Could a backlash to "woke politics" be the basis for the revival and return of New Zealand First? The Winston Peters-led party held its first post-defeat conference in the weekend, in which the main theme was NZ First's very clear focus on culture wars issues as a way to rebuild popular support.
Peters gave a speech taking aim at a variety of woke politics and policies currently in the ascendancy under the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Government. You can read the transcript and watch his speech here: Winston Peters' full speech at New Zealand First AGM.
Peters' speech was clearly aimed at what he calls the "woke elite" or "Ngati Woke", and amongst his targets were cancel culture, the Auckland cycle bridge, the He Puapua report, ditching referendas on Māori wards, the decision to buy the land at Ihumātao, increased state usage of te reo Māori and especially "Aotearoa".
On the latter he asked: "Who signed up to this plan to change New Zealand's name? Who was asked. When were you asked?". He pointed out, for example, that the recent Climate Change report, titled "Ināia tonu nei", used the word "Aotearoa" over 1300 times but "New Zealand" only 161 times.
On what he calls "racial separatism", Peters complained "Everything in 2021 is now rights-based – or indigenous-rights based – demanding co-governance". He says that Labour are "enabling a wave of rights-based activism in-and-outside of Government."
Tackling the recently announced feebate for electric vehicles, Peters asked the Government: "how many working-class people, regardless of their ethnic background, are going to be able to afford your EV alternative?"
For a report on the anti-woke focus of the leader's speech, see Derek Cheng's Winston Peters announces New Zealand First will be back in 2023.
Peters and his party are focusing their critique of the current Government on what political scientists call post-materialist issues – such as ethnicity, gender, personal behaviour, free speech, etc.
In contrast, his party intends to brand themselves as being focused on "materialist" issues such as housing, access to healthcare, incomes, and general economic equality. Even when it comes to appealing to appealing for Māori support, Peters is pushing his credentials as focusing on and delivering materialist results rather than post-materialist cultural issues.
For example, in talking to Waatea News, Peters has said this week: "You know what Māori want. They want decent and safe and hygienic house that they can afford. They want a decent health system for their mother or their baby or themselves need access. They want a decent education system they can climb on and the last thing they want is first world wages. So which party stood for that rather than all this other woke stuff and every other project that may sound kind but for the mass of ordinary Māori in their daily grind in struggle street, they need a voice" – see: Peters pitching for Māori voice.
Criticisms of Peters and his anti-woke agenda
Much of the media commentary has been highly negative about NZ First's targeting of woke issues in the weekend, suggesting this focus will fail to fire. Peters has been characterised as a dinosaur, out of touch with mainstream feeling.
Some accounts have been outright hostile, and have painted his politics as deplorable, in a similar way that Hillary Clinton infamously described Americans who voted for Trump as "deplorables". The best example of this is today's column by Virginia Fallon in which Peters is characterised as "a breath of old stale air to occasionally remind us how far we've come and how easily we could revert to what we used to be. A cautionary tale, if you will" – see: Who's afraid of the 'A' word?.
Fallon suggests Peters and his anti-woke politics are simply an embarrassing anachronism: "most families have a Winston of their own: an older relative who stubbornly refuses to adapt so spends their latter years stumbling about in a world they no longer understand. But a bit like the family dog who goes senile and lunges incontinently at the children, we keep them about because despite their increasingly unacceptable behaviour, we know they can't help it. They're scared and confused, but eventually we'll be able to consign them to history".
The main target for her column, however, is Peters' opposition to renaming the country "Aotearoa". And Fallon argues that this "is like a Rorschach test for racists".
Some commentators have also suggested that Peters' battle against woke politics is unlikely to yield any supporters, given that other parties are already filling that gap in the market. Tuesday's Stuff editorial said: "There is already a crowded political market for anti-'woke' sentiment, especially when it comes to whipped-up fears of 'Māorification' in New Zealand. Act and National have been beating that particular drum for months and while it could be argued that Peters helped to perfect the politics of racial fear in New Zealand in the 1990s, when it was about Chinese immigrants, he does not have the field to himself" – see: Was NZ First built to last?.
Other commentators have also advised the party not to go down the anti-woke path. Former NZ First researcher Josh Van Veen has argued: "Peters will need to rise above the culture war if he is to win back those voters" he lost to the Labour Party at recent elections – see: NZ First Unbowed. He argues "whether NZ First is successful will depend on whether it can rise above cultural divisions and offer a positive, unifying vision of what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century."
In this column, Van Veen also reports on Peters' speech, and explains Peters' approach to race relations. He says Peters' opposition to affirmative action, as expressed in his recent speech, is about preferring "fairness and equality of opportunity".
Van Veen explains: "As a Māori, it is clear that Peters has no time for 'Critical Race Theory' or the demonisation of Pākeha. Anyone who knows him can attest that Peters sincerely believes in Martin Luther King Junior's dream of a world where one is not judged for the colour of their skin 'but by the content of their character'. It is what most New Zealanders would understand to be anti-racism."
However, Van Veen doesn't believe that Peters can win back voters on the basis of this universalistic approach, because it involves being too negative. He's quoted further about that today by Emile Donovan in his RNZ report, Bringing back Winston. He argues the party needs to go beyond "fire and brimstone" and project its vision in "a positive and constructive way, rather than appealing to fear and prejudice".
Can NZ First prosper with its anti-woke focus
A survey released on Sunday by Newshub suggests there is still plenty of potential support for a Winston Peters comeback. A Reid-Research poll in May asked "Should Winston Peters return to politics?", with 70.1 per cent saying "no", and 19.6 per cent saying "yes" – see Tova O'Brien's Newshub-Reid Research poll shows majority of New Zealanders don't want Winston Peters to return to politics.
