New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has given no hint of any intention to retire, and instead declared his party will be back in 2023.
Peters used his speech at the party's AGM in Auckland today to slam a multitude of parties and policies including Labour, National, the Greens, the use of the word "Aotearoa" instead of "New Zealand" in Government reports, the Auckland cycle bridge, Auckland light rail, the vaccine rollout and "Ngāti Woke".
It was his first major appearance since NZ First failed to return to Parliament last year.
Peters accused Labour of bad faith politics last term by "deliberately" suppressing the He Puapua report, for "breath-taking economic illiteracy" in its feebate scheme, and for pushing through infrastructure – such as Auckland's $785 million cycle bridge – without doing the proper costings.
"This [He Puapua] report is a recipe for Māori separatism. They knew it and that's why they suppressed it till after the election … it was a gesture of ingratitude and bad faith.
"Growing in our country is a 'cancel culture' where anyone who asks legitimate questions is belittled as a colonialist, a racist, a bigot, a chauvinist, or worse still, not new wokage."
New Zealand First were part of last term's Coalition Government, but failed to return to Parliament after only winning 2.6 per cent of the vote last year.
Party members at the conference told the Herald there was too much focus on the negative and the policies that the party had been a "handbrake" on, and not enough on what it had achieved.
Peters didn't traverse the party's review into what went wrong last year in his speech, but said there was a growing sentiment among the public that the Government needed NZ First.
"How many working-class men and women regardless of their ethnic background, are going to be able to afford your EV alternative?" he said of the Government's feebate scheme, which his party blocked last term.
"What will happen to the old EV batteries? Can you see the Greens running now?
"We were pilloried for being the handbrake, but since the last election hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders are coming to understand why we were essential and now why we are missed."
He also attacked the media, who some party members called "the enemy" as they entered the conference room this afternoon.
"We are coming back because we believe we can."
He then ended his speech by imploring members to chant "we are coming back" loud enough to be heard on Queen St, and then concluded the conference and eluded the media.
Party member Craig Sinclair, who in 2017 held aloft the "SHE'S A PRETTY COMMUNIST" referring to Jacinda Ardern, walked through the conference room with a "Bring Back Winnie" placard.
Afterwards Shane Jones said he believed Peters would lead the party back to Parliament in 2023.
He said the election result last year was like Steve Hansen after a bad All Blacks' game, saying it was one bad result that should be flushed down the toilet and moved on from.
Earlier Julian Paul was confirmed as the new party president, and party members at the AGM were optimistic about the party's chances in 2023 and insistent that Peters should lead the charge.
Josh Van Veen, a member and former researcher for Peters, said the failure of the 2020 campaign came down to a combination of factors.
"The main factor was that New Zealand First was out of touch with its voter base. There was a perception that the quintessential New Zealand First voter is this kind of right-wing, reactionary, racist bigot.
"That's just not the kind of sentiment that has attracted them to this party."
He said people usually gravitate to the party was for "positive" reasons, but the 2020 campaign was very negative, highlighting the party as the handbrake on Labour rather than what it had achieved.
He said the challenge for the party to rise like it did in 2011, having failed to return to Parliament in 2008, would be even harder in 2023.
"There's this perception that Winston is maybe too old or past it. I don't think that's true or very accurate, but that's the perception they're up against.
"I think he can and should lead the party in 2023. He is the only viable leader for the party. If anyone can do it, it's Winston."
Asked about Shane Jones or Fletcher Tabuteau as possible leaders, Van Veen said they were very competent but "they're not Winston".
He said the ongoing court case involving the New Zealand First Foundation, which rocked the party's campaign last year, might still play a hand in the party's fortunes in 2023.
"It's certainly problematic. It is a kind of an albatross around the neck. And a lot will depend on that ultimately.
"But they can counter it, I'm sure, It comes back to the vision and the values, and having something positive to offer."