Tim Murphy attended Simon Bridges’ debut party conference as National leader and finds the blue team getting over the grief of losing power.

COMMENT: As always, it was Judith Collins who got to the nub of things when describing how losing power has changed the National Party.

Holding court before 600 party members at the annual conference, the Papakura MP and once leadership contender, said of the change:

“The best thing about being in Opposition is we have got a couple of things we can use – and they are called ears.”

She explained that in Government, ministers and MPs became so busy getting things done they might not have stopped to take in other views.

What was left unsaid is that maybe, just maybe, those who had been in power so long had perhaps come to believe that they knew best, or knew all.

Every Opposition starts its time in the wilderness promising to listen to the voters. 

This National Opposition has been slower than most. Whether it is using these new ears to listen, or just hearing electoral noise is unclear.

Winning the most votes of any party, being denied power by the whim of Winston Peters and fielding a muscular 56 MPs in Parliament saw it start with the first stage of grief, denial, but leapfrog the next three: anger, bargaining and depression. After a remarkable nine months regarding itself as a government in exile, it appears now to have landed on the fifth stage, acceptance.

Deputy leader Paula Bennett reckons National “sucked it up. We could wallow and get down in the dirt but let’s play the hand we’ve been given and show them how we can do it with dignity and strength and unity.”

Collins’ take on National right now, and a promise by leader Simon Bridges that his MPs at the conference would listen more than they talked, indicates a little of the usual post-defeat humility is beginning to emerge. A little.

It is not easy when you believe you did a great job over nine years to accept you have to do more now than convince voters they didn’t appreciate you enough. And the emergent humility was swamped at times at the weekend as National mimicked an old general, fighting the last war: pledging to reintroduce charter schools, repeal the Auckland regional fuel tax, green light oil and gas exploration and borrow Labour’s policy from 2014 of reducing class sizes in schools.

The new general, Bridges, had a good conference. Say what you like about his personal polling for preferred Prime Minister (and I won’t, having told editorial meetings at the Herald two decades ago that Helen Clark’s troubling single digit ratings made her unelectable), the remarkable party vote polling for National, still in the early to mid 40s makes that moot. 

Former National leader Sir John Key was at the Sky City convention centre and in the numbers-driven way that he weighed issues and strategies as Prime Minister declared the party vote polling conclusive. “If he was not resonating, our party vote numbers would be going south in a major way.”

Key’s message to Bridges was that he “should not at all be afraid of changing policies. He, from Opposition, has to deal with the New Zealand that we have in 2018.”

Key said his own polling as Opposition leader, while higher, was because Helen Clark was coming to the end of her time as Prime Minister. Bridges is up against a still ascendant Jacinda Ardern. While he may have been eclipsed by the stardust, Bridges has spent his time in the shadows sharpening his own show. As political performance, his two efforts from the stage this weekend were fine. Assured. Promising. Smiling.

In political optics, he chose to see her baby, Neve, and raise her a baby, Jemina, a toddler, Harry and a new entrant at school, Emlyn, all joining him on stage with mother Natalie at the start of his Leader’s Address on Sunday. They charmed. He showed some polish, his confidence surely coming from the evident unity on the floor of the conference and from the mouths of his senior MPs.

Their mutual love-in started to lose impact after a day and a half, and Bennett’s very deliberate declaration: “They will not divide us” while forceful, seemed a little defensive. But a slew of new spokespeople fronted and performed well. Amy Adams on finance and Todd Muller on climate change were informed and clear.

Part of National’s ‘listening’ will be via policy advisory groups which will take soundings on new policies to take to the 2020 election. A little counterintuitively, the policy development will be led by Nelson MP Nick Smith, a Jim Bolger era veteran who might have been expected to shuffle off before then. But Smith made a spirited presentation, saying National had just 18 months to “re-energise the caucus and party into a well co-ordinated policy factory” so “the public look to us to write the next chapter in the New Zealand story.”

What did we learn about its policy thinking at this conference.

– Bridges opened with a promise to reintroduce, and expand, charter schools within one year of taking office.

– He ended with a pledge to bring down primary school class sizes, but with no explicit target as thinking is yet to be refined in a discussion document

– Collins promised to produce a draft bill by next year to reform planning and resource management. Challenged from the floor to scrap the Resource Management Act entirely and start again, she quipped: “We’ll see if I’m brave enough, shall we?”

– Nikki Kaye and her education spokespeople are working on a sweeping ‘discussion document’ on possible changes in education specifically the quality of teachers, the future of work, governance of schools and a social investment approach for special needs schooling. 

– National knows it needs a response, in some form, to Labour’s first-year ‘fees free’ policy for tertiary students. Associate tertiary education spokesman Simeon Brown said: “That’s going to be a big discussion. We need to make sure that’s something we can go into the next election with a good policy around.” (A remit from the floor to promote free fees for final year trades students was defeated.)

– Resources spokesman Jonathan Young said on oil and gas exploration, National would be ‘practical and pragmatic and not ideological like the current government’

– Transport spokesman Jami-Lee Ross indicated National will look at ways to revive its Roads of National Significance, and made it clear axing Labour’s light rail plans for Auckland could be used to provide funds for some of those roads. “It is still our policy to continue with these roads of national significance” and “There’s almost no way Labour will be able to get shovels into the ground [for its “$6 billion trams”] before the election.”

But a good part of the conference discussion was self-justification: Collins claiming National had greater housing construction targets than Labour’s Kiwibuild and that many of Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s big announcements have been warmovers from decisions taken during the last administration; Jami-Lee Ross defending its spending on public transport; Muller its environmental achievements with the 2010 Emissions Trading Scheme and signing the Paris climate change accord.

When on issues like these, and child poverty, National can move from grudging acceptance to open acknowledgment that it failed politically in these areas, its final stage of grief, the upward turn, could be at hand. Perhaps next year.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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