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.