It could be argued the biggest hurdle on New Zealand First’s path back to Parliament is the question that’s plagued the party for years and seemingly won’t go away.
It made its latest appearance at a public meeting in Northland’s Mangōnui this week, hosted by NZ First’s Northland candidate Shane Jones.
“Now a number of you, I know, in the audience have already said to me, ‘Oh Shane, why did you fullas bloody hook up with Labour in 2017, the reason we’ve got the dramas in 2023 is because you breathed life into a coalition agreement led by Jacinda Ardern’,” Jones quoted back to the 70-strong crowd.
“Folks, Mangōnui whānau, please remember that in 2020, 400,000-plus New Zealanders stopped voting for National, definitely never voted for us, and they gave their vote to Labour, they gave their vote to Jacinda.
“So it’s not fair, it’s not accurate to criticise Shane Jones and Winston Peters for the development of the Government in 2017, other than the fact we held negotiations.”
He then went to some effort to detail the negotiation process, who were the main players, what NZ First pushed for, and why “great instability within the ranks of the National Party” meant Labour was the only option in 2017.
“The story I’m telling is that don’t judge the worthiness of this party, New Zealand First, on what happened in 2017,” he urged.
It’s far from the first time the party has been challenged on this point.
Leader Winston Peters is well-versed in his response when asked about it by the Herald, repeating many of the points Jones made to the Far North audience.
“This is a question that you cannot win on and the media full well know it and I expect a higher degree of academic commentariat analysis than that, but maybe that’s a vain hope,” Peters says.
He does accept it’s a fair question, but not a new one, claiming he had to answer it following the first MMP election in 1996 when NZ First agreed to go into a coalition with National.
“I don’t take it as an insult, it’s a genuine question that needs to be answered ... it’s actually a tribute to the fact that we’ve been a successful third party, the most successful one in the last 30 years.”
Ask him what he thinks is NZ First’s biggest hurdle in returning to Parliament, and he points to “the mainstream media”.
Peters claims journalists have been largely absent from the “packed” public meetings he’s been holding across the country, while other parties received coverage for the “opening of an envelope”.
Nevertheless, Peters says he is buoyed by the party’s social media strategy.
“We’ve got an excellent, superb, very highly-qualified team and it is showing in our media engagement in the social media and it’s going to be taking off very, very soon ... so we’re very confident.”
His comments come on the eve of the party’s campaign launch at Auckland’s Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday. On Saturday, party remits will be considered during its convention, alongside the party’s AGM and a gala dinner.
The various public meetings have provided an opportunity to hone the party’s message.
They’ve been anything but dull; one recent meeting in Dargaville was interrupted by an impassioned challenge in te reo about Māori sovereignty from one man who, as he was escorted out by Jones, shouted, “You are Māori Mr Peters, you remember that”.
One woman at another meeting broke out in song, using Tina Turner’s iconic lyrics, “You’re simply the best”, to describe her feelings about Peters and his party. Another woman fainted, although that was reportedly due to a faulty air-conditioning system.
Peters’ lengthy question-and-answer sessions have drawn some interesting responses, none more so than his apparent support for a return of nuclear power in New Zealand, provided it was “safe”.
Asked about this, Peters says developments in nuclear technology give him hope it could replace more costly energy generation measures, and that he would support a referendum on the matter when it became a real possibility.
“It will be obvious to us if it was a potential option and a real option at the time,” he says.
“But again, because of our position circa 1984/85, this has got to go to the New Zealand people in a referendum.
“If it was safe in New Zealand, a referendum would be the prerequisite.”
Despite the antics, Peters says strong crowds - more than 700 in Tauranga recently - had given him and his team immense hope.
“The workers around the country have been seriously quite inspired that they know that their work is paying off.
“In that respect, we’re on the rise and it’s undeniable.”
Most polls have placed NZ First receiving about 3 per cent of the vote, less than the 5 per cent threshold needed to enter Parliament without an electorate win.
It’s understood new party candidates will be revealed on Saturday. The Herald asked former NZ First MP Jenny Marcroft whether she was one of them; she said to expect an announcement.
On his launch on Sunday, Peters is tight-lipped and gives little away. He promises to provide a “flavour” of his tax policy”, promising it is not “experimental” and “does work”.
He will also unveil the party’s slogan for what Peters considers to be the “most critical election in my lifetime”.
“The [slogan’s] theme is made to say that this is really a country that has got now a very, very seriously challenged democracy,” he says.
“The essence of our democracy itself is under attack and a whole lot of New Zealanders’ former freedoms are also under great risk as well.
“We’ve got no chance to go forward unless we solve those problems and then prioritise the essential things that, how shall I say, the mass majority of New Zealanders need right here and right now.”