A humiliating hour in Ponsonby doesn’t mean National is imploding, just that it’s losing. National voters turned off by the show of disunity might want to consider the alternative, writes Ben Thomas.
There’s a persistent myth that the “ordinary people” travellers to North Korea meet during tightly controlled trips into Pyongyang’s underground commuter train or shopping areas are actors paid to profess to foreigners their loyalty to, and love for, whichever great leader is in power at the time.
This claim appears to be baseless. Instead, they are (like most North Koreans) simply polite, well indoctrinated by a national propaganda apparatus, and shy if not suspicious of outsiders.
In the same way, is it correct to say that the National Party supporters lined up at apparently uniform distances along Ponsonby Road, like the parade markings of many Pyongyang public squares, to greet Judith Collins were “fake”? They were real supporters, after all, dedicated enough to participate in the charade.
The idea the National Party is coming apart at the seams is overhyped.
Newshub reported MPs as saying the “writing is on the wall” for an election defeat. Well, on behalf of the pundit class, thanks for sharing that insight under the guise of anonymity. The writing has been on every wall in the country, in stark white and yellow, since the pandemic trashed Simon Bridges’ hopes and sent Labour leader Jacinda Ardern soaring to new heights of popularity.
Likewise, Collins’ “problematic” announcement of a policy to review Auckland Council (according to an intemperate email from Maungakiekie MP and Auckland issues spokesperson Denise Lee, which was leaked to media) is not so unusual.
There will always be policy on the hoof in campaigns (Labour changed its tax policy after Ardern and her predecessor Helen Clark had already voted in 2017), and a working group is hardly a ticking bomb.
The damaging leak of the email is increasingly suspected to have come not from the “great team” contesting the election but instead from a departing MP.
Similarly, outgoing former deputy prime minister Paula Bennett airing her grievances with the Muller coup plotters on Twitter was an unhelpful distraction – at a terrible time along with the Lee email leak – but has little bearing on the thoughts of those who will assemble in caucus after the election.
National, in short, does not look like a party that is imploding. It merely looks like a party that is losing.
Early voting has surged driven by (according to anecdotal evidence from the parties) a combination of uneasiness over the possibility of Covid-19 in the community, uncertainty about another lockdown, and a public that’s largely made up its minds after what seems like three millennia of campaigning. By this morning almost 20% of the electorate may have already voted.
What had already appeared to be a “short runway” of three weeks for National to turn around its fortunes since the last polls now resembles one of those stone bridges in a fantasy film, with individual tiles crumbling off and falling into an abyss in real time.
The more votes now, the more the current distribution of support is locked in before the remainder of the campaign and any possible miracle can occur.
We may never know whether the sudden appearance of religion in Collins’ election patter is related to an attempt to lure back voters from minor parties currently below the 5% (and thus threatening to make a majority easier for Labour with wasted votes) or to shore up support in a caucus that will be increasingly tilted towards the growing strain of Christian conservatives within National, or simply a source of comfort during the hardest job in politics.
Opposition leaders have tended to have a short lifespan after losing an election in the MMP era.
Helen Clark survived between 1996 and 1999 after Winston Peters took the country by surprise and crowned National in government in 1996. But since then Jenny Shipley, Bill English (in 2003 by force and in 2018 by choice), Don Brash, Phil Goff and David Cunliffe have moved on, or been moved on, from their parties.
The leakers – and wavering National voters turned off by the show of disunity – however dissatisfied they are with events since the failed Muller experiment, should consider the alternative to Collins gaining votes (on the back of two impressive debate performances before Tuesday’s Press event). The alternative is National’s young liberal MPs being further squeezed out in favour of conservative voices (who are in blue chip safe seats). And they might consider, too, that like the Anglican church where she prayed this weekend, Collins certainly has some of the trappings of the conservative successors who may contest the leadership, but she remains a liberal.