A Stone-Cold Certainty: Winston Peters addresses the 2016 NZ First Conference. After getting to know some of its Auckland members in 2009, I came away with an entirely new understanding of the NZ First Party. For a start, it was a real party. Fifty or sixty people would regularly turn up to the Sunday afternoon party get-togethers I attended. The other firm impression I came away with was that, in terms of policy, NZ First was very reminiscent of the Labour Party before Rogernomics: good-hearted, genuine, with generous helpings of both economic radicalism and social conservatism.
IT WAS DURING Winston Peters’ three-year exile from Parliament that I first got to know NZ First up close and personal. A friend of mine, a sometime NZ First activist, was contemplating putting her name forward as a candidate and asked me if I’d care to accompany her to a party get-together and fund-raiser in Avondale.
The whole event sounded intriguing. There was to be a film-showing preceded by a roast dinner with all the trimmings. There would be plenty of wine and beer on sale. What was not to like?
Very little, as it turned out. The venue itself was a curious mixture of museum and movie-theatre. As we walked up the long driveway I noticed objects that I had not encountered in more than forty years. Petrol pumps (“bowsers” we used to call them) bearing long-dead brands, and sheet-metal signage of similar vintage. The “dining-room” was packed and seriously overheated on account of the furious ovens in which our meal was cooking.
It was an arrangement that could hardly be beaten if your mission was to sell as many cool drinks as possible. Cold-ish beer in hand, I set out to meet the stalwarts of NZ First.
It turned out to be a jarring experience. Not because the NZ Firsters I met were seriously eccentric misfits and/or irretrievably bigoted rednecks, but because they weren’t. Indeed, what the gathering reminded me of most forcefully was the sort of Labour Party fund-raiser I used to attend in the late-1970s and early-1980s. There was the same mix of robust working-class gregariousness and well-mannered middle-class cordiality – and the same very low incidence of university-educated professionals. When politicians use that dreadful expression “ordinary New Zealanders” these are the sort of folk they have in mind.
It was a great afternoon/evening – made all the more entertaining by watching a movie in what was, surely, the smallest cinema in Auckland – and I came away with an entirely new understanding of the NZ First Party. For a start, it was a real party. Fifty or sixty people had turned up on a Sunday afternoon in support of a party that had no parliamentary representation. A party constructed around the fortunes of a single individual just doesn’t behave like that. The other firm impression I came away with was that, in terms of policy, NZ First was, again, very reminiscent of the Labour Party before Rogernomics: good-hearted, genuine, with generous helpings of both economic radicalism and social conservatism.
I went back at least a couple more times to that strange little complex in Avondale. I was even invited to give my hosts a short pre-dinner talk on the subject of “The Politics of the NZ News Media”. Never again would I be taken-in by the lofty condescension of my journalistic colleagues in relation to NZ First’s political viability. Those journeys to Avondale had convinced me that Winston’s return was a stone-cold certainty. When NZ First bolted back into Parliament with 6.5 percent of the Party Vote in 2011, I wasn’t a bit surprised.
The sort of people who are constantly being surprised by NZ First’s success are the same sort of people who, in the United Kingdom, were dumbfounded by the result of the EU Referendum. Neoliberalism has, for the most part, been very good to these sort of people. With both feet firmly planted on the property ladder; blessed with carefully crafted contracts OF (not FOR) service; taken seriously by journalists, bureaucrats and politicians; they simply cannot understand what the people who are not like them are on about.
That’s NZ First’s great advantage. It’s membership is made up, overwhelmingly, of people who aren’t in the least bit like the people who don’t understand them. As a party, NZ First is a bit like the Guardian columnist who walked all the way from Liverpool to London. Mike Carter knew weeks before the actual vote that Brexit would win. Why? Because the sort of people who never get invited onto the BBC’s current affairs shows had told him how they intended to vote. Men and women who hadn’t cast a ballot for years were making sure they registered. The opportunity to pay back the elites who had ripped their communities to shreds, and consigned them and their families to the social skip, was just too delicious to miss.
Something in me hopes that the boys and girls of the Parliamentary Press Gallery never make the journey to Avondale, or its equivalents in the towns and cities of New Zealand. I don’t want them to send camera crews to Geraldine and Dannevirke to record the packed-out halls for Winston Peters, or the numbers signing-up to NZ First after every meeting. Why? Because I want them to be as shocked on Election Night 2017 as the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby was on 23 June. I want to hear them wail: “How could this have happened?” and “What does it mean?” I want them to be left stunned by – of all people – their fellow New Zealanders. The ones they’ve never met.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 5 September 2016.