2011: PM John Key again rules out working with NZ First but it wins 6.59 per cent of the party vote and is returned with eight MPs. In Opposition against National Govt.
2014: PM John Key does not rule out working with NZ First, which wins 8.66 per cent and 11 seats. Peters wins Northland byelection in 2015 and gets an extra list MP when he switches to electorate, so 12 seats.
2017: NZ First holds the balance of power with 7.2 per cent and nine MPs. Peters loses Northland. National PM Bill English has not ruled out working with NZ First but it opts for Labour, with Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Get three other ministers and an under-secretary.
2020: NZ First out of Parliament with 2.6 per cent of the party vote and no seats after Covid-dominated election. Peters stands list-only. Shane Jones stands in Northland.
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