In her conference speech, the National leader shifted from demanding debates to announcing debates had started. But where, asks Toby Manhire, was the policy?
With every burst of applause during Judith Collins’ closing address at the National Party conference yesterday, the screen above her lit up in giant type, DEMAND THE DEBATE. I began to think of it as a kind of clapometer. A demandometer. A debatometer. Did the members of the National Party, packed in their hundreds into the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau, think a particular line was punchy enough? DEMAND THE DEBATE. Did a subject fire them up? DEMAND THE DEBATE. Did they consider an eyebrow-raising quip witty enough? DEMAND THE DEBATE.
Four weeks to the day after its launch, “the Demand the Debate campaign is working – Kiwis are demanding a say,” said the National leader. But the hammering of the word debate (it cropped up 21 times in the speech) belied a shift in focus. This was no godchild of Orewa, but a blast of classical National blue.
Having reminded her audience that they were demanding the debate because the Labour majority government was pushing through everything from ute taxes to He Puapua adjacent ideas without putting them to the public sufficiently, the demanding pivoted to starting. National would be starting seven debates, she said. Specifically:
“Today we start the debate on ‘How do we lift incomes so New Zealanders can raise a family and get ahead?’”
“Today we start the debate: ‘How do we nurture a growing tech sector that creates more and better paying jobs and competes on the world stage?’”
“Today we start the debate: Why does it cost so much to build or own a home in New Zealand and what can we do to fix it?”
“Today we start the debate on ‘How do we get New Zealanders home to their families quickly and safely?”
“Today we start the debate: ‘How do we educate Kiwis to succeed globally?’”
“Today we start the debate: ‘How do we make our communities safer and reverse the growth of criminal gangs?’”
“Today we start the debate: ‘How do we ensure we have a quality healthcare and mental health service that retains skilled medical professionals and treats Kiwis on time?’”
And who could object to that? So compelling is this list of topics that, well, aren’t we debating pretty much all of them already?
But however well stocked the debate buffet might have been, what there wasn’t was a policy. Asked about that absence at a press conference following the address, Collins said those “seven fixes are pretty big policy announcements”. On this at least, she’s in tune with the recent propensity of the Labour government to make announcements about when they’ll be making announcements. These weren’t policies so much as subject areas, or, as she also put it in the speech, the “important issues that need fixing”.
She later told reporters: “One of the things we’ve learned is to listen to our people.”
All of which is good, and necessary. And familiar. “This year is about listening. We want to hear from a wide range of people – parents and pupils, families and farmers, businesses and communities. We’ve kicked off our ‘Have Your Say’ campaign to get the views of different people around the country.” That was Simon Bridges, leader of the opposition, writing in The Spinoff in 2018, a year after an election defeat. That campaign generated 10 discussion documents. Is 2021’s Demand the Debate really just 2018’s Have Your Say rebranded?
It was a bumpy week for National running into the conference. Somehow Judith Collins found herself attaching the demand the debate mantra to, of all things, a referendum on the use of “Aotearoa”. To call it muddled would be generous. When, for example, John Key called for a referendum on changing the flag it was because he wanted, you know, to change the flag. Here we had instead a call for a referendum on changing the name to Aotearoa from someone who didn’t want to change the name to Aotearoa. And where had this all sprung from? Was National Party policy now being incubated in regional newspaper columns knocked out by random MPs?
Then came the scrap over the bill to ban conversion therapy. It wasn’t just that the caucus position (we support the broad aim of the bill but we don’t like key details so we won’t support it being scuritinised at select committee) seemed like the antithesis of debate-demanding. There was also the sight of the Young Nats publicly lambasting that stance.
It’s not the first time nor will it be the last that the youth branch of a political party denounces the mothership on a policy position, but for that to play out in the leadup to (and during) a conference intended to radiate unity and togetherness is a long way from ideal. It was made worse for National yesterday when, just as Collins’ speech was wrapping up, messages leaked showing her senior caucus colleague Chris Bishop acknowledging that he “hated” voting against the bill, which National MPs had mysteriously determined would be a whipped rather than conscience vote.
The idea of an Aotearoa plebiscite didn’t make the speech, let alone the debate list. And Judith Collins insisted that she embraced the debate from the Young Nats, pausing for a photograph with the group at the conference. But any hope of unity was blasted out of the water early on Sunday, when the board, with four members freshly elected, rejected former long-serving National MP and parliamentary speaker David Carter’s challenge for the party presidency.
Along with unity, one of the main points of disgruntlement since the 2020 defeat has been a selection process that has delivered a string of terrible candidates, and sometimes MPs. (Former minister Maurice Williamson summed up those challenges succinctly in a recent interview with the Herald: “You can’t have three leaders in three months,” he said. And: “You can’t have people taking pics of their bloody dicks and texting them around.”) Many pointed the finger at Goodfellow for the selection process, and while he pledged at the conference opening on Friday that “we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the new and refreshed process we deliver will give you confidence in any candidate who carries the National logo”, there was a very real chance he would be shown the door after 11 years in the role.
He survived. Carter quit the board and hightailed it to the airport, announcing he had “zero confidence” in Goodfellow, and, more or less, that the party was doomed as long as he remained president. “Even while I flew back to Christchurch, I cleared about 40 or 50 texts from people who are currently sitting in that conference, unhappy with the decision that was made this morning,” Carter told RNZ.
For all that the battle for the presidency might have delivered headlines of disunity, Collins can be forgiven for some relief that she was unbloodied. There were a couple of questions about her job security at the post-speech presser, but they were vastly outnumbered by those about Goodfellow.
Collins’ speech was confident, assured. The debate semantic soup notwithstanding, there was a marked shift away from the dog whistles and culture war weirdness of recent months, a return to emphasis on modern National Party values. The two panel discussions I caught before the speech yesterday, on Covid-19 and on mental health, were constructive and engaging. The latter, chaired by Matt Doocey, was brimming with warmth, passion and empathy.
Insofar as the conference was visited by division, that swirled chiefly around the party presidency rather than the party leader. Pending some new polling disaster, Collins looks safe in the role to the next election. As she herself said, “it will be on us quickly. We have just over two years.” Consultations, discussions, debates, go for your life; but people are soon going to want some detail on what the alternative looks like. To start demanding the policy.