Although this poll was reported negatively for Peters, Heather du Plessis-Allan argued differently: "He only needs five percent: he only needs a quarter of those people and he's back" – see: Winston Peters could be brought back as Labour's handbrake.
Du Plessis-Allan writes: "I'd say Winston's got a path back" – on the basis that in 2023 there will be at least five per cent of the electorate who want a "handbrake" applied to what the Labour Government are doing, and so they might strategically vote for NZ First even if they prefer other parties.
What's more, she believes that Peters' focus on Labour's supposed racial agenda will be fruitful: "He's got a good issue to campaign on with Māori separatism. That's probably not going away this term because labour's Māori caucus is massive and powerful and making demands, and they'll be doing that right up to the next election to make sure they don't lose seats to the Māori Party."
David Farrar also believes that Peters will be back, and that the anti-woke approach will work well for the party. The rightwing blogger, pollster, and long-time critic of Peters says: "Sadly, I now think there is a reasonable chance he could be back in 2023. If Peters targets the culture war issues of wokeism, Treaty issues, cancel culture and climate hysteria (as opposed to rational climate policy) he could well get 5 per cent of the vote" – see: Why Winston, sadly, might be back in 2023 (paywalled).
Farrar argues that Peters can voice an anti-woke message that others can't': "The huge advantage Peters has is he is Māori yet socially conservative. He can attack abolishing referenda on Māori wards and the like without worrying about being called racist. In fact it probably helps him if they try. Same goes for attacking cancel culture. Some activists try (disgracefully) to portray free speech advocates as pro white supremacy. Won't wash with Winston. I have no doubt these are potent issues, and if Peters can position himself as a strong voice against, there are votes to be gained."
As to whether National already has a monopoly on this vote, Farrar isn't so sure: "National can only go so far in terms of fighting back against the culture wars from the left. National needs to get around 40 per cent of the vote and to do that you need to spend most of your energy on issues like jobs, incomes, schools, hospitals, housing, transport and the like. I think National should be doing more in terms of push back, but I don't think it should become their main campaign focus. NZ First only need 5 per cent of the vote, so an anti-woke campaign could well get them there."
Similarly, although Act is also successful in its focus on some anti-woke issues, especially free speech, Farrar doesn't believe that David Seymour wants to, or can, make this the defining issue for his party, especially because "Peters is immersed in the Māori world and Seymour is not."
Farrar has also recently used his polling company Curia to find out what the public think about one of Peters' key issues from the weekend – the increasing use of the term "Aotearoa" for "New Zealand". In March his company asked 1000 people: "Do you think the name of this country should be changed from New Zealand to Aotearoa?" The results were: "15 per cent in favour, 76 per cent opposed and 9 per cent unsure" – see: Poll Results on renaming New Zealand to Aotearoa (paywalled).
Such results suggest that Peters is in line with strong public opinion. And breaking down the results by party support, Farrar argues that even Labour voters are opposed to a name change – with less than one in four supporting this.
Yesterday's editorial in the Otago Daily Times agrees that an anti-woke agenda might well work to successfully elevate NZ First to Parliament, especially if conducted in parallel with a failing Covid response from the Government – see: Watch the wily crocodile.
The newspaper warns that the backlash against woke politics shouldn't be taken lightly: "the current classes ruling the public sphere should not be underestimating the depth of feelings of middle New Zealand, particularly the older generations. There is fertile ground to be tilled. People resent being told they are responsible for the 'trauma of colonialism' and that they are racists in the way the word is often used today."
The paper admits that both National and especially Act have already "hoovered up anti-establishment votes", but says NZ First still has a chance, because "Act can lose its shine, National can remain in disarray".
According to veteran political journalist Richard Harman, Peters' anti-woke speech was "Peters at his populist best" and it's how he should have campaigned last year if he had wanted to stay in Parliament – see: The speech he should have given on the campaign trail (paywalled).
Harman suggests Peters is now freer to take such a stance because he's no longer in coalition government. And he argues that those around Peters are now pushing him to take this more outspoken approach: "the people at the top of NZ First; those who have Winston's ear, believe that the whole issue of Māori sovereignty is creating a space for them to return to."
The Herald's Audrey Young also believes that Peters has good reason to be confident about returning to power at the next election, agreeing with him that Covid really was a big part of his party's 2020 downfall, and that there is now no shortage of issues to campaign on, including many anti-woke ones – see: Winston Peters has some cause for confidence in 2023 (paywalled).
She also addresses whether other parties have already sewn up anti-woke issues: "It is a crowded political market that New Zealand First will share with National and Act but as Māori, Peters and Shane Jones have more freedom to exploit such issues without being labelled racist and, more importantly, not caring if they are."
Chris Trotter argues Peters has "extraordinary credentials" to challenge the path that the Government is apparently going down in terms of race: "Who else can be sure that his critique of 'Māori separatism' will not be met with angry charges of racism and white supremacy? Peters' Māori ancestry cloaks him like a political force-field, allowing him to speak out fearlessly where Pakeha right-wingers are tongue-tied by timidity" – see: Who else is there? Why the right needs Winston Peters.
Trotter says that in terms of challenging this particular element of the Labour Government, neither National nor Act have the same ability as the NZ First leader: "neither Judith Collins nor David Seymour have the chops for this critical historical task. Only with Peters' help can Labour be defeated."
Much might now depend on how the Labour Government deals with the controversial He Puapua report. The allegation made by Peters in the weekend was that while his party was in coalition with Labour the report was deliberately supressed so that they couldn't campaign against it. For more on this, see Jo Moir's Peters takes on PM over Labour's Māori agenda.
Finally, for a more in-depth look at the controversial report, and how New Zealand First might be welcomed back to defeat it, see Graham Adams' Will He Puapua propel Winston Peters back into politics?.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.