Thursday, 22 April 2010

Third Time Lucky?

Praying for another chance? The current alignment of political constellations could hardly be more propitious for Winston Peters and NZ First to make it "third time lucky".

WINSTON PETERS, as the leader of NZ First, has twice received the Governor-General’s warrant: the first time from the National Party, the second time from Labour. On both occasions his ministerial sojourn ended badly.

With last week’s Roy Morgan poll registering an increase in NZ First support from 1 to 3 percent, many New Zealanders are now wondering whether, nineteen months hence, Peters will, for the third time, be asked to accept a ministerial warrant? And, will it be third time lucky?

Certainly, it is difficult to conceive of a conjunction of the political constellations more propitious for a Peters/NZ First comeback. Let’s just look at some of the issues which have already risen, or are rising, above the political horizon.

A Chinese business consortium at large in New Zealand, eyeing-up more than 100 Kiwi-owned dairy farms with a view to setting up a billion-dollar, vertically-integrated dairying operation in competition with this country’s single largest export-earner – Fonterra.

A Minister of Treaty Negotiations blithely conceding (to The Nation’s Duncan Garner) that, under the National-led Government’s proposed definition of Maori customary right, an iwi or hapu partnership-deal with Chinese interests seeking to invest $100 million in beach resorts holding a 100-year foreshore & seabed lease, would be subject only to the Resource Management Act and "other general pieces of legislation".

A "Whanau Ora" scheme promising to transfer hundreds-of-millions of dollars from publicly-administered and accountable welfare institutions to privately-owned, ethnically-driven providers (whose operations will be exempt from the scrutiny of the Official Information Act). A scheme which, Government reassurances notwithstanding, will operate according to a set of pre-modern cultural assumptions which most New Zealanders will neither accept nor endure. A scheme practically certain to detonate a sequence of financial and administrative explosions all the way from July 2010 to Election Day 2011.

A Government determined to intensify the consumption taxation of the poor so that it can attenuate the income taxation of the wealthy.

How could a politician of Peters’ skill and experience possibly fail to turn such a glittering array of political opportunities to his own and his party’s advantage?

In this regard, it’s leader’s electoral martyrdom and exile only works in favour of a NZ First comeback. Beyond the Beltway, and putting to one side those voters who have always experienced an allergic reaction to Peters’ political style, there are thousands of New Zealanders who, both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight, came to see the media-assisted crucifixion of the NZ First leader as not only an egregious misuse of media power, but also as a kind of modern-day show-trial designed to secure Peters’ absence from the new political environment the Key-led National Party was attempting to create.

Peters is the sworn enemy of the "neo-traditional tribal capitalists" National’s strategists have identified as a crucial element in the new combination of cultural and economic forces it believes will dominate the electoral politics of the 21st Century. NZ First’s absence from Parliament is crucial to making the ostensibly unlikely relationship between the National and the Maori parties politically durable.

Peters’ followers might not express the problem in quite those terms, but they know that his absence from Parliament is important – that it matters. They understand intuitively that over the past 17 months things have been done that could not have been done if Peters was still there.

NZ First’s return to Parliament would critically alter the balance of political forces, fundamentally weakening National’s grip on power. The inevitable attrition of the Government’s public support (already evident in the Roy Morgan poll) leaves Key dangerously exposed to a Peters-led crusade in 2011.

Rodney Hide’s super-city-inspired brutalisation of Auckland voters has compounded National’s difficulties. It places Act’s future in doubt – making Key utterly dependent on the Maori Party’s good-will. But, if Peters’ campaigning in the Maori seats threatens, even slightly, the Maori Party’s position, see how quickly that good-will evaporates!

What sort of platform would Peters and NZ First need to run on to make good that threat? And who should they target to garner five percent-plus of the Party Vote?

According to the American political scientist, Professor Jack H. Nagel, there are five salient socio-political "cleavages" around which an insurgent political party can be constructed in New Zealand: class; ethnicity; post-materialism; economic interventionism; religion and/or social conservatism.

At one time or another in its 17 year history, NZ First has sought to exploit nearly all of these categories. In 2010, however, with the ethnic and post-materialist cleavages already "taken" – by the Maori Party and the Greens respectively – NZ First is left with fewer "cleavages" to choose from. With Jim Anderton about to depart the political stage, Economic Interventionism is available, but Act’s David Garrett has already raised his party’s flag over Social Conservatism.

