Cablegate: New Zealand First: A Party of the Old Still May

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/28/2015

Classified By: Acting DCM Katherine B. Hadda,
for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: As New Zealand gears up for September 17
general elections, neither Labour nor National are likely to
get enough votes to win a majority outright. Of all New
Zealand's small parties, only two, the New Zealand First
party and the Green Party, have enough current support to win
more than 5% of the vote. Either could play the role of
"kingmaker" by giving one of the two major parties enough
Parliamentary seats to govern.
While NZ First has not said which party it would prefer to
back, it is widely assumed that National is the more likely
partner. When the parties shared rule in the 1990s their
government fell apart, however.

2. (C/NOFORN) Led by the unpredictable and charismatic
Winston Peters, New Zealand First paints itself as the party
that will preserve New Zealand's traditional way of life.
The party is populist, anti-immigration, and against special
rights for minority groups, although in recent weeks it has
toned down its rhetoric somewhat in response to flagging
support in the polls. The United States could face
difficulties in dealing with any coalition government
beholden to NZ First: the party wants to restrict foreign
investment and supports New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy
(though would back a referendum to change it). Then again,
Peters is pragmatic: he tends to back any policy that he sees
as raising his public profile, and he was considered a steady
hand as Finance Minister in the '90s. The party also favors a
strong defense establishment. End Summary.

Who Are NZ First?

3. (SBU) New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters may
be dabbling in irony when he labels the major Labour and
National Parties as the "two tired old parties" competing for
the country,s September 17 elections. Peters himself could
be tagged as the election,s graybeard: At age 60, he is the
second-oldest candidate for prime minister and is one of
Parliament,s longest tenured members, serving 24 years. His
party,s motto "placing New Zealand and New Zealanders first"
has been marched out in slightly different forms for every
campaign since Peters split from National and formed NZ First
in 1993.

4. (C) The party,s core support rests with elderly voters,
and its five policy priorities appeal to an older
constituency that seeks personal security and is cheered by
nostalgic references to a largely bygone New Zealand. Down
in the polls with three weeks to go (support has plummeted
from about 12% to 5% in the last weeks), NZ First stands in
familiar territory. At this point in previous campaigns,
Peters uncorked his personal charm and laid out his
appealing, if shopworn, populist messages, proving on
election night that pollsters had judged his party far too
pessimistically. His tireless, tried-and-true campaign
methods may pull off another hurrah -- possibly not Peters,
last -- making NZ First a potential kingmaker in a coalition
with either Labour or, more likely, National.

Grey First policies

5. (SBU) The public sees NZ First as a party for older New
Zealanders. In the 2002 election, 52 percent of NZ First
voters were over 50. In an August poll, its voting-age
supporters were three times more likely to be over 55 (40.9
percent) than under 24 (13.6 percent). The party,s promises
to battle crime, limit immigration, constrain privatized
asset sells to foreign investors and manage race relations
resonate most strongly with seniors. This year, it has added
a senior-specific campaign pledge: to raise the rate of
social welfare support for the elderly. As a result, NZ
First has won the not-insignificant support of Grey Power, a
100,000-member political group for age 50-plus New Zealanders
that is a key component of NZ First's campaign success.

Policies as protection for NZ identity

6. (C) NZ First policies generally seek to protect and
preserve a distinct New Zealand identity. Foremost among
them, NZ First pitches an anti-immigrant message, with Peters
often saying that New Zealanders have "the right to stop
being swamped by a flood of immigrants." Peters recently
said that New Zealand is replacing its first-world emigrants
of the postwar period with third-world workers and
threatening the Kiwi way of life. NZ First calls for a
drastic reduction in immigrants, especially refugees. Peters
often has used the mechanism of parliamentary privilege to
name immigrants he thinks pose threats to national security,
without supporting evidence or disclosure of his sources.

7. (SBU) Peters, who inherited Maori lineage from his father
and once was ticketed as the likeliest prospect to become the
country,s first Maori prime minister, is labeled by some
critics as being Maori in name only. He first came to
national prominence in the mid-1980s by uncovering scandal in
the government,s Maori loan programs. He has since attacked
what he calls the "bro-racracy" of Maori that seeks large
government payouts to settle treaty claims, and he has also
criticized some tribe Maori leaders as nepotistic and
corrupt. However, ever since National Party leader Don
Brash's January 2004 Orewa speech stole much of the thunder
on this issue, NZ First has struggled to further distinguish
its race policy. For example, the party still promotes Maori
language and culture as a vital part of New Zealand,s
national identity.

