Christ said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But that camel was probably thankful it didn’t have a five percent threshold to deal with, unlike National MP Alfred Ngaro’s potential Christian conservative party.
The news Ngaro was considering breaking away from National to found a Christian conservative party came as news to no one. The question of a National client party has been mooted more or less openly ever since it crashed out of the Beehive in 2017 owing to a lack of friends as much as anything else.
Ngaro’s involvement was obvious too. He’s a charismatic leader with ministerial experience and connections to Auckland’s Pacific communities, which could help him succeed where other, similar parties failed. Previous elections show there’s a decent swathe of the vote that could be broadly termed Christian conservative, which has consistently fallen short of Parliamentary representation due to the repeated failings of its leaders.
In the 1999 election, the Christian Heritage party polled 2.4 percent, making it the largest party outside of Parliament (at the same election, another Christian party, Future New Zealand, polled an impressive 1.12 percent).
But Christian Heritage faded to irrelevance after its leader Graham Capill was jailed for sexual offences perpetuated against young girls. To say it destroyed the party’s claim to the family values vote would be putting it mildly.
In 2011, Colin Craig’s Conservative Party won 2.65 percent of the vote, rising to 3.97 percent in the 2014 election, but the brutal five percent threshold and Craig’s failure to win an electorate seat meant the closest he ever got to Parliament was appealing a defamation case in the Supreme Court across the road.
3.97 percent is tantalisingly close to the magical five — far closer than Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party and Gareth Morgan’s TOP were ever able to achieve with their substantial financial backing. But it still might not be enough, which is why giving Ngaro a sweetheart deal in an electorate seat must be considered a possibility.
Bridges has already ruled out a deal in Botany, which could have seen rebel MP Jami-Lee Ross return to Parliament in 2020, but giving Ngaro another seat remains on the table.
That would allow Ngaro to make it into Parliament and bring several MPs with him.
But such a deal poses several knotty political issues for National. The first is justifying it to an electorate weary of cynical electoral games. Such a deal raises the question of how Bridges would justify Ngaro’s move to his own party and the electorate. Those who remember Winston Peters and Tariana Turia breaking away to form their own parties will already be scratching their heads at Bridges’ sober reckoning with Ngaro’s transparent insubordination.
Bridges could say that the split was justified, given Ngaro’s earnestly held Christian views, which will be out on full display during the upcoming votes on abortion and David Seymour’s End of Life Choice bill.
But questions could then be raised as to why other National MPs don’t jump ship too. Thirty-five of National’s 56 MPs voted against End of Life Choice and a similar number could vote against abortion too. Bridges politicking will look especially cynical if he uses conscience issues like abortion as justification for allowing Ngaro to launch the party, whilst making sure his other Christian MPs toe the party line.
Some would still argue that such a party would be worth the fuss. Churches provide ready-made organisational and funding networks that take a lot of the legwork out of establishing a new party and National might find it does some damage in the Labour heartland of South Auckland.
But they may be disappointed.
Labour’s vote in South Auckland is remarkably stable, in part due to the impressive constituency work of the MPs who hold seats there. Despite the strong social Christian conservatism of those seats, Labour MPs like Louisa Wall, a lesbian to whom New Zealand owes its same-sex marriage law, win by large majorities. Wall’s vote in Manurewa has never dropped below 52 percent. The connection to Labour and high bar constituency work seems to override any social differences those electorates seem to have with their MPs.
That doesn’t mean such a connection is eternal. National may choose to use abortion as a powerful wedge issue at the next election. Ngaro’s party wouldn’t be a case of outsourcing difficult social issues to a fringe party, but could force National to put such issues at the front of their next campaign.
The National Party’s brand is stable government … Bridges and the party bureaucracy will have to ask themselves whether that powerful brand is worth risking over a few percentage points.
Such a strategy would have the benefit of making it difficult for Labour to get cut through with its own issues as it tries to hold together the compromise forged between its own conservative and progressive wings. But it would come at great cost to National.
There’s historical precedent for this. Though it may seem impossible now, there was a time in the United States when abortion seemed relatively settled.
The landmark supreme court decision Roe v. Wade landed on the side of choice and the issue was put to bed. Harry Blackmun, a conservative Nixon appointee to the court, wrote for the majority, which would be unthinkable now. But the issue was resuscitated by Southern conservatives looking for an issue to rally behind as the federal government stepped up efforts to desegregate schools.
While the issue was no doubt profitable in electoral terms, it’s helped to polarise both the Republican Party and injected a toxicity to American politics that has rendered the country near ungovernable.
The weekend’s election in Australia also serves as an example of what can happen when contentious social issues are politicised. It certainly helps to win elections, but such victories come with the cost of instability.
The National Party’s brand is stable government. John Key’s reign exemplified a deft ability to stick to the party’s economic roots, whilst outsourcing conscience issues to MPs themselves. Bridges and the party bureaucracy will have to ask themselves whether that powerful brand is worth risking over a few percentage points.