If Peters is really smart, however, he’ll focus on class – and one class in particular. Not Labour’s blue-collar, wage-earning working-class, but the class of self-employed and/or contract-dependent battlers which has grown like Topsy out of the wreckage of New Zealand’s once heavily-protected domestic economy.

Under enormous competitive pressure, resentful of those they see as the beneficiaries of "special privileges" and deeply suspicious of (or even overtly hostile to) immigrants of any kind, this classically petit-bourgeois, artisanal, "Waitakere Man" strata of society is ripe for the picking.

It encompasses not just the bloke who mows your lawns and the woman who styles your hair, but the share-milking couple despairing of ever being able to buy their own farm. You’ll find them in the heart of our big cities, but also in small provincial towns – and they constitute way more than five percent of the New Zealand electorate.

No one in NZ First understood this group better than the late Terry Heffernan. A very similar social strata had, after all, constituted the core of his original political home – Social Credit. The worst mistake Winston Peters ever made was choosing Michael Laws over Heffernan as his chief policy adviser in the run-up to the 1996 General Election. Laws turned NZ First into "National Lite" – a serious political blunder.

If Peters can re-capture in 2011 that curious mixture of patriotism, economic interventionism and progressive humanitarianism that Heffernan used to fuel NZ First’s assent of the opinion polls in the mid-1990s, then it’s possible, he just might, make it third time lucky.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 22 April 2010.


Victor said...

A very good piece, Chris.

Just one quibble: wouldn't it be fourth time lucky for Winston Peters? He was Maori Affairs Minster in the early 90s, Treasurer a few years later under a different party label and Minister of External Affairs a decade further on.

I was never a great fan of his but I agree entirely about his 'crucifixion'. It was a shameful episode in the history of New Zealand's media and a storm-warning of the slide into corporatism that we have been discussing on earlier threads.

Of course, through his constant truculence, Winston handed himself up on a plate to his eager detractors. But I don't remember acting particularly rationally myself in the immediate aftermath of the death of my old mum either.

Shame on them for doing that to a grieving son!

Chris Trotter said...

Strictly-speaking you're quite correct, Victor. My "third time" makes sense only if you consider Winston's career after he became the leader of NZ First.

Victor said...

Yes, I've just re-read your opening paragraph.

I jumped in too quickly

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris

One thing's for sure, there is no room left on the left for Winstone.

Kind regards

Sara said...

I know that unless something changes greatly between now and the next election, NZ First will probably pick up the votes of myself and my partner- and we are two diehard left-wingers with a combined 50 years of Labour support between us.

I have to say it feels strange to be contemplating voting for NZ First as I have always greatly disliked Winston Peters. For me this election is all about sovereignty and land though and he is the only person with policies I agree with.

Lew said...

Winston wouldn't run to the left anyhow -- he'd run to what he calls the centre but is in fact a brand of nationalist-protectionist conservatism, to pick up those who are disillusioned at the government's deals with the maori party from both the Labour and National sides of the aisle. It's those people -- who are in general pretty comfortable and well catered-to by the prevailing political and economic system but who nevertheless consider themselves hard done-by -- in Chris' analysis, who cost Labour the election, and those who are most ripe for the plucking.

I don't agree with most of Chris' analysis, but I think it only needs to be a little bit right to give Peters the boost he needs to break the threshold and throw the cat amidst the pigeons. I despise his tactics, and I don't think his return to politics will be constructive. But Peters is a genuine master at this game, he's entering a fairly soft field at an opportune time, and he has a genuine constituency who were utterly robbed at the 2008 election. As much as I might disagree with them, they deserve representation as much as anyone else.


Chris Trotter said...

Sounds to me, Lew, like you accept nearly ALL of my analysis - on this issue at least ;-)

Lew said...

Heh. Chris, I disagree with two main things: first, I don't think it was Waitakere Man who cost Labour the election; I think it was more the brown working (and non-working) classes in South Auckland and a few other places. This was due in part to the Taito Phillip Field thing, in part to the Foreshore and Seabed and the generally haughty and dismissive way Labour treated folks who were once loyal to a fault. It wasn't so much that they voted for other parties (though there was some of that) as the fact that large numbers of them simply didn't vote at all. But that doesn't really torpedo the thing: there don't need to be too many disgruntled battlers to give him the nudge.

