Saturday, June 27, 2015

Life After Winston - On The Future Leadership of NZ First - Part One: Pretenders To The Throne

The New Zealand First Leadership Post Peters - Prospects & Pretenders


The recent débâcle over the Conservative leadership causes one to question the viability of any political party based around one individual. While Colin's Craig Conservative Party is stillborn, other personality based political movements have enjoyed considerable success, both here in New Zealand and around the world. 

Just ask Winston Peters – the man whose politics Craig tried and failed to emulate.

New Zealand First was once described as the “Peters Party”. For many years, it was the personal vehicle of its Leader. Arguably, it still is. Scores of NZ First MPs have come and gone over the last 22 years. But its Leader has remained unchanged. Nevertheless, the NZ First Party of 2015 is not the same party that won the Tauranga by-election in 1993. Over time the party has matured into something resembling a conventional mass political party. And yet, it is almost inconceivable to imagine an NZ First without Winston Peters.

So, that begs the question. What would happen if NZ First, for whatever reason, were suddenly to find itself in the same position the hapless Conservatives are in? Who among the existing caucus of NZ First MPs could carry the party post-Winston? Or would the saviour of NZ First have to come from elsewhere?

This article is the first piece in a multi-part series examining in detail and from a uniquely insider's point of view the various options on offer to succeed Winston.

Be warned. Some of the revelations contained herein will lay bare the sorts of back-room political maneuverings outsiders and those outside the highest echelons of politics rarely get to see. It may even help to redraw bits of the political map as you know it. 

Part 1: The outsiders

Back in August 2013, Martyn Bradbury wrote a piece on TDB entitled “The two words that ensure NZ First gain above 5% –John Tamihere”. Bradbury speculated that the disgraced former Labour MP might be considering a move to NZ First with a view to succeeding Peters. This idea was endorsed by JT's mate and (then) RadioLive co-host Willie Jackson.

To outside observers it might just have seemed media hype - but in fact, Tamihere himself was interested in the role. Following a chance encounter with Winston at the Green Parrot in August of 2012, Tamihere opened a back-channel with NZ First via the parliamentary office of Party whip Barbara Stewart. Tamihere revealed to NZF that he was considering a return to Parliament and discussed the possibility of doing this through joining NZ First.

In the end, Tamihere chose to stay with the Labour Party; and promptly covered himself in a substance not quite akin to glory. But a Peters/Tamihere alliance was never likely to begin with. For one, it would have required Winston to abandon his opposition to the “Whanau Ora” scheme; a programme that Tamihere is intimately involved with as chief executive of the Waipareira Trust. Such re-positioning is not unheard of in politics, but for a leader who has based a large part of his career on attacking race based privilege - and who seemed to spend much of 2012 campaigning against the so-called "Bro-ocracy" "Brown Elephant" Whanau Ora represented - it would have been a bridge too far. 

More to the point, Tamihere's own inflammatory and risk-prone personal style - as best demonstrated by his magnificently mangled attempt to re-join the Labour Party through media-coup and his abominable on-air handling of the RoastBusters issue a year later - would cause just about any political party to think twice at the very least about allowing him to represent them in public, much less in The House. Given Winston's personal nature as a fastidious avoider of risk (to the point that entire nation-wide election campaigns regularly seem to be run by him personally so as to avoid mistakes), the unpredictable and explosive element which Tamihere would add to a Caucus meant that he constituted a singularly non-viable addition to NZF's. Indeed, you could very well call him the "Anti-Winston". 

Tamihere was not the first political has-been rumoured to be plotting a comeback with NZ First, however. In 2010, there was speculation in the media that then-Wanganui mayor, ex-MP and former NZ First strategist Michael Laws was in talks with Peters to return as a candidate and possibly even Deputy Leader. In private, Peters would later dismiss Laws as having too much personal baggage; while the Party never forgave Laws for his tell-all book The Demon Profession. Meanwhile, every time a Laws return has been mentioned subsequent to this, a small mountain of negative correspondence from voters and members would inevitably be sent in to the Party's Board of Directors and Parliamentary offices.

Speaking of controversial figures from local body politics, in 2010 a third contender emerged out of the ashes of the 2010 Auckland Super-Mayoralty elections. At the time, this man was lesser known. Certainly not someone capable of commanding national headlines for a week as he is today. He was the owner of a property management company, a self-professed millionaire, and conservative Christian who played a pivotal role in organizing the so-called “March for Democracy”.

Yes. That man was failed Auckland mayoral candidate and future leader of the Conservative Party, Colin Craig. TDB can now reveal that in late 2010, Winston Peters derisively rejected a proposal from Craig that would have seen Craig elected deputy leader of NZ First in return for a substantial donation to the Party.

