|The Happy Warrior: In the five months remaining before the 2023 General Election, Winston Peters has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.|
NZ FIRST is currently hovering around 3-4 percent in the opinion polls – not enough to make it back to Parliament. Looking back over New Zealand’s recent political history, however, a base of 3-4 percent has been enough to see NZ First crest the 5 percent MMP threshold on Election Day. In 2011, for example, few commentators rated NZ First’s chances of re-entering the House, but it made it back with 1.5 percentage points to spare. Winston Peters remains a formidable campaigner. But, even if he and his party once again re-enter Parliament, Peters faces some extremely difficult political choices.
The first and most important of these would be whether NZ First should enter into a formal coalition agreement with the National Party and Act. On the face of it, such an arrangement would constitute a repudiation of everything NZ First has stood for since its founding in 1993.
Act represents those New Zealanders who are not only convinced that Rogernomics and Ruthanasia were correct and necessary, but also that the neoliberal programme of the 1980s and 90s remains unfinished – a state of affairs that Act is determined to put right.
At his very first Cabinet meeting in 1990, Peters realised that the “decent society” National had promised New Zealanders was no longer on the agenda. So trenchant a critic was he of the Jim Bolger Government’s slash-and-burn policies that he was thrown out of Cabinet, eventually resigning his National Party membership altogether.
NZ First was Peters’ attempt to combine the best elements of the political doctrines espoused by National and Labour before both major parties were corrupted by free-market extremism. In the first MMP election, held in 1996, NZ First secured 13 percent of the Party Vote and 17 seats – a position of strength which allowed him to conclude a comprehensive (and remarkably progressive) coalition agreement with his “frenemy” Jim Bolger.
Unfortunately for Peters, the National host rejected NZ First. Though it meant deposing Bolger, and governing with the support of a malodorous collection of traitors and turncoats, National, no longer wedded to the values of New Zealand’s most prosperous years (1949-1984) made it clear that renouncing neoliberalism was not an option.
National Leader, Christopher Luxon, has said nothing which suggests that his party’s allegiance to the neoliberal ideology is wavering. He is not, however, as open in his endorsement of neoliberal principles as Act’s David Seymour. This ideological diffidence does not sit well with the Act Party. Accordingly, Seymour and his party seem determined to drag National kicking and screaming into the radical libertarian Right’s policy hothouse. Where it matters in 2023, moderation is out-of-fashion.
None of this will have escaped Peters’ eagle political eye. In the 30 years since he was a member, there has been not the slightest sign that the moderate, small-c conservative values that allowed National to rule for 29 of the 35 years between 1949 and 1984 are making a come-back. Even without Act, National might smile and smile at NZ First, and be a neoliberal villain, just waiting for the moment when, like Jenny Shipley, it can thrust a dagger deep into his back.
By contrast, Act, with refreshing honesty, is doing its best to stab NZ First in the front. By refusing point-blank to enter into any coalition affording aid and comfort to Peters’ allegedly antiquated and discredited economic and social ideas, it hopes to leave National with no option but to go into coalition with Act, or go back to the country for a second crack at putting things right.
But, if Peters cannot choose National, neither can he choose Labour. (Let alone Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori!) It did not take him and NZ First very long to grasp that Labour’s values in 2017 were light-years away from Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s. Jacinda Ardern had promised “transformational” change and, when it came to entrenching radical identity politics, she delivered it. Not that when she invited New Zealand to “Let’s do this!”, voters had the faintest idea she’d do that.
What choice, then, does Peters and NZ First have? In the five months remaining before the election, he has to amass enough votes to once again seize the hand-brake. Even a quarter of New Zealand’s 980,000 Baby Boomers would be enough.
Talkin’ bout my generation’s, and Winston’s, last shot at redemption!
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 May 2023.