The main bit I disagree with, though, is not really germane to whether the analysis is valid or not -- it's the normative bit; whether it's a good thing or not that Winston could be back. You seem thrilled at the idea, which puzzles me somewhat, given that he's no great friend of the worker. But I guess there's a trade-off to be made, and you're prepared to put up with some of his populist authoritarian chicanery in exchange for a firmer line on identity issues, while I'm a little more tolerant than most on the left of the current government due to their attention to those issues.


Victor said...

There is a tie-in between this thread and the previous one.

NZ First has always had, in a low key form, many of the characteristics of the authoritarian Right, viz: protectionism, emphasis on national unity, populism, a leader cult, an appeal to visceral nationalism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, cultural integralism and truculent anger.

The Leader likes to sport a very Mosleyite black number on election nights and enjoys building up tension through late arrivals and a well-cultivated aura of keeping his own counsel.

There was, at one point, even a bover boy element attached to the party, as Steve Parker discovered one night in the Beehive.

But, although NZ First has some of the characteristics of a 'Soft Fascist' party, it doesn't have the support of the masters of the economy and is unlikely to be used by them to subvert Democracy. Nor is there any evidence that the party wants to play such a role.

Instead, the corporatisation of the body politic is being pursued, as Chris has suggested on previous threads, by neo-liberals and their media hirelings.

Personally, despite my dislike of its xenophobic tendencies, I would welcome NZ First's return to parliament. This is partly because I think it would weaken National's grip on the loyalties of social conservatives, particularly in the older age group, and would change the parliamentary arithmetic.

I also think (despite a lifetime of internationalism) that New Zealand needs a stiffening of economic nationalism at the moment, if it is not to become a low wage, low quality, bulk producer within China's version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And NZ First could probably be relied on to fight tooth and nail for the retention of MMP, whilst the idea of a sovereign wealth fund also needs championing.

Above all, though, I fear that, without a Soft Fascist movement, there will be no-one to mop up the hatreds and discontents that neo-liberal corporatism is likely to generate. Without Soft Fascism, we might have Hard Facism.

But whilst I might welcome NZ First's return to parliament, I really wouldn't want to see them getting much above 5 percent. Soft Fascism is no substitute for Social Democracy.

Anonymous said...

I hope that National is weakened, with Winston making a come-back. Smile and Wave Key will do anything to remain popular, and nothing to listen to mainstream NZ. The man is more left that Helen Clark, but without the strong backbone. Go Winston, slay the Key dragon. 'm fed up with Key's star-gazed pics.


Anonymous said...

Its wort remebering NZ first took a stance on climate change too, and could be the perfect party to oppose Gerry Brownlee and Solid Energy's plans to rip up south island farms in Southland for lignite to export to Asia and elsewhere (USA etc).

The green party has not been able to get farmers into sustainabilty issues, maybe NZ first could. If National started loosing rural votes and ACT lost Epsom....

Oliver Woods said...

I for one certainly think that New Zealand First's return will be good for both New Zealand politics ( as a check on National) and for New Zealand's economy too (bringing back sensible and pragmatic debates around the level of state intervention in the economy).

Winston Peters and New Zealand First's ideology is not fascist, nor is it socialist. It is part of a tradition of pragmatic, interventionist left-wing conservatism that had a long history in the National Party. Not to be a wanker, but to quote myself below (from my honours dissertation on the causes of the formation of the Liberal Party in 1992 by Gilbert Myles and Hamish MacIntyre) on the origin of New Zealand First's membership base and ideological tendencies:

"Largely obscured by the consensus and stability of the prosperous post-war years, the National Party was factionally divided. This division was between two identifiable tendencies of thought within the party: the right-wing, more market oriented liberals and the more left-wing, conservative faction of the party . A prime example of this division emerging in practice – apart from during Bolger's administration – were the caucus debates over import substitution in 1961-62 . Academic literature reinforces that this “coalition of interests” was held together largely without incident during the post-war period due to both the contemporary prosperity and social stability, along with the National's electoral success.

