An important conference for NZ First as it braces for the prospect of a painful year ahead

Expect  the  old  campaigner Winston  Peters to be at  his belligerent  best as he   gears  up for another election.  He’s kept his party alive for 27 years  and  he  shows  no sign  of quitting.

The  omens  may be  bleak—polls  this week  showed  his party below  the  5% threshold– but  Peters  insists   NZ  First’s  own polling puts the party  “comfortably  in the  zone”  to do well.  He told   Radio NZ the  party   is getting  “enormous  support” in the provinces  and  he’ll use  the   conference  to  outline a winning  strategy.

As  for  those  political commentators  who say NZ  First  won’t make it back  into Parliament,  they are   “moronic”.

Yet  even  when  Peters  fires   up,  as  he  did  in  that interview,  the  odds   are stacking up against  NZ  First.    He  can brush off the polls, dismiss  leaks of  sensitive party documents  pointing to questionable  internal administrative issues,  and  assert   his  party  is  key to  the  coalition’s   success: yet  NZ First inevitably  will cop  some of the blame generated by adverse headlines  as in  the  NZ  Herald  on  Thursday – “Dire Shortfall in  State Housing”.

The party conference comes in the wake of the party president quitting for “moral reasons” after refusing to sign off on financial documents  and senior MP Shane Jones   being  ticked off,   again,   by   PM  Jacinda  Ardern for flouting  the  Cabinet manual.   As  well there  have     been  reports  NZ  First  MP  Clayton Mitchell  has been  behaving badly,  not  for the  first time, in a  Tauranga   bar—reports   which  Mitchell  disputes.

Politically, it’s a hugely important conference, with the party never having made the 5% threshold after a term in government.

The   real problem for   NZ  First  this  time   is  to attract enough  votes to top that threshold, since  it can no longer rely  on  its old  stratagem of waiting  until  “the people have spoken”  before entering coalition talks – a stratagem   which  allowed  it   to pull support  from  those    leaning either to  the  Left  or  the  Right.

Now,  after its performance  inside the Ardern coalition, those  who believed in 2017 it would enter  a coalition  with  National are  thoroughly  disillusioned with it. The biggest erosion  of support  could  be in  Auckland electorates, which  found themselves  without a voice inside  the  NZ First caucus,  and  as well may have felt  discriminated against through  such policies  as  Shane Jones’  provincial  handouts.

As  Peter  Dunne  has noted, this government is, by virtue of its composition, unusual, and therefore somewhat more difficult to categorise in terms of its performance.

Previous multi-party governments have had more coherence – either the centre-left, and the centre; or, the centre-right, the right, and the centre working together. This government brings together the left, the centre-left and the centre-right, meaning immediately that the compromises needed for its survival were greater than those within any of its predecessors under MMP”.

The trick  for  Peters   will  be to  find   areas where   NZ  First   can blunt policies  being  proposed    particularly   by the Greens  and thus  draw  votes  from  those  who disagree with,  or  would be hurt by,  those policies.

It’s a risky  strategy.     

Nor   is  Labour  inclined  to  make it    easier for  NZ  First  by offering  it  an electorate   seat,   as  National  does with  ACT.

There  is  much  restiveness  within  Labour  that NZ First  has exercised an effective veto on policy.  This has   meant that Labour governs at the pleasure of NZ First, rather than with its support. It is doubtful that voters wanted a party with just 7% of the party vote calling  the shots this way.

Some commentators  are  saying that, as  the election approaches,   NZ  First  will have to  become more aggressive  on  issues   like  freshwater  policy  and  drug  law  reform.  But  the  more it  frustrates  Labour and  the Greens in delivering  what  those parties see as  progressive  policies  the less  inclined   supporters of those parties  might consider  giving their party  votes (say in safe  Labour seats)  to  NZ  First simply to ensure the  coalition survives.

As Peter Dunne  puts  it:

If, as seems more and more likely, what we have now is as good as it is likely to get under this government, the next year is likely to be a very painful one for it”.

Point of  Order  believes  NZ  First won’t escape   its share of that pain.

 

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