Back to the future - the challenge facing National

Section
National,
Publish Date
Saturday, 18 August 2018, 9:28p.m.
National's riding high in the polls but there's a lot for them to worry about. (Photo/ File)
National's riding high in the polls but there's a lot for them to worry about. (Photo/ File)

They had some high-school delegates from the Bay of Plenty at the National Party's annual conference in Auckland last month. Articulate, keen to speak, just straight-out keen. And odd, in that company. Most of the delegates to National's first conference since losing the election were much, much older and also they were overwhelmingly Pakeha.

That's not always the case. Normally, smartly dressed young chancers strut the aisles. There are contingents of Indian, Korean and Chinese delegates, and quite a few Pasifika and Māori too. National, quite rightly, is proud of the mixed ethnicity of both its membership and its caucus.

And they're organised: the Blue Dragons, the IndoNats, a Filipino group called Pinoys Go National, and the Kahurangi Blues – which is neither a song nor a cheeseboard but a Māori membership group. This year in the Sky City conference centre, none of those groups was well represented.

Instead, the delegates mostly seemed to belong to a brand-new group: the Post-election Blues. A group for people who, just now, find it a little bit harder to get out of bed in the morning.

The signs are there in the party membership. During Sir John Key's first election campaign in 2008 the party hit a modern-era high of almost 35,000 members. Now it's in freefall.

Since 2008, according to the published conference papers, the pattern has been to drop in non-election years and build again when it counts, although never quite to the previous level. In 2011 they had more than 31,000 members, in 2014 it was 30,000.

In 2016 they'd slipped under 28,000. Key resigned at the end of that year and in 2017, instead of the usual election-year bump, they slipped further, to 25,000.

Right now, the party says, they are at 62 per cent of an "ambitious target" of 32,500. Translation: membership is a shade over 20,000.

Simon Bridge is probably surprised he's turned out not to be a barnstormer, though Paula Bennett has given him his space. Photo / Andrew Warner
Simon Bridge is probably surprised he's turned out not to be a barnstormer, though Paula Bennett has given him his space. Photo / Andrew Warner

Members didn't like losing Key, a lot of them weren't reassured by Bill English and it seems they can't see the point of Simon Bridges. In the past 10 years, mostly in the past two, the party has lost over 40 per cent of its members.

Which isn't a catastrophe. They're probably still the biggest political party in the country. But the trend is telling.

Way back in the whenever, Robert Muldoon tore the leadership of the National Party from poor old Gentleman Jack Marshall. July 1974. Marshall was a decent bloke, officer class, completely hopeless. Muldoon then spent 17 months barnstorming through our living rooms in a way that made it impossible to look away.

The future knight grasped the power of television. And he knew he had to make it about him. He was the most popular politician in the land and also the most unpopular. He was so loathed, eminent New Zealanders like Sir Ed Hillary and then-bishop Sir Paul Reeves formed a group to publicly campaign against him.

Muldoon didn't care. He loved it. They called him divisive and he dismissed them as elitists trying to tell ordinary jokers how to vote. He would've been brilliant on Twitter.

Muldoon knew the thing that Paul Holmes knew, that Colin Mathura Jeffries knows, that David Lange knew and Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern know, and Paula Bennett too: you need a strong, believable and singular personality. You dominate the room. You seem true to yourself. There's no one else like you.

When you're there, everyone else lacks shape and colour.

But you also need enough voters who like you. Why is Judith Collins not more popular? She's a strong and singular leader, and she's true to herself. She has lots of enemies, but - in the Muldoonist way - having those enemies should help her generate friends. But it doesn't, at least, not in caucus, and presumably, therefore, not in big numbers in the wider party either.

Collins and Bennett are the two MPs in the National ranks with the most obvious potential to barnstorm their way to victory in 2020. But the party hasn't asked them to do that. Is it because they're women?

Or is it, in Collins' case at least, that the party really doesn't like her politics? Because her brand of neo-liberalism is out of sync with the national mood; her pronouncements on everything from crime to transport part of a bygone era? Maybe even Muldoon wouldn't work today. Key and English knew it: across the political spectrum, we want our leaders to exhibit more compassion.

Judith Collins is unlikely to roll Bridges as she doesn't have the party support. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins is unlikely to roll Bridges as she doesn't have the party support. Photo / Mark Mitchell

So they have Simon Bridges. He's blustery too, but he's probably surprised even himself that he's turned out not to be a barnstorming leader. And he won't become one. After 10 years in Parliament he's risen to a place where we can clearly see how unclear he is: what does he believe, or want to do? Why should we like him?

He's a strange mix: super-ambitious without the ability to show us why. Also, he does find it challenging to follow the logic of a thought.

Radio announcer: "Let's talk about Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. How would you describe them?"

Bridges: "I wouldn't describe them. I wouldn't give them the time of day."

"So their views are unwelcome?"

Bridges: "Well I wouldn't go that far."

He's daggy Dad, drumming away in the garage like he's 65 and down with it, because, being in a garage band, isn't that what all the older dads did or wanted to do when they were young?

Which is not to say he can't win. MMP makes all elections close and there are many factors that can carry the day. But Bridges will not be one of them. He won't go on TV and suck all the energy out of everyone else in the studio. It will never be all about him.

National didn't win the 1975 election by dint of Muldoon's personality alone. He faced a weak opponent, they'd had oil price shocks and there were dancing Cossacks.