However, intra-party consensus destabilised for a variety of leadership and socio-economic reasons. Factional infighting became more pronounced when the power of the pragmatic conservative left of the party reached its apex during Muldoon's Government, from 1975 to 1984. In the face of declining economic conditions and worsening factional relations in the party between the left and right, Muldoon's Government oversaw a heterodox mixture of Keynesian economics, the Think Big industrialisation strategy and a substantial increase in state involvement in the economy – all with the purpose of preserving New Zealand's post-war consensus despite massive social and economic challenges . Corresponding to the political instability of this period, the party's elites grew increasingly intolerant of criticism despite National's declining success in the 1978, 1981 and in particular the 1984 elections . Parliamentary caucus infighting became prevalent, with an attempt to depose Muldoon coming from a haphazard coalition of his opponents and the free market right of the party. The legacy of this period would be to destabilise

However, academic understandings of this period obscure an important underlying process related to National's factions. Some accounts of this period, particularly by contemporary critics and opponents of Muldoon , hold him personally responsible for the state interventionism of this period. While Muldoon was certainly autocratic in operation and caustic with his social views and political behaviour, his conservative pragmatism strongly resembled that of his National Party predecessors. Moreover, as the power of the free market right declined, the conservative left of the party both inside and outside attracted a new base of supporters into the party during the 1960s and 1970s (often negatively referred to as 'Robs Mob') . Indeed, Gilbert Myles was later to argue that it was because of Muldoon that he joined the National Party and Hamish MacIntyre was to see Muldoon also as a great political influence . 'Muldoonism' had more historical legacy on National than some commentators would like to admit, even as the party descended into ideological struggle between the left and right."

Victor said...

Oliver Woods

Fascism and twentieth century interventionist Conservatism had similar origins in the desire to replace class conflict with a united national community.

What distinguished them from each other were methods, style and the nature of their appeal to the voters ( far were they willing to inflame brute prejudice).

I agree that NZ First's economic policies could fit the manifesto of an interventionist 'One Nation' conservative party or, for that matter, of a Social Democratic party.

It's methods are also (with a few lapses) fairly constitutional. But its style and appeal has a lot that's Fascistic about it.

Part of this seems to derive from then personality of its leader. The more I observe his career, the more Winston Peters seems to resemble the UK Fascist leader, Oswald Mosley .

Both of them charismatic, handsomely-macho men, of above average intellect and a penchant for dramatic gestures (including dramatic resignations).

Both of them had the potential (given time patience and the capacity to play second fiddle) to eventually lead either their respective countries' conservative parties or significant center-left movements.

But patience and the ability to play second fiddle were alien to their natures. They both preferred to be the undisputed Claudillos of bands of true believers, however small, than to be the leaders of broadly-based, constitutional parties, in which office does not ensure adulation.

Neither man was personally prejudiced but they both shamelessly whipped-up prejudice, against minorities.

And, around both of them, has hung the romantic aura of the 'Lost Leader'. Yet you can't escape the impression that, deep down inside, they preferred being the martyred outsider than the responsible plodder in long-term office.

The mantle of interventionist conservatism is going spare at the moment. But, despite his many gifts, I don't see Winston as the man to wear it.

Phil said...

Winston can point to some policy successes but is probably more important for what he opposes (asset sales, separatism, immigration etc). He was useful to Bolger when National was retreating from Rogernomics. He was useful to Labour in 2005 when Labour+Green did not have the numbers (and looked risky).

NZ First is the centre party that Peter Dunne perennially tries to create. The big difference is that Dunne never aims higher than to create a niche centrist party - of urban liberals in liberal Ohariu, then adding ethnic immigrants, conservative christians and outdoor recreation splinters in successive elections. Winston's ambition is always to create the party for all New Zealanders that transcends the old parties, that rises above race and class. This makes him a populist but hardly a fascist, even of the soft variety...

I don't know if Winston can make it over the 5% MMP threshold, even though I agree the conditions are favourable, and may be more so next year. The real question is, could he be relied upon to dump National if he had the power?

Last election, Winston surely picked up a few votes from those who knew there was no chance of a Labour-led government without him. (Yes, one of those votes was mine.) If NZ First looks like getting close to 5%, that opportunity (or dilemma) will arise again for those on the Left.

Victor said...


You are mistaken if you think that NZ First was ever a party for all New Zealanders.

I distinctly recall Winston Peters saying that New Zealand was a country for people from Europe and the South Pacific. There are many New Zealanders who fit neither category.

Just try looking at New Zealand First through immigrant eyes and tell me how different it is to One Australia or the British National Party.

Of course, you might think it culturally inappropriate to use the 'F' word for them either. If so, permit me to disagree.

And, yet, I acknowledge that NZ First might have a role to play in helping save us from Neo-Liberal corporatism. Therein lies the paradox of the times.