Maybe Winston means what he says
By Richard Harman (author)
Winston says so much, so often about so many different issues that it’s easy to forget what really drives him.
But now, with him openly pitching New Zealand First to increase its number of seats at the next election so that it at least holds the balance of power he is finding himself increasingly forced to define what his party is all about.
That is not easy.
Delegates to his party’s annual conference in Dunedin voted for a long list of remits calling for everything from requiring convicted paedophiles to wear a GPS bracelet till their death; to an inquiry into Australian-owned banks, to state house tenants having permanent security of tenure and that the farming industry be given access to Reserve Bank credit.
Peters however was under no illusions about where the party now sits.
Greeting journalists arriving at the conference he said: "So you've come to see what the next Government will look like.”
And at first glance, that was not good news for the National Government.
Typical of the anti-Government rhetoric at the conference, was a rousingly fiery speech from Deputy Leader, Ron Mark.
“The provinces, once lauded in this nation as the backbone of the economy and the wealth providers, as the wealth generators, are being treated as the backwater, backwash with no relevance,” he said.
“We see this country being driven to a stage where we are now seeing poverty on a scale that we could never have imagined.
“Our economic independence is not just threatened, but we question whether we still have it."
Mark got a standing ovation for his speech, and it was clear that post the Northland by-election he had tapped into a chord that is changing New Zealand First.
“National don't get it in rural New Zealand,” he said.
“This is how far out of touch they are.
“That’s why there are more and more in this room who have come to us from National.”
Mark Patterson, a Lawrence farmer, is one of the new faces to be seen in the NZ First ranks.
The former National Party supporter helped reconstitute the Clutha-Southland branch of the party after he saw what NZ First did in the Northland by-election.
He says National has a monopoly in the provinces and “where you get monopolies you get fat and lazy."
Those people in his electorate who are leaving National to support New Zealand First are driven by a variety of factors, but foreign ownership is a big one.
“Immigration is not so significant for us but foreign ownership, particularly the Silver Fern Farms thing, has been a big issue,” he told POLITIK.
Patterson won party support for a remit which called on New Zealand to adopt an Irish –style “origin Green” branding strategy for primary produce.
He was not alone in calling for more Government direction to enable further and more sophisticated processing of our primary products whether they be milk powder, meat or logs.
Party officials say that they are getting a flow of former National Party members and even officials and staff making approaches about becoming involved in New Zealand First.
But ask the leadership how this might play out come the next election and the need to form a coalition Government and there is a determination to avoid answering the question.
(Current polling shows that NZ First would hold the balance of power if an election were held now.)
“I’m not even going to contemplate a conversation around National or Labour,” said Mark.
“Our job is to win 30 odd seats and form a Government.”
And that is an indication of how both he and Peters --- and other senior party members – believe that New Zealand First can be one of the two top parties come the next election; that it can push Labour into being the third party.
They believe they are on a roll and certainly this conference was different to last year.
The delegates were younger and more articulate. They were also whiter, though that may have been a function of having the conference in Dunedin.
Among the leadership and people close to Peters, there is a growing frustration that the media, in particular, do not understand that the party, one way or another, is highly likely to be in Government come the next election.
They want to be taken seriously.
And Peters has narrowed down the party's priorities to a short list.
At the top is banking.
He is on the warpath against the "Australian-owned" banks which the party wants an inquiry into particularly focussing on their profits.
And NZ First has long wanted to amend the Reserve Bank Act to broaden the primary function of the Bank to include macro-economic factors such as the rate of growth, export growth, the value of the dollar, and employment as well as price stability in setting the Official Cash Rate.
“The Reserve Bank is stuffed, and we want to change it," Peters told a conference press conference.
The Bank is well aware of Peters' ambitions, and POLITIK understands it is prepared to engage with him seriously rather than dismissing him out of hand as it has tended to do in the past.
But he goes further.
“We are against the level of so-called overseas investment which is not investment at all.
“It’s just a corporate raid; no new jobs, now new exports – just a change of ownership which doesn’t grow the economy at all.
“So we want that changed.
“When it comes to immigration we are going to bring people here who we need.
“We always have for 100 years, not people in their tens and tens of thousands who in the main, need us.
“And then you’ve got the farce of the Auckland housing crisis which we are all paying for and the National Party in its blind stupidity says it is not going to rein back at all.”
Perhaps for the Bolger or Shipley Government that might have been a daunting list of demands but it may not be so much for the Key Government.
There is a case for reviewing the Reserve Bank Act which is now nearly 30 years old; overseas investment can be easily restrained by administrative actions as can immigration.
But whether New Zealand First can really thump the table after the next election and get its demands agreed to is going to depend on how many seats it gets.
It is vulnerable to either a surge in Labour support or an increase in Maori Party seats.
And then there is the problem of deep-seated personality disputes; particularly between Peters and John Key and Steven Joyce.
Peters may not be able to move Key, but he might be keen to take over Joyce's Economic Development portfolio in any coalition Government.
One thing is sure, he is determined to be a part of the next Government and sounds less keen to sit on the cross benches as he did during the Clark Government.
People close to Peters say that since Northland he has taken on a new energy and seriousness of intent.
It may be that he realises that this next election is probably his last political chance.
He seemed to suggest that during his press conference.
“We need a serious change in the economic and social direction in this country,” he said.
Otherwise, I'm not interested in going on nor would my party be.
“Unless we get a change in New Zealand’s economic direction from where we are now and its social direction in terms of inequality we are wasting your time,” he said.
There are however housekeeping issues that still trouble the party, chiefly whether Shane Jones will stand for them at the next election.
Jones has been keeping his cards close to his chest though speculation continues that he might stand for Whangarei.
Peters appeared to inflame this with a comment that the National MP Shane Reti would not be recognised by eight out of ten people who saw him on the street and then he seemed to stumble when asked directly whether Jones could stand for Whangarei.
In the end, he simply said that the diplomatic corps was independent. (Jones is currently Ambassador at large to the Pacific.)
But NZ First MP, Pita Paraone, who represented the Whangarei electorate the conference and who is close to Jones told POLITIK that he was considering standing for the seat himself.
And then there is the question of whether the party can find the resources to mount a much bigger campaign.
Fund raising sessions were closed to the media (unlike last year) and the promise last year to set up a national headquarters in Wellington has not eventuated.
Pressed on this Peters claimed a Wellington office was only weeks away.
But this post Northland by-election is a different party to the old New Zealand First.
Which may mean that it's time to take Peters' fundamental policies seriously.
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