New Zealand First was formed in July 1993 to represent the views of New Zealanders concerned about the economic and social direction of their country, the sale of public assets to foreign control, and the decline in employment and social services. The party’s vision is to put people first through enlightened economic and social policies, by controlling resources and by restoring faith in the democratic process.
New Zealand First was started by founding members and Winston Peters, the MP for Tauranga and former Minister of Maori Affairs. He had left the National Party after disputes with its leadership over broken election promises about the economy and an extra tax on the elderly. Peters resigned from Parliament and Tauranga voters re-elected him in a special by-election as an independent.
New Zealand First fought the last FPP general election in 1993 and the party won Tauranga and also the Northern Maori seat.
Election – New Zealand First won over 13 per cent of the vote
With the introduction of the MMP electoral system for the 1996 elections, New Zealand First won over 13 per cent of the vote, gaining 17 seats, including all five Maori seats. Neither National nor Labour had enough seats to govern alone so entered negotiations with the new party.
New Zealand First went into a coalition with National because Labour could not muster sufficient votes to guarantee confidence and supply – even with New Zealand First. This was because Labour could not guarantee the votes of Jim Anderton’s Alliance Party. Peters was also concerned about the prospect of dealing with two parties who were bitter enemies at the time.
Coalition with National
New Zealand First exacted many concessions from National, including the abolition of the superannuation surcharge, free medical care for children under six, and dropping the profit models of the public health system. Peters served as Deputy Prime Minister, and held the specially-created office of Treasurer (as in Australia, senior to the Minister of Finance).
Winston Peters served as Deputy Prime Minister
Initially, the coalition relationship worked smoothly although some National MPs resented the policy concessions. The coalition overcame the local effects of the 1997 Asian currency crisis, which seriously affected New Zealand’s Asian export markets. However, behind the scenes Jenny Shipley covertly promised to remove New Zealand First’s influence on National and to remove the policy concessions. She gained enough support to force Bolger’s resignation and replace him (8 December 1997). The tensions between the two parties increased as Peters sought to defend the coalition agreement.
Back to Opposition
On 14 August 1998, Shipley sacked Peters from Cabinet after an ongoing dispute about the sale of the government’s stake in Wellington International Airport.
Peters immediately broke off the coalition but several other MPs, unwilling to follow Peters out of government, tried to replace Peters with Henare. This caucus-room coup failed, and most of these MPs joined Henare in forming a new party or remained as independents to prop up Shipley’s government, which cut superannuation and resumed National’s privatisation programme.
In the 1999 elections New Zealand First gained only 4.3 per cent of the vote, but Peters held his electorate seat of Tauranga by 63 votes. New Zealand First received (by proportionality) five seats in total. The party concentrated on rebuilding its support.
On election night 2002 New Zealand First won back 10 per cent of the vote and brought 13 MPs into Parliament. Peters had mounted a brilliant three-point campaign against uncontrolled immigration, Treaty costs, and crime. Peters’ campaign phrase “Can we fix it? Yes we can” gained much attention because of the same line in theme music for the children’s television programme “Bob the Builder”.
Labour declined to form a coalition with New Zealand First but Peters continued to promote his policies strongly, frequently embarrassing ministers. However New Zealand First showed that it could work with Labour when the parties combined to pass legislation establishing Kiwibank, the Cullen Superannuation Fund, and legislation clarifying Crown ownership of the foreshore and seabed.
In the 2005 elections the smaller political parties suffered a severe mauling. Though it remained the third-largest party in the House, New Zealand First took only 5.72 per cent of the vote, a considerable loss from 2002. In addition, Winston Peters narrowly lost his previously safe constituency seat of Tauranga by 730 votes to National’s Bob Clarkson.
New Zealand First had seven MPs, all elected on the party list, and agreed to a supply and confidence agreement with the Labour Party (along with United Future) in return for policy concessions. As Minister for Foreign Affairs (outside Cabinet) Winston Peters acquitted himself with distinction receiving acclaim both here and overseas. As Minister for Racing Peters is regarded as the key figure in turning the fortunes of the New Zealand Racing industry around and as Associate Minister for Senior Citizens he introduced the SuperGold Card and its concessions for senior citizens. Foreign diplomats have acknowledged his critical work and personality as the key to securing better relationships with the United States and highlighting security issues in the Pacific.
In the months before the 2008 general election, New Zealand First became embroiled in a dispute over party donations. This resulted in a wave of unfavourable media headlines and an investigation into party finances by the Serious Fraud Office, the Police, and the Electoral Commission, and a hearing by Parliament’s privileges committee. On 29 August 2008 Peters wrote to Prime Minister Clark offering to stand aside from his ministerial roles while the investigations were ongoing. Although the Serious Fraud Office, the police, and the Electoral Commission all found that New Zealand First was not guilty of any wrongdoing, the episode, by design, harmed the party in the lead-up to the election. On election night it was clear that Peters had not regained Tauranga and the party had not met the 5 per cent threshold. In a gracious concession speech, the New Zealand First leader said that “It’s not over yet. We’ll reorganise ourselves in the next few months. And we’ll see what 2011 might hold for us all”.
After the 2008 defeat, party members and the leader met in Hamilton and decided to carry on. One member said later that it was a “cathartic” experience with firm and frank views “strongly” expressed.
Over the next two and a half years Peters stumped the country packing community halls while the party rebuilt. Although written off by the mainstream media and political commentators, Peters and his advisers were encouraged by public support at ground level.
With a marginal campaign budget, Peters campaigned the hard way on the road. After being told by TVNZ he would not take part in the leaders’ debate, rising polls forced TVNZ to rescind the decision. Peters won the debate easily and continued rising in the polls.
Three weeks from the election, party strategists decided to publicly reject media suggestions that New Zealand First would form a coalition with Labour and the Greens. Peters told a public meeting in Kelston that New Zealand First would go into Opposition and hold the government to account.
Opinion polls rose further, forcing National leader John Key and Act’s John Banks to hold their infamous “teacup” meeting, which was recorded. Peters exploited this situation and gained further publicity. New Zealand First came back into parliament with 6.5 per cent of the vote and eight list MPs.
Peters’ presence in the House has sparked new life in the Opposition. New Zealand First has pressured the government on several fronts including the sale of state assets, Whanau Ora, the plight of exporters and political bungling. The party has also tried to gain power and health concessions for the elderly.