Misreading the Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Pinning Down New Zealand First (+ A Reply to Chris Trotter)

Explaining Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party to the outside world is damned hard. It is so easy for non-New Zealanders to immediately jump to the conclusion that he’s the sort of scary far-right demagogue that has been popping up all across the democratic world. And, yes, the comparisons just leap to the eye – he’s a slippery, snake-oil salesman who trades on public anger at the political and economic Establishment. He possesses both a preference for economic nationalism, and a small-c conservative distaste for the world after 1980. The kicker is that he’s famously anti-migrant and protectionist. Case closed, right?

Well, no. Winston Peters is a very strange, and very unique, feature of the New Zealand political landscape. He first entered Parliament before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was even born. And rather than claiming that he’s a sort of Kiwi Trump, or Farage, or Le Pen… it is worth analysing him in more detail. Hence today’s post.

(The occasion is a piece this week from Chris Trotter, claiming that New Zealand First has always been a right-wing party:

https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2020/08/28/must-read-nz-first-is-a-right-wing-party-always-has-been-always-will-be/

Trotter is prima facie correct, yet misleading as hell, and honestly, his conclusion doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Also, I should mention that I am not a New Zealand First supporter myself. I just think Trotter is being lazy here, as well as inadvertently arguing against the Left’s best interests).

Specifically: New Zealand First is indeed a right-wing party. But it’s a right-wing party from 1970, not 2020. It is instinctively pro-Big Government – economically interventionist, paternalistic, and nostalgic. It is also (and this is rarely noted) anti-union, and courtesy of Peters himself, a vehicle of populist protest. But, notwithstanding Trotter’s nonsense, the gulf between a conservative party of 1970 and a conservative party of 2020 is so yawning that New Zealand First finds itself forever exiled from the more mainstream New Zealand political right. Winston Peters may despise the social liberalism of the Greens, but he despises the economic liberalism of the National Party and ACT even more – which leaves him with Labour. Yes, Peters is (at heart) tribal National. He learned his arts from the dark sorcerer of New Zealand politics, Robert Muldoon. But the National Party of Muldoon is gone.

Indeed, I would argue that New Zealand First is the only parliamentary party that actually wants to dismantle the 1984-1993 Free-Market Revolution. ACT, of course, wants to restart the Revolution. National thinks 1984 is ancient history, but considers the Revolution positive. Labour thinks 1984 is ancient history, but considers the Revolution negative. The Greens think they hate 1984, until you remind them of how socially conservative pre-1984 New Zealand really was. For Winston Peters, undoing 1984 – in all its forms, social as well as economic – is unfinished business. And if he can’t do that, he can at least spite the architects of the Revolution. Pettiness runs very deep.

This also shows up in where New Zealand First gets its support. Political analysts who envisage ACT stealing New Zealand First votes clearly do not understand this very well. ACT is an urban party, catering to the educated wealthy in Auckland and Wellington. Business types and university libertarians. New Zealand First caters to the decaying provinces – and in contrast to what non-New Zealanders imagine about such a party – it derives substantial support from Maori and Pacific Island voters, as well as the old and the poor.

In a very real sense, ACT and New Zealand First are polar opposites, as much as the Greens and New Zealand First. It is also why explaining Winston Peters to people overseas is so difficult. Winston Peters may be socially conservative, and more than a bit xenophobic, but he isn’t racist/anti-minority in the sense that overseas populists often are. His paternalistic instincts mean that – in contrast to the assumptions of foreign journalists – he is right behind the governmental lockdown measures (anti-lockdown types are ACT).

It is entirely possible that New Zealand First does not make the five percent threshold required for parliamentary representation at the next election. The New Zealand media is certainly crowing about the prospect – but seeing as the New Zealand media is very Auckland and Wellington orientated (and most of them are just fine with the 1984 Revolution), one might suggest that they are experiencing all the problems of an ideological and cultural bubble. The provinces might be enough to save Winston Peters. Perhaps. It would be unwise to write him off, even if you dislike him – and Peters is the sort of politician who doesn’t care if 80% of the population can’t stand him. He’s only talking to the remaining 20%, and only needs a quarter of those to actually vote for him.

(I’ve often hypothesised that more than a few Winston Peters voters actually don’t like him very much either. It’s more that voting for him is a way of giving the media and the social elites the finger. He’s a handy protest vote, without actually being genuinely scary).

So Trotter is quite wrong if he thinks Winston Peters is a Tory fifth columnist who is plotting to put National and ACT in power. It’s not 1996 any more, or even 2005, and New Zealand First voters for the last decade have been more Labour-leaning than National-leaning. The “constitutional crisis” election date affair (latched onto by Trotter) was a clear beat-up by a media bent on destroying New Zealand First. Winston Peters – in his ideal world – wants to hold Labour hostage, without having to worry about those pesky Greens. He doesn’t want to wreck the Government.

Well and good. But Peters is standing in the way of a progressive Labour-Greens Government, right? Doesn’t that mean the Left would be better off without him?

There’s a problem there. If New Zealand politics turns into a pure competition between the two right-wing parties (National and ACT) and the two left-wing parties (Labour and Greens), the prospect of either major party being held hostage by its more ideological junior partner becomes very real. And despite the impressions of urban liberal types, there are significant portions of the country for whom the Greens are considered toxic – without New Zealand First, National would find it very easy to go around the provinces, warning voters that a vote for Labour is a vote for the Greens. Of course it would – Labour would have no other options, short of an unlikely majority government. By contrast, I would imagine that there are a non-trivial number of provincial voters for whom a Labour-New Zealand First Government would be just fine.

(Meanwhile, without New Zealand First around, it becomes easier for National and ACT to get a majority in 2023. The Left ought to be careful what it wishes for, and it certainly ought to pay attention to the fact that National and their media allies are hell-bent on eliminating New Zealand First in 2020. Why would that be?).

**

So yes. Winston Peters. A perennial fixture in New Zealand politics that too many people make mistaken assumptions about. He’s not a Donald Trump, though I’d imagine he knows how to talk to Trump better than most (Peters is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, after all. He’s been doing this for decades, and knows there are places you don’t go). He’s not a Pauline Hanson or Nigel Farage either. If anything, he drains the electoral swamp sufficiently that a more dangerous figure lacks the room to take root. He and his voters support Coronavirus lockdowns, for a start. And despite the musings of Chris Trotter, Peters will not be making Judith Collins Prime Minister. He’s right-wing, yes, but he’s not stupid. In 2020, only the Left can work with him.

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