NZ First looks forward while Winston looks back
By Richard Harman (author)
A glaring disconnect ran through the New Zealand First conference in Christchurch over the weekend.
It ended with the traditional Winston Peters rally, and his speech sounded like he was refighting the 2017 election.
At its heart was a call for the National Party to return to a distant past when “when it had a capital N – when it put New Zealand First.”
What made the speech sound so jarringly out of place was that his Caucus MPs and party members had spent the whole weekend seriously debating policy.
They looked to the future while he looked back.
There was no more vivid demonstration of that than the high profile at the conference of Young New Zealand First who won support for a remit to overturn their caucus’s opposition to pill testing at music festivals.
They had a very different view of the political landscape to that offered by Peters.
“People go National or Labour, and I struggle to tell the difference," said one of their spokespeople, Robert Gore.
"My generation is really over first past the post where it's I'm scared Labour might get, and so I'm going to vote National, or vice versa.
“We are the first generation to grow up under an MMP system
“We're voting based on values.
“We're voting based on principles.
“We're voting based on a preferred vision for society.”
Another young New Zealand First member, William Woodward, said the party was about taking care of our people first.
“We're nationalists, not the ugly kind, you see, but nationalism from a place of compassion for our people so that everyone's included in the special club we call Kiwi.”
That theme of nationalism echoed among all the Young NZ First members.
"We've got nine patriots in parliament,” said Gore.
“And look what we've achieved.
“We've got 111 globalists. That's what's holding it up.”
And as for Peters; another Young NZ First member, Robert Griffith, said "at the end of the day, it's not about our leader. Our party has always been focused on grassroots and all the citizens of the country participating.”
The group persuaded the conference to reserve a seat on the party’s board for a Young NZ First representative.
The rest of the party spent the weekend grappling with some big issues as they considered 43 remits. Unlike any other party, their debates are in public in front of the media.
Some remits would not have been out of place at a National Party conference (if they had real remits); a plan to increase defence expenditure; a call to semi-privatise building inspection services and a call to investigate alternatives to land-value based rating as a source of local body funding.
There were also remits that might have been more at a place in Labour like a proposal to recapitalise Kiwibank so that it could compete with the foreign-owned banks.
But it was a series of remits on environmental issues that provoked the most intense debate.
Clutha-Southland list MP and the party's spokesperson on agriculture, Mark Patterson, proposed that the party agree to an investigation into the trialling in New Zealand of the GE ryegrass developed by AgResearch which is claimed to be able to reduce cattle methane emission by up to 30 per cent.
Current New Zealand legislation does not allow the trialling in New Zealand.
“I just want to point out the gravity of the challenge that we were facing here at the moment," said Patterson.
“Farmers are being required to cut their methane emissions as the zero-carbon bill sits at the moment by 10 per cent by 2030.
“The only way we can do that at the moment is to destock our farms by 10 per cent.
“That's 30 billion dollars worth of livestock income for this country.
“We've got to give our farmers the tools.”
But there is a historic streak of environmental fundamentalism that runs through New Zealand First.
For example, one delegate wore an ostentatious shirt with slogans opposing 1080.
Rosamond King, a Tauranga delegate said she believed that no gene editing should be permitted in New Zealand.
“My dream is a completely organic New Zealand from top to bottom,” she said.
The vote was close, but Patterson prevailed.
However, a remit calling for compulsory vaccinations as a prerequisite for children attending public schools struck trouble early on when Minister for Children Tracey Martin announced her opposition.
Another opponent, a female delegate, said it was a human rights issue.
You cannot force somebody to put something into their body if they don't want to.”
The remit was lost but a series on energy which featured several interventions from Regional Economic Minister, Shane Jones, saw the conference take a more pragmatic approach.
There was almost no debate and then a unanimous vote to have the West Coast Waitaha Hydro Scheme rejection revisited.
And on a remit calling for the promotion and development of the country’s natural gas resources, Jones skated close to calling for the Government decision to ban offshore petroleum exploration overturned.
“We want to explore, extract and further develop the gas resources of New Zealand
“I suffered the misfortune of having to stand with the Prime Minister when the announcement was made to halt all further offshore permits.“
The remit was passed.
What it pointed up was the role that NZ First now plays in Government where it obviously sees its role as being to moderate some of the more left-wing leanings of the Labour party and the Greens.
Yet for Peters, the consuming priority is to continue to oppose National.
He made 15 separate references to National --- all negative --- in his speech to the conference.
He may claim that he would negotiate with both main parties after the next election but the likelihood of him (as contrasted to his MPs and members) joining a National-led Government would seem remote.
He put the case against them very bluntly in his opening address to the conference.
Speaking about National’s campaign predictions of a fiscal hole and the latest Crown accounts showing a $7.5 billion surplus, he said: “These same people are out there saying we know business, we’re more capable of managing the economy than you are.
“That was their last outing.
“Don’t give them – unless they reform – another chance.”
It was clear that the NZ leadership were nervous throughout the weekend.
Peters was frequently in the company of his personal lawyer and the party's Judicial Officer, Brian Henry, who seems to be filling the role once taken by the late Tommy Gear.
But in the end, any continuation of the allegations about the party’s finances and its procedures which flowed from the resignation of Party President, Lester Gray, did not surface.
The challenge for the party and the caucus, in particular, moving forward will be how to integrate Peters into the broader-based movement that NZ First is becoming.
It won’t be easy.