Ultimately, none of these men were good enough for Peters. Nor fit to lead any serious political party. At best, they would lead NZ First into electoral oblivion. At worst, they would tarnish the Peters legacy forever.

But then, another candidate has stepped out of the shadows (or, if you prefer, out of the Pacific) in recent times.

Shane Jones
Shane Geoffrey Jones shares many similarities with Winston Raymond Peters. They both grew up in rural Northland. They are Maori. They are known for their oratory. Indeed, Jones himself has consciously banked on this in the past, comparing himself in a 2008 interview with NZ Herald journalist Michele Hewiston to the NZ First leader, saying, “I seem to be about to occupy Winston's sort of shoes in the pantheon of personalities in Maori politics”. He may have been woefully premature in that proclamation; but as demonstrated by the demographic Jones semi-successfully reached out to during his abortive Labour leadership campaign, there does indeed appear to be some cross-over in ethos and appeal. He's certainly an innate populist, and it could even be argued he's something of an economic nationalist. The two are also close on a personal level.

The boy from Whananaki has a lot of time for the boy from Awanui. But could Jones ever lead NZ First?

Matthew Hooton certainly believes so. In March last year, Hooton wrote for the National Business Review: “Shane Jones has got to look to the future. He doesn't like the Labour Party, the Labour Party doesn't like him.But there's a fantastic opportunity for him to become a New Zealand First MPand barnstorm the nation with Winston Peters.” Jones dismissed the advice, but his resignation from Parliament a month later prompted further speculation about his political future.

Fellow Northland Maori politician Hone Harawira appeared to endorse the idea of Jones defecting to NZ First when he was inadvertently recorded discussing the possibility of Jones “[coming] back with Winston in 2017”. Now, after Peters' remarkable victory in the Northland by-election, there would appear to be a clear pathway back for Jones. Particularly if Winston does decide to be a nation-wide "list only" candidate in 2017 as he has done for the previous several elections; thus requiring someone to hold fort against the inevitable furious National revanchism in their former stronghold. 

The appearance of Shane Jones at Winston Peters' victory celebration in Russell on the night of the Northland by-election could be seen as coincidental. However, in politics such coincidences are rare enough to be remarkable in and of themselves. TDB can reveal that Jones' long-term partner Dorothy Pumipi was involved in the planning and organisation of Peters' 2015 Northland campaign. Furthermore, TDB can confirm that Jones was approached by a figure close to the upper echelons of the Party as early as 2012. A young Parliamentary Services staffer from the NZ First Leader's Office, Api Dawson, lobbied Jones to leave Labour and join NZ First during a visit to Rarotonga with the Parliamentary rugby team in September 2012.

This casts a new light on the Peters-Jones relationship. It suggests something more than a coincidence or casual linkage is perhaps behind their recent public proximity. Whether or not this is evidence of a succession plan, we cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that Jones remains very much in contention for the leadership of NZ First.

But how viable is that contention, in reality?

I'd say questionable in the extreme, at best. 

First of all, his lack of history with the party is problematic. Commentators such as Hooton overlook the fact that NZ First has a membership in the thousands, with an elected board of directors and a caucus of 12 MPs. Each of these individuals has some stake in the running of the party. While its leader continues to wield disproportionate influence over the caucus and the board, this influence has diminished since 2008. Few decisions are made without deliberation. Where there is conflict, Peters usually yields to the collective judgement of those around him. When he does act unilaterally, he is challenged (a subject for another post).

Despite the fact that NZF's internal structure remains a labyrinthine network of patronage and personal loyalties all tied fairly directly to Winston, the days of Peters having absolute power are gone. That means any future leader would need to command the loyalty and support of the Party on a personal basis in a manner at least vaguely similar to the way Winston does. It is not enough to simply have Peters' endorsement, and expect the rank-and-file to automatically fall into line. 

Here, Jones lacks two essential qualities. He does not have the patience or the work ethic to build a network of supporters within the party. This was one of the flaws that hampered his bid for the Labour leadership. It is difficult to see Jones cultivating the necessary multitude of relationships with other MPs, board members, low-level party functionaries and volunteers – the people whom Peters has depended on for his political survival. Many long-time Party stalwarts are likely to view Jones with suspicion and contempt (no one likes to be upstaged by a late-comer). Peters, for all his flaws, knows how to make people feel valued. His warmth and empathy will not carry over to Jones.

