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Politics: The Rebuilding Of NZ First

NZ First has completed its last conference before it attempts to ensure its survival as a political force at the next election.

On current polling, how well it does will be irrelevant in the formation of the next Government. But retaining a parliamentary profile will be essential for the long-term future of the six year old party.

NZ First party members agreed at this conference that they would enter coalition talks with any party if the situation arises. This was despite a feeling amongst some party members that their policy should be a ‘pox upon both your houses’.

Ironically, NZ First’s chances of playing the queenmaker role come the end of the year rest in their once Coalition partner National putting in a strong performance and turning around their electoral fortunes. National knows that one of their best chances to retain the Treasury benches is to force Labour to form a three party coalition and, in the event of this happening, they would predict a short period in Opposition as Labour tried to reconcile the views of the Alliance and NZ First in Government.

Labour at present are walking a tight line between acting as a Government in waiting and appearing too arrogant. In the wake of the NZ First Conference, Labour Leader Helen Clark wouldn’t rule out a Coalition with NZ First, but said the question was largely irrelevant because NZ First would not get any seats. Helen Clark has also been quoted as expressing wariness at dealing with NZ First after their experiences in the 1996 coalition talks.

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Some political commentators have said that NZ First was doomed electorally from the moment it picked National following those talks. The Winston Peters’ factor, while failing to fire yet, still has plenty of time to find a resonant note. So what is NZ First offering? As with all political parties it is a mix of policy, rhetoric and a bit more polemic than is usual for other parties.

Winston Peter’s speech to the conference. (See “NZ First Leader's Conference Speech” in the Parliament wire) is a typical mix of the above features.

At the beginning of the speech there are almost hints of apology and contrition:

“Leadership is not about always being right. Leadership is also about sometimes admitting that you were wrong and that you do make mistakes. How can any one leader be 100% right about everything all of the time? All the policies and manifestos in the world are meaningless when you cannot trust the leadership That is what leadership is about - trust. Nobody expects leadership to be infallible. But you have the right to expect it to be trustworthy.”

Mr Peters is probably talking about Jenny Shipley, but many would see a sub-conscious apology to party faithful about previous coalition decisions.

The policies contained in the speech are classic NZ First social conservatism and minor state intervention. Those mentioned in Mr Peters Speech include:

- amending the Reserve Bank Act to “stop the failed monetarist experiment of the past 15 years.”;
- investing in a “New Zealand development banking utility”;
- tax incentives for exporters;
- and more investment in science and technology, education and training.

Social spending under NZ First is targeted mainly at the elderly with the restoration of cuts to superannuation levels from 60 to 67.5 percent of the average wage and a 10 percent increase in war pensions, while setting the interest rate on student loans at 2 per cent above inflation.

Other less specific policies include: “an end to constant reforms--a return to a stable public service supervised by a rational agenda for our social, health, education, and welfare services, and quell the uncertainty among our young and our elderly.”

Offenders who are not a danger to society out of jail, but who are “working under penal supervision.”

On Treaty of Waitangi issues there is a promise to find solutions that are not bound by political correctness.

As for the rhetoric, the issues for Winston Peters are trust and integrity.

Repeatedly he paints other political parties as dishonest and deceptive, whereas NZ First has stuck to its promises and delivered what it could: “For there to be true political leadership in New Zealand's future, we have to create an environment which returns politics to the people, where decision making involves everyone...

“...Our Deputy Leader Peter Brown MP set out for you yesterday our many achievements, all of which happened because we were prepared to sacrifice our popularity for progress, to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders...

“...Because of our coalition experience we do not relish working alongside either National or Labour, given their past record of political betrayal. But there will come a time soon when both will come to us and we will talk to them. To do otherwise would be irresponsible, petty, and a betrayal of MMP-the new electoral system that we campaigned years for.

“...When, in the final weeks of the coalition, the interests of the country and the values of New Zealand First came into direct conflict with the National party's agenda, we found out then and there who were there for duty-and who were there for themselves.

“...We stand alone from the other parties because we believe in old fashion concepts such as integrity and trust. We have established a track record that is consistent. Listen to the talkback hosts and the commentators and there is an irony in what they say. All have to admit that we kept our promises; that we sacrificed our political fortunes for our principles. The only complaint now comes down to this: ‘you said you would not go with National and you did’

“The truth is the exact opposite. We did not say we would go, or not go, with any party at the last election. When on the last day of negotiations in December 1996 it emerged that Labour, with its lowest vote since 1928 had not secured the Alliance's 13 MPs' support for a Labour-New Zealand First coalition, we were left with one option.

“There is not a New Zealander, or member of this party for that matter, who had a greater distaste of going with National than I did but we as a caucus and a council faced that bitter reality, made a unanimous decision amongst all of those people to go into government and put in place our policies, and we are proud of that record-so many achievements in so short a time, in a most difficult political environment.

“We tried for almost 2 years to move the National party, and Treasury away from the slash and burn, elitist, market forces economy they were determined to pursue, without any regard for the results.”

Then in his final rallying call to the faithful, Mr Peters says “In the next four months, when you set out door knocking, delivering pamphlets setting up meetings, telephoning and making personal sacrifices for your country remember this: You are the only hope for thousands of New Zealanders on the edge of despair.

“So - go and spread the message. Go and tell your friends. Go and tell everyone in the dole queue, go and tell that farmer on the verge of walking off his farm, those small business people beaten to their knees, the youngsters overseas, the sick, the elderly, the forgotten people. Tell them that help is on its way. Look around this convention hall - and this is only part of our peoples' army. Let's continue our mission with cheer and determination.

“In the words of Arthur Clough:

For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
seem here no painful inch to gain
far back, through creeks and inlets making,

Comes silent, flooding in, the main And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright."

The rhetoric is classic Winston, but where is the polemic, the whipping up of contoversy, rest assured it will come.

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