An ad campaign created by Colenso used cartoon Cossacks dancing across the screen to suggest Labour was turning the country communist. Even though Cossacks were anti-communists who fought the Red Army in a civil war. No matter: they were all Russians, that was good enough.

Even though the "communism" in question was, wait for it, a compulsory superannuation scheme.

Just in case you thought fake news is a new thing.

There it was again in 2005: the truth, neatly inverted, in Don Brash's "iwi/Kiwi" campaign. The message was that National stood for Kiwis, Labour for iwi, even though Labour's Foreshore and Seabed Act had wrecked Labour's credibility among iwi and led directly to the setting up of the Māori Party.

No matter: Labour had some kind of thing going on about Māori rights and that was that. Fake news has always been a thing.

And we all know it still is. A couple of weeks back Judith Collins had a wee go, retweeting a news item that France had made paedophilia legal, in order to demand that Jacinda Ardern condemn it. Half of Twitter told her the story was from a notorious fake news site, but Collins didn't delete or apologise or anything like that. She doubled down, continuing to pretend it was legit.

And then what happened? Simon Bridges refused to condemn her for it. Everyone makes mistakes on Twitter, he said. No big deal.

It felt like there was a contract in play: Bridges would not publicly criticise a caucus member and they would not criticise him. But how long can that last? Did the caucus really appreciate that almost without effort Collins made him look a bit pathetic?

Will Collins roll Bridges? It's not likely. She's no more popular than she was when he trounced her in the leadership contest in February. And note that while she's been making whoopee, the rest of the caucus, led by Bennett and finance spokesperson Amy Adams, have been careful to give Bridges the space he needs to build his own profile.

But it doesn't follow they're close. Bridges is trudging down a long and lonely road.

Lonely on the wider front too: the flip side of National's strong standing in the polls is that it doesn't have a viable MMP strategy. National looks good because it's sucked up all the opposition support, but there's not enough of that to let it form a government.

To win, the party either has to smash the credibility of Labour's support partners, the Greens and NZ First, or find at least one support partner of its own.

The mood at the conference was to do the former. If either or both of those parties sinks to 4 per cent in the next election – just beneath the threshold for staying in Parliament – it could tip the vote decisively to National.

But other moves are afoot. Rodney MP Mark Mitchell has been linked with efforts to regenerate the social conservatism of the old Conservative Party. Without Colin Craig, of course. A country party, an older folks' party, designed to steal voters away from NZ First.

Mitchell won't climb aboard such a party himself, but he has the connections to ride shotgun for it, offering help and advice on behalf of National.

Act will rebrand itself next year, probably as the Reform Party, although it's hard to see that making a blind bit of difference.

Or maybe Don Brash will be back. He's become so relentless in his pursuit of publicity he surely has a larger purpose.

National's bigger task is not to win the next election, but to make itself fit to govern.

To be a party that helps people understand the world they live in and adapt to the changes it brings. To resist the urge to erect barricades against the future.

There's a thorough review process under way, which is great. But will they come out of it looking forward? From climate change to corrections, education to the ethics of good government, there's lots they can do to answer that (see "Seven ways for National to face the future").

There's also the question of business confidence. What's the deal? National's been talking it down and is clearly desperate for news that we've started fleeing to Australia. It makes the Government look incompetent, and it's important: business confidence feeds investment, employment and spending.

Simon Bridges faces a big battle in trying to get himself and his party to win the next election. Photo / Dean Purcell
Simon Bridges faces a big battle in trying to get himself and his party to win the next election. Photo / Dean Purcell

"The signs are very positive," Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr said last weekend. "You've got a lower exchange rate, meaning we're earning more for our offshore efforts; the world growth is still very strong; the Government is out spending and investing; households are still consuming, and business investment should be increasing."

He might have added: a Government committed to global trade, low debt levels and a budget surplus, very low interest rates and big government subsidies for wages and research and development. New Zealand is very good to business.

So what's really going on here? At what point does National's political attack on Labour turn into sabotage against the country as a whole?

Is National really trying to trash the economy for its own sectarian ends?

Seven ways for National to face the future

1 Climate change

National supports the creation of an independent Climate Change Commission but it's unclear how much the realities of climate change will inform its policies, especially on land use and transport.

2 Poverty

National talks about alleviating poverty just as much as Labour, especially in relation to housing and education. But it has offered no commitment to a higher-wage economy.

3 Crime and corrections

We now know that most prisoners are Maori, have mental health and/or addiction issues, have suffered head trauma and are functionally illiterate. National knows this as well as anyone. But at the party conference Bridges framed crime in the old way, as a law and order issue. Do the crime and you do the time was the extent of the thinking he revealed to delegates. It's not very grown-up.

4 Regional development

It's not tenable to let the regions fail. And it's not tenable to suggest more motorways will fix the problem. National has a long way to go on this.

5 Workforce fit for purpose

It's to the shame of both parties that we don't have a workforce better able to take up the challenges of the modern economy, because it's a crisis that's been building in education, industry, regional development and more for decades. National could own this if it wanted to.

6 Transport

For economic, environmental, health and social reasons, the internal combustion engine is not the future, nor are the roads it requires. It's peculiar beyond all reason that National has not grasped this yet.

7 No lies

Seen the rest of the world? Good ethics in government are more essential now than ever.

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