Judith Collins leads her caucus into a press conference at parliament on October 20, 2020 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For National, umpteen tough questions – and one small ray of light

Where to next for the National Party? Ben Thomas reviews the post-election wreckage.

The National Party is undertaking a review of its campaign. Presumably this will not be to determine the cause of its historic defeat.

The cause is well known. The cause screams out from the pages of The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald. The cause haunts the dreams of National’s vastly reduced caucus of 34. The cause is Jacinda.

More specifically, it is the relationship the prime minister formed with the public during the first lockdown, and the promise of stable and secure leadership through three years of unknown dangers as Covid continues to wreak havoc on the world’s economy and population.

Instead, it must focus on how National could have done better and, perhaps, where to from here. Already debate has begun about how to reframe the party’s policies.

Its findings will highlight certain obvious logistical and management issues. It appeared candidate advertising had either sloppy or no sign-off from the central campaign. The leader’s itinerary was a moveable feast, one which the rest of the campaign struggled to keep up with.

The review will probably conclude that walkabouts should happen in busy areas where voters are free to speak, not on windswept streets with the cast of a Tory Westworld making rote conversation. It may find it’s possible to argue the state should not have a role in regulating the interaction of personal choices with social and environmental factors, without insulting fat people. Depending on its thoroughness, it may finally answer the question – who was Todd Muller anyway?

The review will have to address the issues of caucus composition and diversity. One possible outcome of the election failed to materialise: the much discussed “conservative caucus” within National – which in the past year or two has come to mean those MPs with very socially conservative views based in religious belief – has not become more dominant as a result of the loss. Instead, its numbers have thinned dramatically. Christopher Luxon in Botany is the only addition to this very loosely conceived group, assuaging fears that the party will recede away further from urban liberal centre voters, and swelling the ranks of identikit bald white men to record highs.

Former conservative caucus members Harete Hipango, Alfred Ngaro, Paulo Garcia and Agnes Loheni are gone. That list of electoral casualties also illustrates another problem facing National: its notable lack of diversity. The religious bloc was also the diversity bloc, in relatively strong positions on the list (with the exception of Ngaro, who had alienated key party figures with increasingly strident social media posts), but now wiped out.

The future of veterans Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee is under scrutiny after both lost their seats. But the reality is that their retirements would do nothing to reinvigorate the caucus. The next cabs off the rank – as listed above – were none too stellar performers for the party in government.

For National to bring in the candidates who represent the future of the party – to join the handful of accomplished new candidates like Nicola Grigg in Selwyn – it must somehow convince armies of has-beens and never-weres to step aside and make way for Tania Tapsell, Megan Hands, Emma Mellow and Katie Nimon. It’s likely an impossible task.

That should focus the party on the real question: knowing the tide was going out, did it bring in enough new talent, from different backgrounds? The answer is almost certainly no.

These are issue for the board and the successor to president Peter Goodfellow to deal with. The parliamentary National party must play the hand it’s been dealt.

Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee lead out the National caucus after their selections as leader and deputy, July 2020. (Photo: Robert Kitchin-Pool/Getty Images)

There are big decisions ahead. Chief among them is whether, or more likely when, Judith Collins is replaced as leader. The days of major party politicians being given two campaigns to win an election are a distant memory, although the recent experiences of both Labour and National (twice) with leadership churn while in opposition have been decidedly mixed.

Luxon has been touted as the next John Key by no lesser personage than the previous John Key. The former Air New Zealand chief executive stands out for his high level management experience, and for being the only National caucus member caught on camera smiling on Monday. His business credentials are catnip to National activists, and he has been busy networking throughout the campaign.

However, he remains entirely untested in national politics, and was poor in media appearances during his ill-judged and overhyped candidacy launch last year. The unfortunate experiment of Todd Muller will give caucus pause before they stuff another CV in a suit and present it as the next prime minister.

Former defence minister and security firm owner Mark Mitchell remains in the mix, but his public profile and record of scoring hits on the government doesn’t yet match his ambition.

Simon Bridges, the former leader, has publicly demurred from taking back the leadership, which probably means he is waiting to be begged, in the manner Collins was. He is clearly much more comfortable in his own skin now, but the yak-renaissance remains a mostly online phenomenon, and his previously formidable majority in the blue chip seat of Tauranga was slashed by almost 75% on Saturday. National is running out of warm bodies to replace Collins.

If she is to remain, however, she must realise there is no future in the culture wars into which she dipped a little toe in the preceding months. Firstly, because National is a broad church party, which means it must have diversity of voices. There is of course nothing wrong with religious MPs – Chris Penk is a valuable caucus member and a strong rule-of-law advocate, for example. But New Zealanders have shown an admirable disdain for US-style culture wars based on scratching itches around abortion and gay rights that should have been left behind in the 1970s.

Secondly, because the issues affecting the New Zealand electorate for the next three years will be decidedly materialist, not cultural. There is a recession, there is still poverty, there is shit spilling onto the streets of the capital from ancient sewerage infrastructure. There’s a pandemic and there’s climate change. There’s the chilling spectre of corruption at previously unknown levels in New Zealand, with gangs co-opting border staff to facilitate drug deals.

The good news for National is that this means the battle for its soul (which may strike some as an oxymoron) can be parked until much later in the term.

Polls at the beginning of 2020, approximately 3,000 months ago, had National poised to win the election. It was a position based purely on the government’s lack of delivery to that point, helped by excellent opposition work from the likes of Collins in highlighting failures on (in particular) Kiwibuild, light rail and gangs, and other promises.

Although Ardern and Grant Robertson seem to have learned their lessons about over-promising and under-delivering, new challenges arise all the time, requiring new and untested government responses. Labour excelled at this in 2020. There is no guarantee they always will, or that the solutions won’t cause problems of their own.

Months ago, economists were predicting house prices would fall. Now, thanks to the wash of low interest cash coming from the Reserve Bank, prices are skyrocketing, and the housing crisis is back in the public mind.

The National Party of October 2020 has no idea how those issues will pan out yet, or what kind of response will be required in 2023.

The review could find, simply by doing a word cloud of 2020, that we live in unprecedented times, and sometimes it’s good to have the luxury of opposition to wait and see.




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