Winston faces a dilemma - policy or legacy
By Richard Harman (author)
No one – except, presumably, the NZ First caucus – knows exactly what Winston Peters will want when he goes into negotiations today with first National and then Labour.
But it is possible to make some informed guesses.
The first question will be what he conceives of as an overall win.
He faces a dilemma; does he go for policy gains – or does he try and secure the long term future of NZ First and thus create a legacy.
Either way he risks alienating a big chunk of his supporters.
So what are his options?
Regarding policy it pays to go back to basics with NZ First and understand where Peters comes from.
As he told POLITIK IN July he believes the Holyoake Government from 1960 – 1972 got it right.
It was a New Zealand whose economy was based on the export of primary produce from the provinces and where there were jobs for all inside an egalitarian society.
He believes passionately that the current National Party has betrayed the Holyoake legacy.
In July, in a speech in the town he went to school in, Dargaville, he said: “National, is the born to rule party. And they have grown in their arrogance each year they have held power.”
His antipathy at the personal level to National is visceral.
“Who really believes that the National Party is going to stand up to the privileged few when they represent them, when they are funded by them, when they are the mouthpieces of them? “ he asked an Auckland audience in July.
For all that he does maintain some contacts within National --- with ex MPs like his old flatmates Philip Burdon and Paul East --- and with some younger members of the Cabinet like Todd McClay and Mark Mitchell.
His vision of Labour is scarcely more complementary.
He blames Labour for Roger Douglas’s economic reforms – even if most of Labour’s current caucus would share his condemnation of them.
But just as he is contemptuous of National's culture, so he is of Labour.
“The Labour Party was once the working people’s party of this country,” he told the Dargaville audience.
“Since July 1984 those days are gone.
“Labour’s rapport with people working in factories, freezing works, shops and in other everyday jobs went down the gurgler years ago.”
The presence of Shane Jones within NZ First is an indication of where Peters stands.
Jones fell out with Labour when they rejected his leadership bid and has made no secret of his belief that the party has been captured by left-wing identity politicians.
At his infamous Waitangi party this year, which Peters attended, it was Labour's right-wing --- MPs like Clayton Cosgrove and former MPs like Rick Barker and Dover Samuels --- who were guests.
Jacinda Ardern is closer to this group than any other recent Labour leader.
And within NZ First, Tracey Martin is considered to be the MP who is close to Labour.
But in terms of atmospherics, it's hard to believe that Peters feels any more comfortable with Labour than he does National.
That then leaves his hard policy demands as an area to test.
Again, it pays to go back to fundamentals.
Strip everything else away from Peters, and there are four consistent policy demands:
- Changes to the Reserve Bank Act
- A big cutback to immigration
- Tighter restrictions on foreign investment
- Opposition to what he calls “race-based" policies.
Essentially Peters wants to see the Reserve Bank Act changed.
NZ First introduced a private Members’ Bill in 2013 to accomplish this.
The Bill’s explanatory note said: “The simple fact is that interest rates, the only tool available to the Governor of the Reserve Bank to combat inflation, impacts on far more than just inflation—it is not a siloed effect. Most obviously it impacts on the exchange rate. Additionally, many other facets of government policy, such as immigration, impact on inflation. A far more co-ordinated approach between monetary and fiscal policy is required to both combat inflation and keep the economy balanced. “
The Bill failed but had support from Labour.
In another speech in July Peters said: “The regions have been punished because the Reserve Bank has been trying to curb the Auckland Housing Bubble through interest rate policy and this has pushed up the exchange rate.
“We need an exchange rate that serves real economic goals like strong and growing regional exports, not to enrich currency traders and financial wheeler-dealers.”
But Peters’ fundamental argument that the Bank’s objectives need to be moved beyond inflation when it sets the Official Cash Rate would seem to be a likely bottom line for the negotiations he is about to enter into.
It would be naïve to think that these speeches have not been read in the Reserve Bank and that the Bank, particularly with its just retired Governor, the highly politically astute Graeme Wheeler, does not already understand that winning power with Peters is likely to require a concession this and that the Bank would already have a response to that.
The irony about NZ First’s position on immigration is that there is already a majority within the new Parliament in favour. Both the Greens and Labour want to see cutbacks. Even if National continues to oppose cutbacks, and it retains power, it could find itself out manoeuvred within Parliament to have the cutbacks become law.
NZ First opposes foreign investment, particularly the foreign purchase of farms.
Its new MP Mark Patterson, a former National Party member, joined NZ First partly because he opposed a Southland farm sale by Landcorp and the Shanghai Maling takeover of Silver Fern farms.
As POLITIK showed after its Official Information Act request on the Lake Hawea Station sale to a US TV personality this year, the administration of the Overseas Investment Act has seen opposition to sales from credible local interests disregarded.
Labour opposes foreign land sales but tends to focus on foreign residential property purchases.
All of NZ First’s first three fundamental policies are easy for Labour to agree to and difficult but not impossible for National to accept.
His stance on Maori issues is more problematical and what is not clear is how far he is prepared to go.
During the campaign he talked (with some ambiguity) about a referendum on abolishing the Maori seats; now he is equivocating on that.
In the past he has opposed Treaty settlements, even opposing Bills to implement them in Parliament, but he has also indicated he would be available to help secure a settlement on the Ngapuhi claim which involves his own iwi, Ngati Wai.
Now that National is no longer in Government with the Maori Party it might be able to move closer to Peters on these issues than Labour.
This could prove to be a key part of the negotiations.
But National sources have suggested to POLITIK that the party knows it cannot outbid Labour on policy.
As Jacinda Ardern has said, NZ First and Labour share values and their policies align in many areas.
Instead, National might focus on what Peters close friends say is his desire to create a legacy.
On election night, Peter said: “Despite all the provocations of this election, saying we would be doomed, the marginalisation and stigmatisation of NZ First went on – but we survived.
“The party that is the third longest surviving party will go on. There is some good news for New Zealanders in tonight’s result.”
It is clear that Peters is very proud of the continued survival of NZ First.
His friends say that he sees guaranteeing the continued survival of NZ First after he goes is important to him and since it is widely believed that this will be his last term, the future of NZ First needs to be discussed now.
If he did stand down, then the leadership would go to either Ron Mark or Shane Jones. But neither has Peters’ charisma or years and years of being one of the most recognised politicians in New Zealand.
That could place the party’s ability to reach the 5% threshold at risk; in that case, the guarantee of one or more electorate seats could be a crucial card in any negotiations.
National is better placed to do this than Labour since all except one of NZ First’s top 20 party vote electorates are held by National.
Over and above these big headline items in the negotiations will be the “trophy” negotiations --- these are lower key items which NZ First would be able to trumpet as wins where it has been able to over turn existing party policy whether it be National or Labour.
But overall Labour might win on policy while National might win on legacy.
It’s going to be tight.