New Zealand First goes into its conference this weekend more divided than usual.
The sudden resignation of party president Lester Gray for "moral reasons" suggests all is not well on the administrative side. His claim to have had "limited exposure" to party donations and expenditure hints at scandal ahead.
The battle to replace Gray also suggests internal division, with a Winston Peters loyalist, Kirsty Campbell-Smith of Rotorua, up against a more change-oriented candidate, John Hall of Manurewa.
The caucus is similarly divided. Roughly, there are those who expect a smooth transition in the years ahead from Peters to his apparent protege Shane Jones, with a business background.
Others would prefer a more contested process, perhaps involving Ron Mark, who could be seen as representing the uniform-wing of the party, those with backgrounds in the armed forces, the police, Corrections or the Māori Wardens.
NZ First's opponents might welcome signs of strife but the very fact internal contests and debate are possible can just as credibly be seen as evidence that Peters' life project has succeeded.
A party that includes people who moan about the leader and his allies — as there were within National even during John Key's heyday and even within some elements of Labour today — is one that truly exists as more than a personality cult.
Peters will only join the likes of Labour's Michael Joseph Savage and National's Sid Holland in New Zealand's political pantheon if he has established a party that outlives him, and even one that goes off in directions of which he would disapprove.
Peters has already managed at least one major transition since he established NZ First in 1993. By and large, the elderly superannuitants who flocked to him 26 years ago are now all dead. A new generation of supporters has come through and kept the party alive.
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Broadly, NZ First is now a home for those who have lost out from globalisation and technological change, who are uncomfortable with current social mores, or are veterans of the uniformed services who believe in traditional alliances and military capability.
Former Prime Minister and World Trade Organisation director-general Mike Moore estimates about 15 per cent of the population in most first-world democracies will be attracted to parties rejecting globalisation and cosmopolitanism, and who fret about immigration and race. Such parties are often dangerous forces in their political systems.
New Zealand is lucky that our equivalent has always been relatively benign. This has been partly because of Peters' personal charm, but also because a large percentage of NZ First's support comes from Māori, who have legitimate historic reasons to worry about the turmoil and social change that immigration and globalisation can cause. Genuinely hateful neo-Nazi elements have never been successful in infiltrating NZ First the way they have in similar parties abroad.
NZ First is now easily the third-most powerful party in New Zealand politics, having held all the major ministerial portfolios in economics, foreign affairs and defence and also the acting prime ministership for an extended period last year.
Arguably, given the Prime Minister's unique personal incompetence at driving a policy agenda, NZ First is in fact the most powerful today. The Greens will never compete.
Recognising that position, Business NZ hosted Peters and the whole NZ First caucus on Tuesday to a private event with the country's major commercial leaders.
Peters, who began his ascent railing against the likes of Michael Fay, David Richwhite and the Business Roundtable, has not changed his tune as his ongoing attacks on the Australian-owned banks show, but he and the business community have reached an armistice, recognising that business and NZ First are important and permanent features of the landscape.
The transition to new leadership and the final test of Peters' success as a party founder is still some years away. The leader, now a mere 74, taunts pretenders when he speaks of his admiration for 94-year-old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.
The immediate priority at this conference is to accelerate the process of separating the NZ First brand from Labour's. NZ First is in better shape in the polls than it was at the end of 1998 and 2007 after its last two periods in government.
Over the weekend and the months ahead, Peters and his team will make it clear that NZ First is not responsible for Labour's failures in housing, homelessness and poverty and emphasise what they believe they have delivered to their core supporters in the provinces and the services.
There will be ever-more intense attacks on foreign banks, immigration and liberalism generally.
NZ First will also take credit for stopping things such as Jacinda Ardern's capital gains tax; agriculture going into the emissions trading scheme; the Zero Carbon Bill giving Henry VIII-style powers to the Greens; David Parker's water reforms; plans to give iwi more power under the Resource Management Act; and drug testing at music festivals.
Underlining the separation of brands, Jones' almost weekly antics to demonstrate lack of respect for Ardern will intensify. This is a win-win situation for NZ First. Either Ardern proves herself utterly ineffectual and beholden to NZ First, or she will be forced to sack Jones, prompting Peters' resignation and causing the Coalition's collapse.
Either way, voters will be left in no doubt that NZ First is not Labour's patsy. The party intends to again hold post-election coalition negotiations with Labour and National. If not sorted beforehand, the new port for Northland, the expansion of Tauranga's and the closure of Auckland's container and used-car operations will be absolute bottom lines, to provide a substantial programme for NZ First to champion in the next parliamentary term.
It's a strategy with a good chance of success, but it does have one potential Achilles heel.
If Ardern, Bridges or both were up for it, they could get ahead of it, and announce that they will refuse to play along. Don't count on it.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist. He has worked for a wide range of clients over the last 15 years on the climate change issues discussed above.