New Zealand First coup rumours create drama

11:28 am on 3 July 2015

Power Play - It's been a dramatic week for New Zealand First, with coup rumours swirling and Winston Peters moved to quote Longfellow.

Winston Peters giving his 2015 Budget speech.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

"I shot an arrow into the air, whither it landed I knew not where..."

That poetic quote from Longfellow, dramatically delivered by the New Zealand First leader Winston Peters pretty much sums up the drama over the party's deputy leadership this week.

Rumours of a coup against his deputy Tracey Martin, carried out by their caucus colleague Ron Mark, have swirled around Parliament, with an outcome expected today.

The party was due to have a caucus vote on the positions of leader, deputy and party whip in March, but that was delayed by Mr Peters' campaign in the Northland by-election.

After the regular caucus meeting on Tuesday, stories started to emerge that there had been a challenge, and despite several exchanges between Mr Peters and political reporters, no-one was really the wiser as to what exactly had happened.

Thus ensued the predictable public refusals to comment, with all MPs sworn to secrecy because of caucus rules, alongside off-the-record whispering campaigns that Ms Martin had been rolled and Mr Mark would be duly installed.

However, it was the leader Winston Peters who would take centre stage - obligingly stopping to talk at length to reporters with the intention of telling them nothing.

It was quite a performance, even for Mr Peters, oscillating from a hand-on-heart commitment to caucus confidentiality, to mock outrage at being questioned on private party matters.

NZ First Mp, Ron Mark.

NZ First Mp, Ron Mark. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

This despite reporters pointing out it could be argued the leadership of a party whose MPs are in Parliament by dint of public support was very much a public matter.

After several of these sessions both reporters and Mr Peters agreed it was a form of mutual torture.

"How unkind," retorted Mr Peters, " I've spent a career trying to help people like you."

By all accounts, the move by Mr Mark has been supported by some of the newer members of the caucus, elected at last year's general election, with plenty of ambition and self-confidence in their ranks.

As a senior member of another party dryly noted, the MPs are more capable and more able to think for themselves than some previous New Zealand First caucuses, and this may have taken their veteran leader by surprise.

Mr Mark was a well-known New Zealand First MP from 1996 until 2011, when the party failed to reach the 5 percent threshold and he lost his list seat. He was re-elected as a list MP last year, after having done a stint as the mayor of Carterton.

Notable for his work in the defence portfolio, Mr Mark has also fallen victim to cameras and microphones in the debating Chamber; He was snapped gleefully giving the government benches the finger in 2006 and, more recently, inadvertently dropped the f-bomb unaware he was being recorded.

He clearly has ambitions to loftier political positions, namely party leader.

While Mr Peters has been the unchallenged leader since establishing New Zealand First in 1993, at age 70 he and the party cannot ignore the imminent challenge of anointing a successor.

The party is in good heart, with 12 MPs, Mr Peter's recent win in Northland and more than 8.6 percent support in the party vote in last year's general election, representing nearly 210,000 votes. It is imperative for the party's future that the new leadership is elected in a way that maintains public support and does not create splits among the caucus.

If this week is anything to go by, there is still some work to do.

Follow Jane Patterson on Twitter @janepatterson

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