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Greg Fleming and Stephen Jack in blue bubbles, with Christopher Luxon in the corner
National candidates Greg Fleming and Stephen Jack, and leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsApril 18, 2023

How National selects its candidates is more than a bad joke

Greg Fleming and Stephen Jack in blue bubbles, with Christopher Luxon in the corner
National candidates Greg Fleming and Stephen Jack, and leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

After a string of scandals, National pledged to strengthen its candidate vetting process and increase diversity. Sexist jokes and homophobic comments suggest they have a way to go, writes Andrea Vance.

This story was first published on Stuff.

“I like my Covid like I like my women. 19. And easy to spread.”

Offensive? Sexist? Inappropriate? Not for National Party candidate Stephen Jack, who shared the video which included the “gag” on Facebook.

On the po-faced scale, it isn’t quite in the league of beating a child with a bed leg (Sam Uffindell).

Nor sending inappropriate text messages to a teenager (Andrew Falloon), leaking sensitive patient data to the media (Hamish Walker), bullying and sexual impropriety (Jami-Lee Ross), or impersonating a former partner online (Jake Bezzant).

But it’s certainly up there with comparing civil unions to polygamy and incest (Greg Fleming), when it comes to unattractive qualities in an elected representative. And it won’t help National’s shaky standing with women.

The random idiot generator that selects National Party candidates has spat out another couple of beauties.

(After Stuff contacted National on Friday, Jack, who is standing in Taieri, acknowledged the video he shared was “offensive” and removed it. National leader Christopher Luxon has since called the post “crass”, saying he was pleased it had been taken down, and defended the party’s vetting process.)

Jack’s joke comes hot on the heels of news that Fleming, the party’s Maungakiekie candidate, made the homophobic comparison in a press release for the ultra-conservative Maxim Institute think-tank.

Fleming has distanced himself from the “unhelpful” comments, made some 20 years ago during the civil union debate.

He says he was trying to make a point about contractual law.

But he should not be allowed to slip off the hook so easily. At the same time, his fellow Maxim founder Bruce Logan was linking earlier homosexual law reform to an increase in child abuse.

The institute used an online tool that helped people to send letters to the editors of 76 newspapers. It resulted in the publication of correspondence which compared a gay Labour MP to a rabid dog that ought to be put down.

And while Maxim claims to have shifted its focus from social to fiscal conservatism, there has been no apology for its treatment of the rainbow community.

It is also uncomfortable for National that Fleming was chief executive of Parenting Place when it endorsed a counsellor that offered conversion therapy. (It cut ties when The Spinoff started asking questions.)

Taieri – which mostly encapsulates the old Dunedin South electorate – is a safe red seat, so parliament’s corridors are unlikely to ring with Jack’s earthy humour.

But Auckland’s Maungakiekie is more bellwether, where Labour’s Priyanca Radhakrishnan holds a slim majority. If the government changes, Fleming is likely to be one of those swelling National’s so-called “Taliban” faction (an in-house reference to ultra-conservative Christians in the National caucus). Paulo Garcia, a devout Catholic, has also been selected for New Lynn, a Labour stronghold.

The influence of socially conservative Christian MPs has been growing steadily under the leadership of Simon Bridges, Judith Collins and Christopher Luxon and is tipping the balance away from urban liberals.

Undoubtedly, the religious right is emboldened by the culture wars and abortion debate that has dominated US politics, and that Luxon has a strong faith.

Electorally, it makes little sense.

Evangelical Christians make up such a small fraction of the population. But candidates are selected locally, and it seems they have infiltrated local branches in the upper north.

National leader Christopher Luxon (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

National tends to perform better when the liberal-conservative tension is equal. To restore the balance, the party’s board would have to use the list, which they rank.

But that list already has its work cut out. National’s promise to increase diversity is proving difficult to achieve through candidate selection.

Sure, there is an impressive number of candidates from Indian, east Asian and Pasifika backgrounds (less so Māori, although with National contesting the Māori seats that will surely be bolstered).

With closer examination, many of the winnable or blue-ribbon seats have fallen again to white men.

As with the John Key years, the list must do the heavy lifting if National wants its benches to look other than vanilla.

But will there be spots to fill? If National wins back many of the electorates it lost to Labour in 2020, but fails to lift the party vote from where it is currently sitting (around 36-37%), list places will be in shorter supply.

Luxon pledged a diverse candidacy – but if that doesn’t translate to actual MPs, his caucus will present as stale as a Stephen Jack joke.

Keep going!