Leaving aside the use of his ministerial credit to purchase pornography, Jones' overblown proclivity for colourful language and odd sexual innuendo - as detailed by Dr Brian Edwards in 2013 - further calls into question his suitability for leadership, particularly of New Zealand First. Despite my frequent protestations to the contrary (and the widespread support enjoyed by Ron Mark for his "shut the fuck up" comment) there remains a large and vocal swathe of NZ First voters who are fundamentally if not stereotypically conservative in such matters. Such braggadocio is the antithesis of Peters' own meticulous image - and for good reason. 

Another plain fact is that Jones is a perennial loser. He twice failed to win the seat of Northland for Labour, each time coming a distant second. In 2011, despite much media hype and the full strength of the Labour Party machine behind him, Jones failed to unseat Pita Sharples in the seat of Tāmaki Makaurau. As if three electoral failures in a row were not enough, Jones then took another beating in the Labour leadership contest of 2013. Despite his oratorical skills and intellectual prowess, it appears that Jones lacks any of Peters' electoral appeal.

Potential future developments in Wairarapa notwithstanding (rest assured: we'll cover him in a future article); assuming Peters holds Northland in 2017 and retires ahead of the 2020 election, the fate of NZ First could depend on Jones winning the seat. His relationship with the fisheries industry, as well as Iwi, will mean Jones can fill the party coffers in a way Peters never could. But as we learnt from ACT and the Conservatives, money doesn't win elections. Should Jones become the leader of NZ First it will likely end in calamity. Even if he won Northland, Jones would struggle to carry the Party with him - at best leaving him satrap of a dangerously marginal northern outpost amidst a collapsing internal administration ... and more likely, a one-term wonder with even less claim to legitimacy as a party than Peter Dunne presently enjoys. 


For many external commentators, predicting the imminent demise of New Zealand First as soon as Winston Peters steps back from the captain's chair has proven something of an irresistible predilection. Certainly, the fate of even relatively successful minor parties such as ACT or The Alliance once the personalities prominent at their founding recede from the scene might be taken as prescriptive.

And yet, it seems quite likely that there will be a future post-Winston for New Zealand First.

It's hard for an organization built around one man to persist, let alone survive and thrive year in and year out. But across the decades to the present day, this is *exactly* what New Zealand First appears to have done. Despite a string of relatively serious internal controversies over the previous half-decade, the New Zealand First of today appears to be in rude and robust health. Not only did the Party successfully nearly double the size of its Parliamentary Caucus between 2011 and 2015 from 7 MPs to 12; its Parliamentarians have also, in many cases, carved out deserved reputations for competency and even independent initiative in the House and elsewhere.

On top of this, and arguably just as importantly for the Party's future, the Party's ranks of volunteers and future candidate prospects are swiftly growing. Thanks at least in part to the efforts of NZ First Youth, it's now not uncommon to see university students and under-30s at regular Party meetings. This combination of a ready supply of seasoned activists and burgeoning future potential is vital for any long-term political project; but as New Zealand First nears its Momentum Excitationis in the not-too-distant future, such resources are particularly important in ensuring our future viability.

And this why, ultimately, it's rather difficult to see how an external new-entrant like Jones or some other as-yet-unknown third party would make for a viable successor to Winston.

As previously mentioned, New Zealand First runs internally on a byzantine network of quasi-feudal personal power-dynamics and man-to-man connections. Almost every local chairman will have some measure of personal relationship with (and, needless to say, personal loyalty to) Winston. In that respect, it's sort of like the Mafia but without the insulating cell-structure.

This has been remarkably effective at keeping the vital core of the Party together and ideologically aligned through some incredibly tough and traumatic times that would have splintered less closely knit electoral organizations ... but it comes at a cost. 

Obviously, if your Party is organized around an interlocking filigree of personal loyalty to one man, replacing that man is going to cause something of a structural weakness at the center. The possibility that some outsider agent could therefore parachute in at the top and suddenly take over without some very, very serious initial preparatory work is, therefore, an exceedingly remote one.

More likely, what we shall see transpire as we head toward the Post-Winston Era is an internecine power struggle between two already-coagulating armed camps within the Party. Indeed, a cynic/realist might argue that this has already begun to happen; and that a series of curious instances such as star MP Ron Mark's inexplicably low placing on the 2014 List or the more recent attempt to have a relative of NZ First Deputy Leader Tracey Martin enter Parliament through the list instead of Ria Bond after Winston won Northland ... represent the early stages of such a game already being played in earnest.

But those are matters for a future article.

Be sure to join us next week for Part Two in our Life After Winston series: "Tracey Martin - Queen of Hearts".

This piece has been a joint effort between long-serving former New Zealand First Board of Directors member Curwen Ares Rolinson, and a mysterious Southern gentleman known only as "Eduardo". 

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