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Chris Luxon addresses the National party conference, August 7, 2022
Chris Luxon addresses the National party conference, August 7, 2022

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 8, 2022

A deathly dull conference that National will be delighted with

Chris Luxon addresses the National party conference, August 7, 2022
Chris Luxon addresses the National party conference, August 7, 2022

There are few things worse for a political party than an ‘exciting’ annual conference, writes Liam Hehir.

The National Party just had its annual conference. It seems to have been a successful conference. By all accounts, nothing remotely interesting happened, which is the main criterion by which these things should be judged.

No bold or exciting policies were announced. More accountability on the part of those spending public funds was promised. Better enforcement of responsibility from those receiving public funds was another theme.

All standard National Party fare.

I messaged a friend on Saturday afternoon to see how it was going. She couldn’t really say. She had become bored, you see, and checked out for the day.

The biggest “news” was the replacement of long-serving president Peter Goodfellow. The office went to Auckland’s Sylvia Wood. Her election by the board was so foreordained that, the night before, a visiting speaker from Australia’s Liberal Party accidentally let slip that he looked forward to working with her.

An exciting or even interesting conference is not something a political party should generally wish for. When a party’s annual meeting gets interesting the result is usually something of a disaster. Labour’s 2012 conference springs to mind, with members forcing rule changes that ultimately led to David Cunliffe replacing David Shearer as leader of the opposition.

More recently, the Greens managed to score an own goal against themselves at their own annual meeting this year. Co-leader James Shaw was the subject of an ill-conceived defenestration. The fact that he is set to be reinstated will do little to erase the discontent voiced by members and even former MPs.

John Key gives Luxon a ’10 out of 10′ on Q and A, Sunday August 7, 2022

As National’s conference got underway, by contrast, Sir John Key showed up to praise Christopher Luxon to Jack Tame on Q&A. This is itself a bit unusual for National, which does not tend to deify former leaders in the way Labour does. The musings and opinions of Jim Bolger, Don Brash or Jenny Shipley do not really have a lot of pull with the party rank and file.

This does not really apply to Key, whose mystique remains quite strong within the party. Where most political careers end in defeat, as the cliché goes, Key retired from politics while still still very secure in power. Even his former opponents still seem a little cowed by the former investment banker turned Mr everyman prime minister.

All of which is to say that the ongoing confidence of John Key carries unusual weight in New Zealand politics – especially when it so publicly declared.

This comes at something of a mixed few weeks for National. The party has its nose in front in the polls but its rise has noticeably plateaued. MPs have allowed themselves to be put on the back foot through unclear messaging on a number of occasions. Some of the errors have been pretty basic.

The view online from those who will never vote for National is that the party is in trouble. The thinking is that, at a time when people are struggling to make ends meet, verbal miscues on Luxon’s part are going to turn things around for the government. Nothing that happened at the conference will erase that view.

But in many ways, this is all very reminiscent of 2007. Before the National Party conference that year, the Labour government was in full on gloating mode over John Key having been exposed as a gaffe prone lightweight. “John Key should be embarrassed” wrote cabinet minister Steve Maherey, who then launched into an extended list of missteps, contradictory positions and unpopular views that Key had committed in the lead up to conference.

The more things change…

Most fair minded people accept that the government has (within its limitations) made a good fist of governing in some pretty trying times in recent years. Brain dead partisans of the right may not concede it, of course, just as the brain dead partisans of the left will never concede that Luxon is anything other than a disaster for National. Regular voters are not so deranged – they give people and governments a fair go.

But the Labour government feels like it’s all out of ideas when it comes to the escalating cost of living. The one thing it can control is reining in wasteful spending and it seems to be determined to be about as tone deaf as possible on that. Every day brings new stories about sloppiness with public funds that plays into National’s narrative at a time when people worry about affording the essentials.

It’s not for National to fix the government’s apparent exhaustion. It doesn’t have to come up with the answers Labour doesn’t have. It just has to present itself in the way that, when it is on form, has always made it pretty popular with the voters.

That means promising a moderate, pragmatic and (above all) disciplined approach to government. If National looks better than Labour on that score, it will win the election next year – no matter how many supposed gaffes Twitter goes bananas over.

A pretty boring annual conference sounds like a good start.

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