New Zealand First is often the forgotten party in our politics. That is partly because it lives so much in the shadow of its founder that it appears to be little more than an extension of himself. It has had no other leader in 25 years of existence and few would bet on its chances of surviving Winston Peters' eventual departure.
But our profile of its latest Deputy Leader, Fletcher Tabuteau, today illustrates that the party does have a solid core of politically conscious voters in the country. It may not be merely a vehicle for those undecided between Labour and National at any given election. At age 18 Tabuteau attended the party's launch in 1993 with his enthusiastic parents and has been committed to it ever since, a candidate at three general elections before coming into Parliament on the party list in 2014.
He displaced Defence Minister Ron Mark as deputy in a caucus election held the same week National elected a new leader and, once again, NZ First's event went largely unnoticed. If there is to be a successor to Peters, now 72, it appears more likely to be Shane Jones, who has yet to establish a personal following.
Despite his advancing age, Peters gives no sign of departing before or at the next election. Polls say his party has slipped below the 5 per cent threshhold and it has not previously survived an election after a term in government. But this is the first time it has been in a first-term government and it has one or two other unusual things in in its favour this time.
The party leading this Government did not beat its main rival at the election. Labour needs to build more support at the next election but not at the expense of both its partners, as seems to be happening in polls since the election. It needs to do more than major parties have previously done to help its partners survive.
Jacinda Ardern appears to be very conscious of that need. At her post-Cabinet press conferences she has made a point of having ministers from NZ First or the Greens alongside her whenever there was a decision to announce in their portfolios. She might have done this anyway, she impresses as a naturally inclusive person. But it is certainly an effective political gesture and one that Sir John Key and Bill English might wish they had employed.
It is also noticeable that Peters has been alongside the Prime Minister on most of the overseas trips she has made. As Foreign Minister he probably does not always need to be there, and as Deputy Prime Minister he ought to be in the country when she is not. Especially if when travelling overseas the Prime Minister is going to make it a policy not to comment on any issue except the object of her trip, the reason she did not have her regular interview on Newstalk ZB this week.
Peters, who knows how to attract attention in election campaigns, almost disappears from public view between elections. This time he may need to do more than stand behind Ardern if he and his party are to survive for a second term.
The party is looking to the regions for its distinctive political mission and Jones, Minister of Regional Development, has begun to give out grants with his usual flair. But its new Deputy Leader from Rotorua, under-secretary to Peters and Jones, presents a more modest regional voice and possibly an enduring one.