Tactical space the key to NZ First's vote

Winston Peters and John Tamihere have both been talked up as the first Maori Prime Minister and both will not be. That is not all they share.

Both are self-made politically, too idiosyncratic and prideful to fit comfortably into the parties that brought them into Parliament.

Both ooze charm and flash charisma, with personal constituencies beyond those of their parties. Peters reached out from National in the late 1980s to many in Labour’s core vote. Tamihere touches many in National’s core vote. They both have Maori and non-Maori followers.

Both are nourished on adulation and status and are brittle when belittled. Yet both are often sidelong. Peters flashes a little-boy smile as he orates, almost as if he doesn’t quite mean his incendiary rhetoric. Tamihere smokescreens his blokishness and gaffes with teenage laughter.

And they have both focused much less on Maori rights and much more on Maori development. They are impatient with traditional leaders’ bombast.

Peters, however, has learnt to play along, which at times has served him well. Tamihere hasn’t. If he does not drown in the latest torrent of grave accusations he will need to learn some Peters tricks fast.

Peters’ greatest trick is to have generated a movement that has evolved into a party which is now a fixture in our politics, having narrowly escaped extinction in 1999 only because Labour did not throw the Tauranga seat to National.

Since that chastening, Peters and New Zealand First have recovered and rebuilt. It is difficult to imagine the next Parliament without them in it. The question is what role they will play.

One clue is the party’s composition. In 1995 the Maori were at one end of the room and Peters’ silver-haired adorers at the other, each askance at the other. But year by year they have learnt to respect and even like each other.

Now New Zealand First has by far the highest proportion of Maori at its conference of any party. You might even call it, if it weren’t so PC to do so, Aotearoa/New Zealand First. There is something in deputy leader Peter Brown’s boast on Saturday that the party epitomises his ideal of addressing Maori issues in a round-the-table manner, “with anger sometimes, with passion but with sincerity”.

How come? Peters has long pitched to Maori who get no Treaty of Waitangi grievance pickings and so have less to gain from the focus on rights that has dominated the past 30 years of Treaty argument and policy.

Yet he also keeps irons in the rights fire, as illustrated by a brief, scathing attack in his keynote speech on Sunday on National’s opposition to the Rotorua Lakes settlement and by his support for the Foreshore and Seabed Bill.

And he turned National’s “one law for all” Treaty slogan back on it by spotlighting National’s silence on the TranzRail insider trading court proceedings: “Not a mutter, not a murmur, not a whisper, not a sound or syllable”.

Peters focused his speech on the economy as a point of distinction with both main parties.

He has two main beefs. One — that national and household debt and the balance of payments are dangerously high — resonates with a growing number of mainstream commentators. The second, that too much of the economy is in foreign hands and the Cullen fund should buy it back, is a minority taste.

Minority or not, there is a constituency of some small business and struggling households for whom the economic boom is myth. Peters might convert that into votes in next year’s election.

He needs that peg because cultural insecurity isn’t working so well for him since Don Brash occupied that space with his Orewa speech. In fact, this conference was remarkable for its paucity of references to immigration — Peters himself did little more than highlight two recent issues on which many liberals would agree with him: that muslim women should have to take off their burqas in court and that a Somali refugee woman on a sickness benefit should not be able to bring in 14 relatives.

But in the crunch policy may matter less than tactical space next election. New Zealand First is not so much in competition with National and Labour, as it likes to project, as with United Future.

United Future was scarcely mentioned at the conference, except by inference — for example, Peters claiming that “only” New Zealand First was a centre party able to restrain the “extremes” of Labour (too PC) and National (too free-market).

Whether that tactical space opens up or not will depend on whether National is seen pre-election as able to form a government. If not, some National-side voters will search out a party which might restrain Labour, as in 2002.

In that event, the conference had a message for Helen Clark if she is trying to form a government– not by way of resolutions but by way of the delegate makeup. New Zealand First delegates are typically homely, unsophisticated folk from National’s side of politics.

That’s where Peters came from, after all. And where the similarities with Tamihere stop.