Party,s strengths, vulnerabilities are Peters

8. (C) Arguably the most charismatic figure in Parliament,
Peters propels the party,s populist policy. Coupled with
his long experience in Parliament, Peters is well positioned
to deliver polling gains in the remaining weeks of the
election campaign. Four weeks out from the 2002 elections,
NZ First polled between 4 and 5 percent. Largely on Peters,
charisma, it received 10.4 percent of the party vote. A
similar performance remains possible this campaign,
especially as older voters appear to be disengaged from the
two major parties and other minor parties.

9. (C) Peters, charisma, the party,s populist platform and
its support among the elderly notwithstanding, NZ First,s
message and its leader have worn thin on many New Zealanders
who may be sympathetic to its views but not convinced of its
effectiveness. Other parties, especially National and ACT,
have cannibalized the party,s core policy messages
(anti-corruption, anti-immigration and race relations),
leaving the party with little new or different on offer.

Anti-First: issues of coalition government

10. (C) As in the last three elections, Peters is promoting
NZ First as a potential coalition "king-" or "queen-maker,"
suggesting that he could help Labour or National reach a
Parliamentary majority. However, Labour leader Helen Clark
and National,s Brash have both distanced themselves from
Peters, who has said he would not commit to a coalition plan
before the election. National likely worries voters will
remember how after the 1996 election, it took 10 weeks for
National and NZ First to form a coalition, which then
essentially fell apart in 1998. Labour,s Clark stands
further apart from Peters, political philosophy and, since
the Green and Progressive Parties already have agreed to back
a Labour coalition, needs him less. Given Peters, reputation
as a political lone wolf, some commentators have suggested a
more casual collaboration with NZ First would better serve
Labour or National. This might the form of an agreement by
NZ First to work with a minority government on an
issue-by-issue basis, and this arrangement, some insiders
believe, would be Peters, preference.

11. (C) Another factor complicating NZ First,s position is
that NZ First,s rank-and-file increasingly are signaling
that Labour would be their first choice for a coalition
partner. As a conservative in centrist clothing, Peters
feels more at home with National, his former party, and
without Peters, NZ First would likely go extinct.
--------------------------------------------- -
New Zealand "First": implications for the U.S.
--------------------------------------------- -

12. (C) Consistent with its overall strategy to protect the
national identity, NZ First supports New Zealand,s
anti-nuclear policy. However, the Party's MPs have told us
they could support a public referendum concerning the policy.
NZ First remains skeptical of free trade agreements,
especially arrangements with developing nations. It believes
deals with "low-wage economies," such as the one being
negotiated with China, threaten the New Zealand way of life,
although it favors increasing New Zealand,s association with
the South Pacific.

13. (C/NOFORN) On the whole, a coalition government obliged
to draw on NZ First policies would be neutral to the United
States. However, some policies, notably Peters, call for
expanded intelligence sharing within Parliament and his
party,s policy to cap foreign ownership of key
infrastructure to 24.9 percent, might be a problem for us. It
is rumored that National might tap Peters as Foreign Minister
in a coalition government, which would make this prospect
less than academic. Then again, Peters is basically
pragmatic. We believe he would support any policy that makes
him look good.

Winston First: leader as person and party

14. (SBU) Winston Raymond Peters, 60, studied history,
politics and law at Auckland University before working as a
teacher and a lawyer. In 1978, age 33, he entered Parliament
as a National Party member. After losing in 1981, he
returned to Parliament in 1984 by winning in Tauranga, a seat
that he continues to hold. He resigned from the National
Party in 1993 over policy differences, especially those
involving privatization of state infrastructure. He founded
NZ First that same year, just before the general election.

15. (SBU) In the 1996 election, NZ First captured 17 seats,
six of which were electorate seats (including five dedicated
to Maori), demonstrating it had a solid party foundation. It
joined in coalition with National, making Peters deputy prime
minister and Treasurer. However, old tensions reappeared
between Peters and National leadership, resulting in Peters,
sacking from cabinet. A collapse in NZ First followed, with
some members of Parliament breaking in favor of National. In
the party,s current incarnation, Peters has firmly
established himself in opposition, where some say he performs

16. (C) Although Peters exercises autocratic control over the
party, there are signs he may be losing touch with his home
district in Tauranga. A recent poll of the Tauranga
electorate indicates their preferred party is National, with
26 percent; Labour, 18 percent; and, NZ First, 10 percent.
However, extrapolating party vote to electorate seat outcome
is tenuous. In the 2002 election, Labour had 32 percent of
the party vote while National and NZ First posted 22 percent
each. Peters decisively won the seat with 52 percent of the
electorate vote. The next closest contender, a prominent
sitting Labour MP (Speaker Margaret Wilson), took 21 percent.

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