New Zealand First aren’t being given the attention they warrant by political commentators in the lead-up to this year’s election, with most rubbishing or downplaying the chances of Winston Peters and his party making it back into Parliament.
This is despite the fact that the party is bubbling just below the five per cent MMP threshold – mostly around three per cent, but sometimes as high as 4.4 per cent. NZ First’s polling is important, because if the party does manage to get back into Parliament, it will almost certainly mean a change of Government
For the first time ever, Peters has announced they will not support a Labour government and, if NZ First are there with 5 per cent of the vote or more, the chances of Labour-Greens-TPM having enough seats to form a government are very slim.
The party launched its campaign this week, and there are some signs they have a good chance of, to use their new campaign slogan, “taking back our country”.
Trying to surf a populist wave of discontent
The party’s new slogan “Let’s take back our country” is a populist one, reminiscent of the Brexit campaigners’ “Take back control”. It’s an ethos that will resonate strongly with a chunk of voters who feel the country is headed down the wrong track.
There is evidence that discontent is growing. A recent Curia Taxpayers’ Union poll showed 65 per cent of the public think the country is headed in the wrong direction – up 7 percentage points, to a record high in the survey. Increasingly people feel disenfranchised and left behind, and other parties are struggling to connect with and represent this anger and disillusionment.
Certainly, Christopher Luxon’s National seems woefully unable to channel any of this with authenticity – the party is just too Establishment and bland. Peters’ party is seeking to provide a home for that angst, saying their focus is on “Forgotten New Zealand”.
Beating the drum on race relations
Race relations are a prime issue for NZ First to campaign on, with growing concern about Government initiatives in this area. Last week’s 1News Verian poll showed 47 per cent of New Zealanders believe race relations are getting worse (with only 14 per cent saying they are improving).
Peters and his party are banging on this drum, helping drive-up discontent with the Government’s agenda on ethnicity and co-governance. Peters condemned this as “separatist” in the weekend, and specifically stated he was ruling out working with the “racist” Labour Party.
It looks like Peters is going to bang on this race relations drum much harder than either National or Act have been doing. NZ First has the ability to go harder on this because the party’s top four politicians are Māori, which gives them much more credence on these topics and means they cannot as easily be dismissed as being racist.
In addition, Peters and co have never been deterred by accusations of “racism” or “race-baiting” – spinning them as yet more proof of the “liberal elite” arrogantly and unfairly defending privilege and the status quo.
In this regard, Shane Jones also shouldn’t be underestimated as a populist tub-thumper on the campaign trail. His speech at the weekend on the Treaty of Waitangi showed his ability to revive the sort of Don Brash style rhetoric that was successful back in 2004. Jones said in the weekend, “Bro, it’s time to put the K back in Iwi”.
Together with new candidate Casey Costello, who was formerly deputy chair of Hobson’s Pledge, Jones is campaigning to significantly scale back the role of the Waitangi Tribunal.
NZ First is also going harder than other parties on law and order. For example, in the weekend, Peters called for the building of a “gang prison”, and he said his party would designate all gangs as terrorist organisations.
A “common sense” centre party that can keep National honest?
Rising public discontent with the Labour Government, together with National being unable to offer anything inspiring, gives a minor party like NZ First a prime opportunity to pose as the true centre party alternative to both.
Campaigning to “change the government” and ruling out supporting Labour after the election, NZ First can effectively promise to “keep National honest and in check”. Taking advantage of public suspicions of National and Act, Peters is positioning NZ First as a centre party that can modify the excesses of such a rightwing grouping. Notably, the second slogan used by NZ First in the weekend was “Certainty, common sense, and experience”.
In terms of economic policy, this moderating potential might be especially attractive to some voters, as NZ First is significantly to the left of National and Act. And in launching his election campaign in the weekend, Peters made sure to highlight his economic nationalist and populist policies, strongly targeting foreign-owned and super-profitable banks and supermarkets.
Other economic policies also put the party to the left of his potential coalition partners. Peters promised tax reform, including taking GST off all food (not just “fresh fruit and vegetables”). And there would be more spending on education and health – for example, Pharmac would be radically reformed and given a $1.3bn funding increase to buy medicines.
Of course, Luxon will not relish the prospect of governing in coalition with NZ First, and a government with Peters alongside David Seymour could be incredibly fraught. However Peters worked alongside James Shaw and the Greens in the last coalition government, and Peters and his party are generally much less combative in power than their campaigning rhetoric suggests.
And no one believes Luxon and National will spurn Peters if working with NZ First would make the difference in being able to remove Labour from office. In fact, some in National talk about having the seat of Northland up their sleeve – they could gently nudge National supporters to strategically vote for Shane Jones to help win the seat off Labour’s Willow-Jean Prime. A win by Jones would ensure NZ First wouldn’t be subject to the five per cent MMP threshold.
Can NZ First improve their support?
One of the big themes of the election so far is the resurgent support for minor parties, with the combined “purple vote” for National and Labour at historic lows. For populists, politics is largely controlled by two alternative factions of the elite – National governs on behalf of what has been called the “Remuera right” and Labour for the “Kelburn left”.
Political scientist Luke Oldfield thinks a revival of populism is very possible this year. He says: “A small number of Kiwis did incredibly well economically during the pandemic, while the people might feel as if they were left picking up the tab. For that reason, the political aspirants of 2023 would do well to harness any hardening of public sentiments toward technocratic decision-making.”
NZ First could position itself as a middle way, promoting itself as the champions of the working class, small business, and provincial New Zealand. Not only might Peters be able to pick up support from National-inclined voters who think Luxon and Act are too rightwing, he might also pick up some who have voted Labour in the past but feel it’s become too “woke” or focused on marginal concerns. Peters’ jibes at what he characterises as Labour’s obsession with gender ideology, “secret social engineering” and co-governance are possibly quite cunning.
He’s also being quite deliberate in targeting some of the groupings arising out of the anti-vaccination mood. The micro parties of Democracy NZ, Vison NZ, and the Freedom and Rights Party are polling in the margins, but once we get closer to election day, much of that support might be inclined to collapse into NZ First as the only viable option.
Peters clearly sees this as a voter base ripe for the picking. Such a blatantly opportunistic play for a group of voters Peters has little in common with will be distasteful to many. Likewise, controversies over political donations and dodgy fundraising have been a constant for Peters in recent times. But charges of opportunism and corruption have been made against Peters and his party many times without turning off true believers. As Donald Trump demonstrated, populist appeal to those angry with the status quo easily overrides such concerns.
Peters himself is looking sharper and more dynamic than he’s been for many years. His speech in the weekend was well-crafted and highlighted many problems in the country that will resonate with his target market. He was, as always, short on solutions, but that won’t stop him from appealing to the discontented.
There’s still much to come in the campaign that could buoy or sink NZ First’s chances of picking up this grumpy vote. But don’t dismiss the power of Winston Peters’ name recognition and personality in a field of leaders who are relatively bland and boring. Peters’ populist brand could still have resonance with those who want to “keep the bastards honest”.