Memo to the National Party: you’re not actually the government any more

Paula Bennett’s refusal to go head-to-head with Chloe Swarbrick on the cannabis referendum suggests that the National Party is yet to come to terms with what it means to be in opposition, writes Ben Thomas

Schitt’s Creek is a Canadian comedy series about the wealthy Rose family, who lose their privilege, and are forced to live in a rundown motel in their last remaining asset, an eponymous backwater town. Like many fall-from-grace comedies before it, it mines the rich vein of the gap between what the formerly powerful expect from life, and how it treats them.

Which brings us to the New Zealand National Party.

Parliament Building is more salubrious than the Schitt’s Creek motel, but just like the Roses, some of the former ministers who have lost their chauffered cars, their armies of staff and their decision making powers are finding it hard to adapt to their newly modest circumstances.

On Monday evening, Q+A host Jack Tame announced on air that National drug reform spokesperson Paula Bennett had refused an invitation to debate Greens drug reform spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick. In a tweet he said Bennett would only agree to being interviewed individually.

This is something Bennett would have got used to in her nine years in cabinet between 2008 and 2017: the policy of the John Key National government was that ministers did not debate the opposition on TV or radio.

The thinking was straightforward (if never articulated in quite these words): ministers are important and make decisions and announcements that affect New Zealand; opposition MPs aren’t and cannot. Ministers are news – opposition MPs are just commentators. Meeting the opposition as equals in a debate elevates the opposition, and diminishes the government.

Since the media’s priority was having the minister on (for the aforementioned reasons), they usually had little choice but to ignominiously bump the opposition MP from the schedule.

After nine years as a minister, people get used to deference, every bit as much as the cars and the staff. There’s a saying that to the Queen the whole world smells like fresh paint. There’s a suspicion some in National may have inhaled too many fumes over the past decade to get a clear read on their current situation: not dictating terms to media, but out of power and 18 points behind the ruling troika on current polling.

In this context, an opposition MP boycotting televised debate with their government counterpart is like an incel proposing a sex strike – not just pointless, but also such a ludicrous idea that there should never be an occasion for committing it to the written word.

Bennett appears to be applying government logic to opposition (this impression is reinforced by her refusal to join Swarbrick’s cross-parliamentary working group on cannabis reform): that she is too important, as deputy leader of National and a former deputy prime minister, to appear alongside Swarbrick.

Bennett has had a great political career. After being a surprise pick for cabinet, she performed exceptionally well as social development minister and later ascended to deputy prime minister. She’s worked hard and she’s enjoyed success because of it. But the harsh reality of opposition is that none of that means she is too good to debate a 24-year-old first-term MP.

It’s not just a failure of etiquette, although it’s that, too: government has rigid hierarchies, opposition does not. More importantly, it’s a failure to argue for her party.

Q+A was the second time Bennett has refused a debate on her portfolio in as many weeks (she also declined to appear on The Project opposite Swarbrick). In total, that’s an audience of around 180,000 potential voters that National’s spokesperson and deputy leader failed to turn up for.

Bennett didn’t come out on top in her last on-air brush with Swarbrick, and the Twitter gallery suggested that could be a reason for dodging the programme. But that’s beside the point. The government always has something to lose, and the opposition always has something to gain, by sharing a stage.

Bennett’s failure to front is only the most obvious example of the cognitive dissonance some National’s MPs have about where they lie in the political landscape post-2017. There was dissatisfaction in some quarters at Simon Bridges’ early performance as leader. A prime minister, with unlimited powers of patronage and resources, runs their party like an autocrat. The opposition leader, one vote among 57 in caucus, can at best hope to be respected as a first-among-equals.

Bridges, on some accounts, failed to make the necessary efforts early on to bring his huge caucus into the fold (this improved after the Jami-Lee Ross affair, but shows the dangers of confusing which side of the speaker’s chair you’re sitting on).

These are settling-in issues. It was fine for former ministers to grouse about being reduced to a single staff member after years of professional retinues for the first month or so following the election. Opposition, despite the name, is not the opposite of government: they don’t run an anti-matter Upside Down country that co-exists with the real world. Their role is to hold the government to account.

Luckily for National, there are ample opportunities to do so. A year and a half in, the government’s failures of delivery from houses, to trees, to teacher pay, to health are becoming more glaring by the day. It will be hard for the government to match the hyped up feelgood rhetoric of its inaugural Wellbeing Budget with spending under its self imposed fiscal rules. There is a way back from purgatory, back to the baubles of office.

But, as Paula Bennett should bear in mind, the journey back to government doesn’t start with a single step – it starts by showing up.


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