Politics would not be politics without perennial speculation about the fate of the leader of the Opposition of the day.
It almost goes with the territory, because of the nature of our Parliamentary system which, even under MMP, remains one of “winner take all” with very little meaningful or constructive role for those parties not part of the Government. So, because Oppositions are almost by definition so marginalised, just about the only thing to focus upon is the state of their leadership.
Add to that the media’s love of a contest (especially now with a Prime Minister so many are enraptured of) and the focus on the leader of the Opposition’s perceived inadequacies are almost inevitable, no matter who the holder of the position might be.
Of course, there are times when Opposition leaders’ own actions become virtual death knells for their leadership.
Fomer National leader Jim McLay’s decision in 1985 to banish Sir Robert Muldoon to the most junior position on National’s backbench after a caucus contretemps not only prompted another of Muldoon’s popular books (“Number 38” – a reference to the caucus ranking McLay had assigned to him) but also led to McLay’s overthrow by Jim Bolger a few months later.
Similarly, David Shearer’s appalling stunt with two dead fish during Parliament’s question time a few years ago so backfired that it became a metaphor for the state of his leadership which ended shortly afterwards, when he was replaced by David Cunliffe.
In both cases, the particular stunts failed, not because of any valid point there may have been behind him, but because they had a look of desperation about them. Although the actions of themselves were not leadership-costing, they had a whiff of last fling of the dice about them.
A bold and unexpected act to gain attention by a leader already under pressure usually more raises questions about their ability to hold things together in tough times, rather than inspiring caucus confidence that this person has the sound and steady judgment to lead them to and in government.
And so it is with “slushy-gate”.
In the grand scheme of things, the issue itself is not that important – an interesting diversion for a junior member of caucus to cut their teeth upon, perhaps, but certainly not one for the leader of the Opposition to take to heart as his virtual crusade.
Of course, Simon Bridges will be frustrated that the level of favourable attention the Prime Minister has received since the Christchurch terrorist attacks has effectively shut him out of any limelight, and he will be scratching his head at how he can get back into the game in that sense.
Also, as his round of regional party conferences begins, he will be hearing directly the discontent of party members still annoyed that, despite being Parliament’s largest party, National is no longer in government, and even worse, is looking increasingly unlikely to be in government again after the next election.
For National’s grass roots members, politics is all about power and National’s position as the natural party of government, so when they are out of office it is almost inevitable that their focus becomes the performance of the leader and the caucus, rather than understanding the will of the electorate and wider electoral dynamics.
On this basis, it looks a formality to conclude that Simon Bridges’ days as leader of the National Party are numbered, and that he will be gone in a few months.
However, it is not quite that simple. Leaving to one side the question of who might replace him (Judith Collins seems the obvious contender, although the likely strengths she would bring to the role of leader of the Opposition loom as potential liabilities in the event she were to become Prime Minister) National’s current problems run far deeper than just its leadership.
Even if there was to be a caucus revolt that overthrew Simon Bridges, the reality is National would be fighting history to expect that a new leader arising from that would be in any position to win the next election.
No leader of either major party since Rob Muldoon overthrew Jack Marshall in 1974 has led that party to victory in the subsequent election. (David Lange, John Key and most recently Jacinda Ardern all took over when the party leadership was already vacant, and interestingly, all led their parties to victory at the next election.)
So, rather than setting the party on course for election victory as some would hope, a leadership coup now would more likely seal National’s fate for 2020.
What, therefore, can National do to recapture positive attention and get itself back into the frame? In a word, it needs to build and retain credibility. Side issues like slushy-gate, and forever barking at parked cars are not the ways to do that.
National needs to start focusing on the big issues it identifies as being critical to New Zealand’s future and spelling out a clear position and stance on each of them. Then, it needs to claim the issues as its own, and present them accordingly, rather than just as a reaction to what the Government is doing.
It needs to shift the debate to its own agenda, and what it stands for, rather than just keep reacting to the Government.
National needs to do the same today – ignore the Prime Minister and leave the Deputy Prime Minister to sleep ever peacefully in his dotage …
Simon Bridges has promised eight major position papers this year – to date, all we have seen is his proposal to index tax bands to inflation, which has been well-received, but National does need to start to release its other policies, both to give the public a flavour of where they stand, and allow themselves enough time to fine-tune those as required in good time for the next election.
Simon Bridges needs to project leadership and himself as a person of substance by being the person constantly focusing on National’s vision, and not just always indulging in reactive, trivial points scoring which can easily be left to others.
At the same time, National needs to start promoting to the public those of its MPs likely to be key figures in a future National-led government. Simply rehashing familiar names from the past will not be enough, although retaining some level of continuity and experience is important, as the travails of the present Government show.
National also needs to take a leaf from its own book. In the early 2000s, the then National Opposition unsuccessfully and stubbornly focused its attack on Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, then at the zenith of their political dominance. It was only when they realised the folly of this, started to ignore them, and focus on the weaker Ministers around them that they started to make progress.
National needs to do the same today – ignore the Prime Minister and leave the Deputy Prime Minister to sleep ever peacefully in his dotage, and direct their attention instead to the Government’s weaker performers, of whom there are many more than in any recent administration. Making their ineptitude symptomatic of the Government’s overall ineptitude has to be their objective.
Also, mindful once again of the Government’s weakness in this regard, National needs to be clearing out the time servers from its ranks – those who have had their day and are counting down to retirement, as well as those in the middle ranks not good enough to ever even have a day – so that they can attract bright new talent for the future. After all, a party that looks like the future is more likely to have a future than one that looks a throwback to an earlier time.
Whether Simon Bridges is the best and most capable person to lead National forward should then be assessed on that basis, not silly stunts like slushy-gate.
And when that question is answered, attention can then turn to where National will find the partners to even form a future Government, but that is one for another day.