One of Winston Peters' greatest inspirations is Sir James Carroll.
Genuinely comfortable in both the Māori and Pākehā worlds, Carroll became New Zealand's first Māori Minister and first Māori knight. As Richard Seddon and Sir Joseph Ward's right-hand man, he served for extended periods as Acting Prime Minister.
Most importantly, Carroll's legacy endured beyond his own time in politics, successfully passing the taiaha to the next generation of Māori leaders, including Sir Āpirana Ngata.
This year's election, expected on September 19, will determine whether Peters is similarly recalled by historians 100 years hence.
The NZ First Party that Peters founded 27 years ago is often accused of wanting to return to the 1950s, but it was also ahead of its time. In 1993, when Donald Trump was still trying to open a casino at the old Auckland Railway Station, Peters was already leading a backlash against globalisation.
As disturbing as some of his messaging has been, we are still lucky Peters has been the local face of this movement, rather than the altogether more sinister individuals who have arisen elsewhere, especially in continental Europe.
There is clearly space on the political spectrum for a party like NZ First to become as enduring as Labour and National — and it is much better that it is Peters' crew which meets that market than something worse.
The problem is that in New Zealand's MMP era, no small party that has supported a larger one in Government has ever reached the 5 per cent threshold the following election. For Peters to be more than a quirky footnote, he needs to break that rule in 2020. The same holds for the Greens.
Immigration will play its usual role. NZ First's record at cutting immigration is no better than Phil Twyford's at building houses, but when the time comes, Peters will blame Labour. For now, NZ First is going along with Jacinda Ardern's demand there be no repeat of Shane Jones' recent attacks on Indian marriage arrangements but that truce won't hold for long.
More interesting is NZ First being in a fight with Act for a crucial 50,000 or so votes in provincial New Zealand over issues like gun control and climate change. On this battle may depend NZ First's and Act's ambitions to secure 5 per cent and another couple of MPs respectively. Act, of course, has the advantage that it alone stood against Ardern's gun control legislation and Zero Carbon Act.
Also worrying for NZ First is National's high-flyer Todd Muller being in the game, holding over 30 farmers' meetings exploiting perceptions that rural New Zealand is being treated unfairly over issues such as water quality.
Labour is dreaming if it expects any more co-operation from NZ First on gun control, climate change or water quality without major policy concessions elsewhere.
Foremost is infrastructure, including rural roads and rail, and most particularly the new dry dock, naval base, and car and container port south of Whangārei, including the necessary four-lane highway and double-tracked rail line.
Some in Labour think such decisions and Grant Robertson's $12 billion infrastructure fund should be controlled by the new Infrastructure Commission. That is intolerable to NZ First. Wellington bureaucracies can be trusted only to spend years exchanging reports rather than making decisions, which is presumably why Ardern and Robertson acted unilaterally over their $400 million school maintenance project which will see schools painted and fixed up before the election.
NZ First similarly wants a role for democratic as opposed to bureaucratic decision-making over Robertson's remaining $11.6b and the port. It argues most of the commission members are at least as conflicted from their past, and in some cases current, commercial relationships as any politician.
Jones, though, may have been too smart for his own good, having himself appointed the commission as Infrastructure Minister. Labour can rightly argue that if Jones is worried about commissioners' conflicts or the speed and agility of their decision making, then that is his problem.
Labour should nevertheless be equally wary of tying up Robertson's $12b in endless bureaucratic processes rather than getting new projects confirmed before September.
These themes should be enough.
However, NZ First also has an opportunity to minimise perceptions it is a party of conservative geriatrics by encouraging its rising star Rob Gore to stand in Auckland Central against National's Nikki Kaye and the Greens' Chloe Swarbrick, and giving him a winnable position on its list. Having led NZ First's u-turn on safety testing of MDMA at music festivals, Gore, 23, could have been drawn from central casting to crash the media's Kaye v Swarbrick love-in, communicate NZ First's leadership on closing the port and personify generational renewal.
NZ First strategists are also preparing for Simon Bridges' decision on whether to rule out forming a government with its support, and intense media scrutiny of NZ First's funding arrangements.
On the former, Bridges is expected to rule out working with Peters but not with the party as a whole, to which NZ First will respond accordingly, saying it is happy to work with National but not with Bridges or Paula Bennett. That should be enough for Peters to maintain NZ First's vital perceived neutrality.
On party funding, NZ First risks joining National in being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. In both cases, everything will depend on the causal direction. Did the donation follow the policy or did the policy follow the donation? This matters. Giving a donation because a party has a policy to oppose a capital gains tax (CGT) or a plan to attract more immigrant MPs is the essence of democracy in a non-state-funded system.
Opposing a CGT or attracting more immigrant MPs because of a donation risks breaching sections 102 and 103 of the Crimes Act, carrying up to 14 years in prison.
If it becomes embroiled in controversy, NZ First will need to make a strong public case that the causal relationship of its fund-raising and policy-making activities was in the right direction. Peters' legacy depends on it.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist.