Bryce Edwards’ Political roundup: NZ First’s big decisions

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Leadership succession continues to be a major issue for New Zealand First. But other divisive issues also dominated the party’s annual conference at the weekend. 

The ability of all political parties to modernise, revitalise, and bring in new leaders is a large determinant of their ability to survive over time in politics. The annual conference of New Zealand First showed some signs of these processes at work, but generally the party continues to be a mystery to observers of the Winston Peters party. 

The big leadership succession question

New Zealand First’s future viability appears to be in jeopardy according to John Armstrong’s column in the Herald today – see: NZ First’s appeal to diminishing fan base spells doom for party. Armstrong says that “The longer Peters fails to address this underlying threat to the party’s longevity – along with at least publicly acknowledging the necessity for some indication of how he will manage the question of leadership succession – the likelihood of the party’s survival as a potent political force continues to diminish”. He’s also especially critical of the party’s latest rehashing of its old “work-for-the-dole” policy, arguing that the world has moved on from this old populist proposal. 

Peters himself is reported to be “unequivocal” about not retiring from politics – see Andrea Vance’s article, He’s 70, but Winston Peters has no plans to retire. He explains: “I’m 70 years old, that’s a fact. But the point is I’m in a job I can do and I get a lot of enjoyment out of it… I could give it up and my next big wish would be to spend time doing up boats and what have you. But the reality is, would I be interested after three months doing that? How many days can you go fishing?”

Nonetheless those days of fishing are getting closer, and it’s becoming clear that Ron Mark, who was recently elected deputy leader, is likely to succeed Peters when that day finally arrives. Mark has shown himself to be the only New Zealand First MP who comes even close to possessing the qualities that make Peters so enduring. 

Of course Mark plays down such eventualities – see Nicholas Jones’ NZ First tussles to continue at conference. And others are clearly not keen on Mark as leader – such as outgoing party president, Anne Martin, who is close to Peters. See Jo Moir’s article on Martin’s departure, which reports: “When asked if Mark was the party’s succession plan for when Peters retires, Martin said “I don’t think so”.  Mark is 60 and she said there’s no definitive person to take over when 70-year-old Peters calls it a day” – see: NZ First president Anne Martin won’t seek re-election.

Party dissident Curwen Rolinson is backing Ron Mark, saying “from where I’m sitting, Ron Mark represents the best shot we have for a stable and decisive future post-Winston” – see his blog post, Back In Black: Embedded at the NZ First 2015 Convention Part 1 – Fear & Loathing.

Rolinson is a particularly controversial figure inside the party at the moment – see RadioLive’s article from last month: Former NZ First youth leader on cannabis charge. And Winston Peters has been at pains to distance himself from Rolinson – which is explored in Pete George’s blog post, NZ First youth wing

Nonetheless, Rolinson is still in the party and providing some interesting insider accounts. For example, in another blog post, he focuses on the rise of Ron Mark, and how well he thought Mark did at the weekend’s conference – see: Mark My Words – “In War, Amateurs Talk Tactics, Professionals Proffer Logistics”

Rolinson also believes that newcomer MP Darroch Ball has a future in the leadership, as deputy to Mark – he says: “But I’m calling it now. Mark/Ball 2023”. 

Despite Ron Mark’s apparent prime position to inherit the leadership, that doesn’t necessarily mean Peters will make it easy for him. Leaders like Peters are notoriously bad at succession planning. Logically, if Ron Mark is to be Peters’ successor New Zealand First should be consciously promoting Mark and building his profile. This is always going to be fraught for Peters who sees New Zealand First as his baby and himself as the party. The bottom line is whether Peters can bring himself to do what he should do.

And there’s still another possible contender in the shadows: Shane Jones. In the weekend Peters praised Jones, appearing to keep alive speculation that the ex-Labour MP could come back as a New Zealand First MP, and then become leader – see the Herald’s A bump in numbers or resignation, says Peters

Faction fights and debate

Ron Mark’s recent rolling of Tracy Martin to become deputy leader has fuelled speculation about factions in New Zealand First. In addition to Martin’s demise, her mother Anne Martin has just stood down as party president. 

Peters has denied that this represents any sort of power struggle, but Curwen Rolinson sees this as an important changing of the guard, arguing that “The Martinite “faction”, if you could call them that, are marginalised” – see: Back In Black. Rolinson talks about the rise of “a Rotorua-Tauranga axis that’s powered up around first term MPs Fletcher Tabuteau and Clayton Mitchell – and former campaign Director-General Kristin Campbell-Smith”. More generally he says that there “seems to be a transition of power away from the older generation of more Tracey-amenable administrators, and to a new – hopefully more pro-Ron Mark – crew of up-and-comers”.

Rolinson also blogged another post about factions at the conference, including apparent allegations of internal “nepotism” and “corruption”. He also reported on internal debate about why former MP Andrew Williams was dropped at the last election. This post has now been deleted. 

The weekend conference also saw some heated debates. According to Richard Harman there is currently a clash over whether to update the party’s constitution – see: Winston challenged: Tension on NZ First conference floor. This account suggests a full-scale conflict was averted by time running out before the contentious remit was supposed to be debated. But Harman says it all represents wider differences in the party: “the whole incident reflects what is likely to be a growing tension within New Zealand First between people recently drawn to the party and those who have been there since 1993”.

Other heated moments came from a debate about whether new immigrants should qualify for use of the public health system – see Stuff’s NZ First MP Denis O’Rourke slams forced health insurance policy. Also of contention was the existence – or establishment – of a youth wing of the party. 

Interestingly, on both those issues, Peters appeared to be on the losing side of the debates. Therefore the idea that Peters reigns supreme above his own fiefdom looks shakier. 

The importance of New Zealand First

For New Zealand First to survive and prosper, it realises that it needs to develop its organisational membership and finances. This was a major theme of the conference, with Peters making a promise – though characteristically vague – to increase the membership numbers significantly or resign – see Andrea Vance’s Winston Peters goes all-in on ‘tens of thousands’ NZ First membership increase

Peters also signalled an intention of raising a $1m election war chest for 2017. A remit was proposed that would have all the party’s MPs contribute ten per cent of their parliamentary salary to the party. But this was rejected, “with Mr Peters saying such a scheme in 1996 had failed after nine MPs left” – see Nicholas Jones’ We have to stop having a soft heart’.

Peters claimed during the weekend that his party will be the kingmaker after the next election – see Brook Sabin’s Peters: NZ First will decide 2017 election. This pronouncement has even been supported by the Prime Minister, who went on to muse about taking Northland back in his own unusual way – see TV3’s Key: Northland loss reversible, like a ‘well-done’ vasectomy.

Of course, the party has a strong history of electoral relevance, often helping determine which parties form governments. It therefore probably warrants much more attention being placed on the various factions, players and disputes occurring in the party. Attention should also be given to some of the new rising MPs. One such MP is Fletcher Tabuteau, who used the occasion of the party conference being in Rotorua to open his new parliamentary office – the first office the party has ever had in Rotorua – see Dana Kinita’s First NZ First office brings a convention

A profile last month of Tabuteau, along with colleague Clayton Mitchell is also worth reading – see Nicholas Jones’s Colour and conviction behind sharp suits

Finally, for an amusing recount of how surreal exchanges with Winston Peters can be for journalists, read Andrea Vance’s attempt at pinning him down in her article, Kingmaker Winston regains his crown.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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