Smoke Signal: The attempt to signal virtue i) by those who have none or ii) when signalling act is either unvirtuous or more damaging than the default.
For those who have better things to do than think about politics (I quietly envy you), Wednesday was the beginning of 2020. To those of us who don’t know how many days pass until it is acceptable to declare it so, Wednesday heralded election year. I’ve waited two years, three months and seven days for that moment. Having long subsided to Grinchiness, I’ve forgotten what Christmas day feels like but I suspect it was similar to now. That may sound pathetic or sad however unlike the thrill of Christmas, the thrill of election year lasts much much longer than a day.
I don’t know if New Zealand’s longest working politician, Winston Peters, is excited by election year. I suppose for many of those currently elected, my excitement can be mirrored in equal measure as an anxious chestful of doom. I suppose for Peters, who has failed to be elected to Parliament just once since 1984, election year is a routine exercise; his behaviour a little different from the other two thirds of the political cycle. However, turning 75 this year and still going, there must be an element of personal satisfaction from it because there is obviously no ideological reason for him to keep going. His party isn’t jokingly referred to as ‘Winston First’ for nothing.
It is dangerous to make predictions about the death of Winston’s political career. Those predictions were made, with very good reason, in 1999 following the cataclysmic self-destruction of the party from 17 MPs in 1996 to nine NZ First, five Mauri Pacific, 1 Te Tawharau and 2 Independent MPs. Peters’ 63 vote majority in Tauranga ensured five NZ First MP’s sat in Parliament and proved those predictions wrong.
In 2005, Peters finally lost the seat of Tauranga but the party received 5.7% of the party vote and, with seven MP’s, remained in Parliament. In 2008, it looked like the end of his career had finally come. Tauranga confirmed it was finished once and for all with New Zealand First and the country as a whole appeared to feel the same. Just 4% of the party vote wasn’t enough to clear the 5% threshold and, for the first time in 24 years the New Zealand Parliament did not feature Winston Peters as an MP.
By 2011, Winston was back as his party received 6.6% of the party vote. Winston was outside of Government as National governed with the support of the Maori Party, ACT and United Future. Opposition is where Winston is in his element. It is much easier to attack than it is to take responsibility or produce results, hence support for New Zealand First grew to 8.7% and 11 MPs in the 2014 election. While his party lost support in 2017 as a result of the first two party election campaign since 1993, every party except for Labour suffered the same fate. No matter, as Winston held the balance of power again and entered a coalition government with Labour, supported by the Green Party.
One of the groups of voters that gave their party vote to New Zealand First in 2017 were National Party supporters disappointed by National’s slow coast to the centre-left. They believed NZ First would go into government with National and give them a firm kick up the behind. There is a significant misconception that New Zealand First is a right wing party as the result of their anti-immigrant rhetoric. New Zealand First’s economic policies are firmly of the interventionist left, however that is merely coincidental rather than ideological. The Taxpayer’s Union has attempted to cost each party’s promises since the 2014 election and New Zealand First’s promises don’t just exceed every other party (at an eye-watering $27.5 billion in 2017) but are reportedly the most difficult to measure due to the ad hoc method at which they are determined.
Gun owners were also big supporters of New Zealand First in 2017. Single-issue lobby groups in New Zealand are rare and their membership small, however gun owners seem to be the exception to this. Following the mosque shootings of March 15, every party in parliament with the exception of ACT, supported the rushed implementation of new restrictions on firearms. It isn’t possible to be absolutely sure of where all of those gun owner’s votes will go but with 250,000 voters holding a firearms license, they are guaranteed to be visible this election. It is easy to predict where they will vacate and that is New Zealand First.
Tobacco smokers have never really formed into a lobby group, nor have I ever been able to determine how many smokers cast their vote on tobacco policy alone. Given the beatings inflicted on smokers by every political party with the exception of ACT, who received just 0.5% of the vote in 2017, I’d say virtually no cigarette smokers vote with that policy alone in mind. Given that they obviously didn’t vote ACT in 2017 you’d think the next most likely place to park their votes would be New Zealand First. If that were the case, Winston has just betrayed another support group with his pathetic “agree to disagree” smoke-signalling over tobacco tax increases in the past week.
On January 1, as has happened for the previous ten years, excise tax on tobacco has gone up by another 10%. This year the end cost to the consumere will exceed $2 per cigarette . In 2018 and 2019 this occurred without a hint of a whimper by Peters however he must be getting nervous about the number of voters he has crapped on this term. His “agree to disagree” statement, in which he publicly declares New Zealand First does not support this particular policy is meaningless. It doesn’t stop the tax increase taking effect, nor does it send the increase to a vote in Parliament as it had already been voted on in the last budget that passed it.
Less than two months before the 2017 election, Winston Peters stated ‘The first thing we’re gonna do is make sure cigarettes are not massively overtaxed like that and bring them back to reasonable value.’ That is recorded on this website’s YouTube channel. Just like everything else that comes out of Winston’s mouth, it was a lie. The latest increase will bring the level of excise tax taken from smokers to approximately $2.2 billion, more than double the amount the Treasury believes smokers cost the health system.
The best feature of this Government is its sheer incompetence. That is the single attribute that has stopped Labour sinking this country because its people are too disorganised to do it. That is why they are yet to ruin the free-market’s most effective tool for quitting smoking we have ever seen. It is on their agenda. Associate Minister of Health Jenny Salesa has already announced plans to ban advertising of vaping and all flavours with the exception of tobacco, mint and menthol. A US survey of 69233 adults found that just 5.8% of vapers used one of those flavours most often. Winston Peters has been silent.
There are plenty of other promises made by New Zealand First in the 2017 election that have vanished into the ether since they formed the Government. These include
- Forgiving all existing student debt
- Ending the use of 1080
- Buying back all the assets sold by National in 2013
- Removing GST from food
- Increasing Veteran’s Pension by 10%
- Net migration reduced to 10,000 people per year
In fairness, every party that signs up to a coalition government has to compromise their election manifesto. However it is hard to see which parts New Zealand First has managed to implement and which voters Peters hasn’t ignored in order to grip on to power. The backroom signing of the UN Compact on Migration in 2018, which Peters publicly announced after Parliament had closed for summer, contradicted any prior rhetoric on immigration also.
Predicting the certain demise of Winston Peters and New Zealand First in the 2020 election is difficult. He’s far too wiley a character and has survived being written off too many times. However Peters is at least privately concerned at the prospect and this smoke-signalling over tobacco excise tax reveals it.