About an hour before Bill English announced his inevitable resignation as National Party leader his successor as finance minister issued a press release on the state of the Government’s accounts.
It was roundly positive – tax revenue up due to more people employed and paying PAYE and GST, the surplus above forecast and net debt tracking down in the six months to December 31.
Not a bad legacy for a political leader whose core focus has been on managing the Crown’s finances and guiding a growing economy.
English also leaves an unprecedented legacy of a party in Opposition holding 56 seats, 10 more than the Labour Party of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
But does he leave a viable succession plan for the leadership? One that can limit Ardern to one or two terms?
Last time National was expelled from government, it ran through Dame Jenny Shipley, English, Don Brash and finally Sir John Key before seizing back the Treasury benches. When Helen Clark walked on election night 2008, Labour tried Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little before the Hail Mary pass to Ardern two months before the election.
In the more patient 1990s, Labour needed only two leaders before regaining power, although it had to bear with Clark’s stubbornly low public appeal for a long time before she shone. In the 1980s, National’s first leadership change after Sir Robert Muldoon lost power was a hospital pass for Sir Jim McLay. Jim Bolger, stolid and adequate, was the right person at the right time and took the party to a landslide win on the back of Labour’s historic implosion.
Let’s get real: the chances of anyone now leading National to victory in two and a half years are low. New Zealand hasn’t tipped out a government after one term for 43 years, when the oil shocks and death of a Prime Minister undid the Third Labour Government in the face of Muldoon’s belligerence.
National’s big caucus could change that, giving them a base camp from which to clamber back to the summit earlier than others have managed.
But its caucus has to anticipate what kind of government this coalition will be for the next three or six years. If in their hearts the blue MPs believe the Labour-led coalition will self-destruct because of tensions from the historically volatile New Zealand First and the stand-on-principle Greens, then a capable and televisual journeywoman or man could carry National back across the debris in 2020 or 2023.
But if Ardern can keep the coalition together and Winston Peters can keep himself and his caucus together then National will need something else. Someone unorthodox, with a twinkle in their eye and a touch of warrior. Someone who will be populist and unafraid of controversy. Someone who can embody Muhammad Ali’s old line of: “Don’t go to any trouble … because I’m bringing it with me.”
The party will need to seduce or destroy New Zealand First, prove Labour to be unstable and incompetent or both, and short circuit the New Zealand electorate’s tolerance of a government from its nine-year run-rate to six or even three. If the Labour-led Government doesn’t fall, it will need a push.
Who does National have who could be bold and up-end the chess board? Putting aside Steven Joyce, possibly the most competent of all but whose time has passed and will no doubt follow English out the door, the names being touted since the election include:
He may not be all Brylcreem and Kayway accent but to this point that’s his public image. He’s youngish (41), a lawyer and has held the Tauranga seat for nine years, been a minister of economic development, transport and communications. While pleasantly combative in the House, rattling Labour on the first day of this Parliament by imperilling its choice of Speaker, he lacks command and is not feared. He presents well and would be an orthodox choice.
Unorthodox, politically naughty, empathy-challenged and despite herself possibly the kind of leader National needs if it wants to shorten its wait in Opposition. Older (at 58) than English and 21 years senior to Ardern, she is hardly generational change. Also a lawyer, smart and unafraid, she would be full throttle in Parliament and on the road. Collins has held Papakura or Clevedon since 2002 and been Minister of Revenue, Energy and Resources, Accident Compensation, Police, Justice and Corrections. Infamous for her association with Chinese investment company Oravida and her role identified in the Nicky Hager book Dirty Politics, she has been followed by controversy and resigned from Cabinet after allegations of a Trump-like hounding of the Serious Fraud Office chief. The question for National: When they go high, do we go low?
Her main credentials could be that she has twice taken on Ardern and defeated her in the Auckland Central electorate. Young (she turned 38 on Sunday), Kaye has degrees in genetics and law, is a social liberal who has secured the urban stronghold and was an early choice from her cohort to be promoted to the cabinet by Key, taking Civil Defence, ACC, Youth Affairs, Food Safety, Associate Immigration and finally Education. A competitive distance athlete, Kaye took leave from late 2016 until early last year after a breast cancer diagnosis. She impressed speaking at the National Party’s campaign launch last year, outshining deputy leader Paula Bennett. Her similarities to Ardern in age, time in Parliament, outgoing personality and liberal outlook could appeal as a way of sharing the stardust, but might also pale in direct comparison.
Adams was increasingly prominent in the last National government, rising to be ranked seventh, just after Bridges and ahead of another leadership possibility Jonathan Coleman. Aged 46, she was also elected in 2008 and spent two terms in Cabinet handling Internal Affairs, Communications, Environment, Justice, Associate Finance, Social Investment and Housing roles. Another lawyer, Adams debates stridently in the House, most recently against the New Zealand First-inspired waka-jumping bill. She and her husband own three farms and she perhaps suffers in the public eye from being viewed as landed gentry, posh accent to boot. She would be a competent, safe choice but is that enough?
With Collins, Bennett is the best-known of the possibles. Bubbling with self-confidence and oozing with awe and pride in the Key-English government, the 48-year-old Bennett has a non-traditional National backstory, a solo mother on benefits who got herself educated (B.A in social work), worked in student welfare before ending up working for the National Party grandee Murray McCully and into the House on the party list in 2005 before winning west Auckland electorates from 2008 and joining the cabinet. Bennett has been minister of State Services, Women, Police, Tourism and Climate Change and deputy Prime Minister to English. She is the current party deputy leader but has controversy in her past, personally and politically, and would be a risk.
A former Auckland Grammar School head boy, medical doctor and MP for Northcote since 2005, Coleman (51) has been Minister of Health, Sport and Recreation, Defence and State Services. A straight-laced type who is said to be bright, he successfully mimicked over time Key’s way of speaking and was a contender in late 2016 for the party leadership before withdrawing. A Coleman candidacy would suffer from his sameness in age and style to National’s past two leaders and from a dismissive and impatient attitude to a series of problems that built up in his health portfolio. Maybe he could be deputy.
The drums beat early for some politicians. Mark Mitchell is one of those. A former police dog handler who ended up in ‘security’ roles in Iraq before taking former National speaker Lockwood Smith’s safe Rodney seat in 2011, Mitchell (49) has long been discussed in the party as one to watch. He served as Minister of Defence, Land Information and Statistics after being promoted by English to the Cabinet in late 2016 and impressed. Married twice and now the partner of Peggy Bourne, the widow of late rally driver Possum Bourne, Mitchell has an affability and a ‘command presence’ much liked within National. He is currently ranked 21st in the caucus and is an outsider. But there would be freshness, vitality and unpredictability for the other side.