I’m broadcasting to you from Wellington this morning. I was here celebrating with my colleagues last night for the Press Gallery’s 150th anniversary celebration. I was very well-behaved but I’m not totally sure that can be said of all of my colleagues.
I was listening to Tim Roxborogh on talkback a couple of weeks ago. The subject was the National Party leadership, and a lovely caller rang up and offered up Tim a suggestion for who might make a good adversary for Jacinda Ardern in the next election. She was clearly a listener of fine taste and significant intelligence, and Tim handled her suggestion with perfect broadcasting poise. If you want to beat Jacinda Ardern, she said, there’s only one person for it.
I must admit, I felt a little flattered. Although, ruefully I note the suggestion hasn’t had a great deal of pick up or support, either on talkback or amongst my drunken colleagues at the Press Gallery bash.
Nonetheless, in light of the National Party’s review into its devastating election loss, and in light of Judith Collins’ hard turn towards lazy race-baiting this week.
I’m going to close my eyes and pretend that caller was right; imagine myself as leader of the National Party and offer a little advice to my colleagues as we make our way forward.
First of all, forget the anti-Maori separatist stuff. As tempting as it when you’re seeking relevancy and frantically clutching at thin air... don’t fall for that tired race-baiting messaging. It’s lazy. It’s cheap. It’s desperate. You lost the last election because you lost the middle. You lost moderate voters. They aren’t the kind of people who are going to immediately switch back if you take extreme positions on anything.
Second of all, focus on a consistent, coherent message. In the lead up to the election last year, it was sometimes impossible to know where the National Party stood on the pandemic response. Should we open up or close down our borders? Lockdowns or no lockdowns? It’s similar with other issues now. Take some of those Maori issues - National will run in the Maori seats but opposes the legislation around Maori local boards. National established Whanau Ora but calls a Maori Health Agency a separatist institution. It’s inconsistent. It’s incoherent.
People have got to know what you stand for.
I’ve got to say over the last six months, I think a couple of National MPs have excelled in this area. For me, Chris Bishop has probably been the standout National MP. His efforts on the Covid portfolio have been constructive. His criticisms have been reasonable. Above all... his messaging is largely coherent. His colleagues would do well to follow his lead.
My third and final piece of advice is just wait. Hold your horses. Exercise a little patience and a little discipline. You don’t need to be at 40% in the polls right now. You don’t need to be concerned with leadership. What you need is for your MPs to go away and work on policy, and wait for Labour to make mistakes.
This government hasn’t yet demonstrated the capacity to deliver on its promises. There will be scandals and failures. There will be opportunities.
These are not exciting or sexy recommendations. But if you can show you are a cohesive and disciplined centrist party, with a coherent message, and not one that barks at every car or desperately says inflammatory things to try get in the headlines. I think you will be well-positioned to contest the next election.