New Zealand gets another party

Issue 

By Anne Casey

A fourth political formation — the New Zealand First Party — was launched on July 18 with Winston Peters, the "nation's most preferred prime minister" and former National party MP at the helm. This follows the breakdown in negotiations with the Alliance, which had been seeking to maximise the bloc vote against the Labour and National parties.

The Alliance and Peters had been negotiating for some weeks to see whether an electoral bloc was possible. Peters had set as a precondition for face to face talks that the Alliance — comprising the Greens, the Maori party Mana Motuhake, NewLabour, the Democrats and Liberals — dissolve into a single party formation.

This, says Matt McCarten, who is campaign chairperson of the Alliance and headed the negotiations team, was a sticking point. He told Green Left Weekly, "Winding up parties requires adherence to a democratic process. Three of the parties are incorporated societies, so even if they wanted to dissolve they couldn't for two years. So the whole thing was impractical."

Peters avoided direct negotiation with the Alliance, instead using a lawyer as an intermediary. The Alliance negotiators made themselves available on numerous occasions and were prepared to travel anywhere in New Zealand if necessary. Peters refused to meet, and an Alliance National Council meeting on July 10-11 voted to call off the efforts.

"Dealing with lawyers the whole time", says McCarten, "is not really the basis for holding political discussions. Peters was focused on organisational matters and wouldn't discuss exactly what the policy platform was going to be.

"First you need to work out what you're agreed on, before you talk about how you do it. He never had a position on that, and that didn't give us any confidence. We are pragmatists and at the end there is

winning, but pragmatism has to be based on a principled policy platform. What was becoming clear was that it wasn't about pragmatism, it was actually about opportunism — just to win in order to win. You can't hold activists and people together just based on individual careers of people in parliament."

Peters launched his party at an open air rally of about 2000, considerably less than the expected crowd of 5000. It is unclear who, apart from Peters, will stand for the party, and few details about the organisation and its policies were provided.

According to the New Zealand Herald, he described a machine with candidates in all 99 seats, nine regional organisations and a management committee, but no candidate selection methods or candidates were announced.

Peters said the purpose of the meeting was to create the environment that attracted the best people to be MPs. A number of potential candidates, such as the Liberal leader Gilbert Myles and the Democrat Terry Heffernan, were among the crowd but were not invited to share the platform.

Nationalism

Peters is running strongly on nationalism. A large New Zealand flag and red, white and blue bunting provided the backdrop for a speech aimed at the patriotism of "middle" New Zealand.

He claims that New Zealanders feel sold out by the "internationalisation" of their country and that major assets have been stripped and usually sold below value to people "who in many cases neither speak our language nor share our values".

He has adopted a populist approach, advocating "sacrifice" to solve the nation's problems. If prime minister, he would cut his salary 40%, reduce parliament from 99 to 80 MPs and cut the use of consultants and advisers by at least half. MPs would have to vote with the party only on votes of confidence. "On all other issues an MP's first duty would be to the electorate and the nation."

Peters claims employment would be his top priority and that health and education would be treated as investment, not expenditure.

Responding in the NZ Herald, Alliance leader Jim Anderton said that while much of Peter's rhetoric mirrored Alliance policy on health, education, job creation, the environment and an end to asset sales, "the details are missing".

"Until Mr Peters tells us the specific policies of the New Zealand First Party on its projected rates of taxation, the type of taxation it seeks to implement ... and so on it can reasonably be concluded that his rhetoric is, like Labour's, just that — rhetoric without substance."

McCarten explains, "We see that health, education and employment are things that need to be addressed immediately. Some of the other things, like bringing down the GST or the indirect tax, won't be done in the first year; that will be done over a six-year period. Everyone will not be employed tomorrow — that's a reality and you have to have a long-term or a medium-

term plan to actually do that. The first year we'll reduce our unemployment from 250,000 to 220,000, and we'll try to reduce it consistently over a period of time."

Stronger Alliance

The New Zealand First Party will affect the third party vote in the coming elections, and McCarten expects an electoral dip from their current level of around 28% support in the polls. But within the Alliance, it has served to consolidate the membership.

"Some of the more conservative elements of the Alliance will break and go with Peters' party. We may lose 30-40 members of the Alliance parties, but that's about all. Almost overwhelmingly, the activists are rock solid, and I think that it's actually strengthening the Alliance base."

Liberal Party members are angry because "New Zealand First" is their party slogan. Gilbert Myles, Liberal leader and MP, resigned from the Alliance on July 16, and the Liberal Party is voting

this week whether to stay in the Alliance.

Peters, says McCarten, is a populist with a support base. "Some people see things in the short term as opposed to the long term. In some ways it's good to know now, before they are elected, rather than after. It's a matter of nothing coming easily. We have to go through these baptisms of fire to see the staunchness of our people, and it takes time to build a culture and a sense of camaraderie and unity which are going to be needed to build a political movement.

"People can see we are acting from a principled position. I think that we have been able to put our position to the people of New Zealand that we have tried, we've done our best and tried to unite all the forces against the new right. But because of Winston's inability to actually discuss things with us, at the end of the day you can't just hang out there to dry."

McCarten says the Alliance is forging ahead with its own campaign and consolidating around the country. "All but six of the 99 candidates are selected, though several may need to be replaced depending on the number who choose the Peters option.

"Current Alliance membership stands at 16,000, with 25,000 official supporters. Organisational campaign committees are established in 83 seats out of 99, with the others to be in place by the end of this month. A national recruitment campaign is being launched, and we'll leaflet every box in the country. So, we're doing all right."