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With our biggest city in its third month of lockdown, hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders still effectively barred from entering the country, inflation running at 5%, and hundreds of new infections being recorded every day, the decisions made by our government deserve the scrutiny of a coherent and effective opposition. And while ACT has done an extremely good job in the last year, our political system is naturally inclined to a centre-left/centre-right cycle.
National’s leadership fiasco coincided with the most significant legislation of 2021 being passed through the house under urgency. The law will limit the freedoms of hundreds of thousands of Kiwis. No legal drafts were published. There were no select committees. No scrutiny. We are all better served by a good opposition.
I’m not going to try to guess the new leader. But in the spirit of democracy, here are five silver linings to the National Party’s leadership spill.
1) First of all, it’s done. Since the election in October last year, pundits have been speculating on the future of Judith Collins’ leadership. It’s been tiresome. Every political poll has resulted in the same debate. Anytime a political pundit has been short on ideas for a column, a few phone calls to Collins’ caucus foes was enough to stir it up again. In recent months, the debate has been one of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’ Kua mutu. It’s done. We have certainty. National can move on.
2) The timing suits. The house is about to rise for the year. The new leadership will have the summer to get organised and develop a few big policies to begin the new year. A clean slate for 2022. And unless a new leader makes egregious errors, it’s unlikely (Although never say never!) that anyone will contest the party leadership before the next election.
3) Whoever is leader, it will be a unity ticket. Simon Bridges’ biggest mistake as leader the first time was promoting his mates and demoting the MPs who hadn’t supported his leadership bid. Regardless of who is leader, all of National’s MPs can see the importance of uniting the different caucus factions. Their individual futures depend on it. Although the Judith Collins spill was messy and awful, in the two days since, National MPs have maintained discipline across the board.
4) The public and the caucus have little appetite for any politicking that appears overly cynical or vindictive. This is another lesson the new leaders need not learn the hard way. Collins pushed Todd Muller out. She demoted Chris Bishop, probably the single best-performing National MP this term. And regardless of Judith Collins’ intentions, the hit on Simon Bridges had the appearance of someone using Me Too and the attention on workplace bullying for profoundly cynical and self-serving reasons. This behaviour won’t fly.
5) Even if the government doesn’t appear particularly vulnerable right now, Covid-19 makes for an environment where political fortunes can change very quickly. Yesterday, Sir Brian Roche’s latest report laid out stark shortcomings in New Zealand’s preparations for theDelta variant. Over the next two years, there will be many more opportunities for a good opposition to land a few blows. And hey, we don’t even know if Jacinda Ardern will run for a third term! In a World with Covid-19, the only certainty is uncertainty. And uncertainty makes for political opportunity.