New Zealand First's challenge: project a wider image

Australian students used to picket the One Nation party. Its anti-immigrant, anti-aborigine rhetoric was anathema to left-liberal idealism. But last week the students’ leader effusively praised One Nation’s sole surviving senator, Len Harris.

Harris had pledged the deciding vote against the government’s differential university fees, adding yet another defeated bill to a lengthening list which John Howard will be able to advance only by a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament after the next election.

This little episode of irony illustrates how tricky it is to typecast New Zealand First.

Liberals of right and left condemn Winston Peters’ anti-immigrant stance, with genuine horror and/or revulsion at his strong language and Asian focus. His feverish final speech on the Immigration Amendment No 2 Bill in September earned a withering counterattack by ACT leader Richard Prebble.

But at other times Peters treads a path of economic protectionism and regulation that once led one left commentator to praise his championship of the small people, the less-well-off. The reason: traditional class-based analysis places Peters’ protectionism alongside traditional (pre-1984) Labour and within cooee of the ill-fated Alliance.

In 1996 a good part of New Zealand First’s 13 per cent vote was against the post-1984 deregulatory economic policies. Most of that 13 per cent expected Peters to end National’s rule. When instead he coalesced with his former party, his parliamentary career very nearly ended three years later as a result.

Peters’ economic stance befits his humble beginnings and is not inconsistent with his initial choice of National. A strand of National stands for the battler who makes good. Protectionist Sir Robert Muldoon traded on it. Gerry Brownlee evoked it last week in his attack on ACT.

This works best allied with a strand of social conservatism — with maybe a dash or two of moral conservatism tossed in. Peters, with his attacks on political correctness and on liberals’ deference to Maori, personifies that. The foreshore/seabed turmoil gave him an opening.

Take out the anti-immigrant message and New Zealand First could pass for a centrist party, as United Future does for the moment: opposing the excesses of economic liberalism of National and ACT and the excesses of social and moral liberalism in Labour and the Greens.

But the anti-immigrant strand is not only present but is stronger than ever. Peters has harried Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel obsessively in Parliament, peppering her with questions about such refugees and immigrants as have fallen foul of the law, conjuring up a tidal wave of aliens engulfing this society and changing it (for the worse) forever.

That Peters’ picture is actually just fragments of a mosaic and ignores the rest of the picture (of mostly settled, law-abiding positive contributors) is not the political point for his followers. He sounds more plausible than Dalziel. And politics is plausibility.

His reward has been to retain his 10 per cent 2002 election vote in the polls while all other small parties (except the Greens, who have genetic modification) have lost ground. That is a big plus to take to his annual convention this weekend.

So what will we find there? A seething pond of racists? That’s the chattering classes’ expectation. But is it true?

Partially. There are some racists among Peters’ supporters. But most of those I have talked to are not racist by any reasonable definition. Their concern is cultural security, the disturbance of long-settled ways.

David Lange encapsulated what they fear in a television interview on Friday about his Swedish “alternative Nobel prize” for anti-nuclearism. Describing a noodle soup lunch his 7-year-old daughter Edith had eaten with chopsticks, he said: “She’s preparing for our new world. You’ve got to be able to eat noodles with chopsticks in that world.”

That is surely a benign phenomenon. Most migrants by far inject vitality and energy into the society they join: they learn hard, work hard and save hard. But, as Britain’s and France’s experience with some muslims is proving, some cultural differences are disruptive. Cultural security is becoming a genuine social issue there.

But it is also high in profile and on emotion. Emotion attracts media focus.

The result is that New Zealand First is projected through the media as a single-issue party. And while it is seen that way, its potential is seriously constrained. Peters can’t build a 30 per cent party on such an image. And it is all but non-coalescible, stuck in opposition.

So the showcase challenge for New Zealand First this weekend is to project other facets through the media prism. Several agenda items furnish that opportunity.

But to use that opportunity Peters will need restraint on the immigration front and less indulgence of his inclination for opposition.

Does he have the inclination and the acuity? The answer from the past is that he does not. We shall see.