A populist with a dwindling popular base

Winston Peters has a problem: he is a populist with a dwindling popular base.

He built his base on the disorientation aroused in older people by the radical reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s and the spike of Asian immigration in the mid-1990s.

He wrapped that disorientation into the name of the party he founded when thrown out of the cabinet and frozen out of the National party. “New Zealand First” telegraphed a message of resistance to foreign influence over the economy and the reshaping of society by importing people of different cultures.

This echoed the earlier populism of Sir Robert Muldoon who had kept the economy closed and had celebrated the shape and mores of what had seemed to be a homogeneous society. Muldoon kept migration mainly white.

To his ageing white base Peters added support from a second source: Maori. Though Maori himself, he was no iwi traditionalist and had condemned “sickly white liberals” for the 1980s Treaty of Waitangi initiatives. Yet, as a Maori leader of a significant party, he was feted in high places in Maoridom.

Moreover, as we have seen this past week, many Maori are suspicious of Asian immigration. Maori who know history fear what a rapid influx of people from another culture can do.

New Zealand First won Northern Maori in 1993 and all the Maori seats in 1996. The traditional white party activist base struggled at first to adjust to the influx: at early conferences they congregated at different ends of the room.

Maori and whites in the party get on well now but Maori voter support has plunged. Now to get his 5 per cent Peters must rely on his “senior” base.

And he must get to 5 per cent in the party vote because National is odds-on in an up-year to hold Tauranga with its bright young candidate and is determined to win it. Many National MPs and officials have bad memories of Peters, from the time of his split and from the time in 1996 Jim Bolger had to swallow hard and accept him as Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister.

Will he get his 5 per cent? Three and a-half months from the 2005 election, New Zealand First was polling in an 8-10 per cent range. The same distance from the 2008 election the party has been polling in a 3-4 per cent range.

In part, the difference can be accounted for by Peters starting to campaign too early in 2005. He peaked, then slid.

But that does not account for all the difference. He has fitted in as a minister alongside Helen Clark and Labour is not exactly flying high. Any small party, but particularly a populist small party, must be careful of the company it keeps.

Populism operates either through the commanding heights of politics, which Muldoon did, or in opposition to the political establishment. For the past three years Clark has held the commanding heights and Peters, as Foreign Minister, has been part of the establishment.

Life in the establishment has its perks. Not least among them is prestige. When asked by a colleague in 2005 why he wanted to be Foreign Minister, prestige was his answer.

Therein lies Peters’ conundrum. To leave Parliament defeated is not a prestigious exit. Much better to finish as envoy to some world capital (Washington, London).

A re-elected Clark might have reason, or wish, to supply that route out — or if she loses, to bestow a gong in her parting honours list. Peters has kept his side of their bargain. National owes Peters no such gratitude if he exits Parliament this election.

So what does he take to his party faithful — and they are faithful — at his party’s fifteenth birthday conference this coming weekend?

He takes, first, the likelihood that a low vote for Labour will tip votes to New Zealand First as a potential brake on National. So clearing 5 per cent is realistic.

Second, he takes the prospect of another round of goodies if Labour’s vote doesn’t collapse and Labour gets close enough to National in the election to stay in office with his help. While he is committed to talk first to the party with the most seats, there is — so far — no commitment not to deal with others. And he has much past grievance with National.

Third, there might goodies to be got out of National, if it lacks the numbers to govern without him. John Key does not have 1990s memories and has demonstrated in spades that he can compromise on policy he disapproves. Besides, there is the Washington/London way out after a year or so.

Fourth, Peters has his party members’ hearts. Doing his deal with Clark in 2005 cost him Doug Woolerton’s resignation as president and Brian Donnelly’s escape to be High Commissioner in the Cooks. But the conference faithful worship him.

They are right to do so. Without him, New Zealand First would not have started and would never have been in Parliament and his bouts of concessions for oldies from Bolger and Clark would never have been delivered.

The curtain is rising on what may be the old populist’s last act, as his popular base dwindles. But what a show it has been for his people.