Peter Dunne offers up a recovery plan of sorts to the National Party which, like the Republican Party post-Trump, has to “regain its true soul”

The 53rd Parliament got underway last week with all the traditional pomp and ceremony that goes with the triennial State Opening of Parliament. But there was also an added dimension this year brought about by this being our most diverse Parliament ever, far more reflective of twenty-first century New Zealand than any of its predecessors.

This was emphasised on the first working day of the new Parliament when Labour MP Ibrahim Omer gave his Maiden Speech.

His address, which has been widely praised, and received coverage across the world, traversed his background growing up in war-ravaged Eritrea, coming to New Zealand as a refugee, working as a cleaner at Victoria University, and then studying in the lecture theatres he once cleaned, to his work with refugee communities and his journey to Parliament.

It was an inspiring effort and set the tone for the new Parliamentary session.

However, while his remarks received a rare standing ovation, the odd ones out in the new Parliamentary environment looked to be the National Party.

Although, amongst its severely depleted ranks, it can boast some impressive newcomers who will undoubtedly make their own Parliamentary mark, it cannot match any of the other parties in the diversity stakes.

Indeed, National was far more ethnically and culturally diverse in the previous Parliament, but the low Party list rankings allocated to its Asian, Pasifika, and Indian MPs meant that none of them were re-elected at this year’s election, which was in itself telling.

National’s caucus and leadership face the press gallery on their return to Parliament after the election. File Photo: Lynn Grieveson

To be fair, National’s leader Judith Collins has already acknowledged National’s failings in this area with her admission to the Party’s Annual General Meeting the previous weekend that her Party needs to become “bold and inclusive” and willing to listen to “give New Zealanders a reason to vote for us”.

This challenge was reinforced by John Key in his even blunter speech, and his chilling reminder that National’s party vote fell by nearly 414,000 votes between 2017 and 2020, a drop of around 36 percent. Although Key did not say so explicitly, his message was unambiguous – vote losses of that magnitude over one Parliamentary term do not happen because of disagreements over one or other specific policies or actions a party has taken. Rather, they are symptomatic of a much more fundamental loss of trust and respect for what voters see the party stands for.

So, giving “New Zealanders a reason to vote for us” will have to mean much more than one or two attractive new policies, or even curbing the infighting that appeared to bedevil National for much of the last term. Those things are important but to reignite the interest of its previous 414,000 supporters, let alone win back their support,

National’s first task is to demonstrate it is relevant once again. It will need to show that it is talking about issues that will resonate with new and younger voters.

National must once again become the party that appeals to aspirational New Zealanders, that understands and upholds their values, promotes boldness and innovation, and which has recaptured the streak of social compassion that used to mark it out.

The Republican Party in the United States is confronting a similar situation in the wake of the recent Presidential election defeat.

While the circumstances in the United States and New Zealand are rather different, there is however a general point being made by mainstream Republican commentators that is potentially relevant here.

They are arguing that for the Republican Party to regain its true soul it has to reach out again to the groups which have traditionally supported it and rebuild its support base around them. Otherwise the extremist, populist elements that have overtaken the party in the Trump years will remain dominant, not only further dividing an already bitterly divided country but also making it more difficult to regain the support of mainstream suburbanites around whom the Republican Party’s successes have  been traditionally based.

Its loss of support at the election has left the party more vulnerable to potential infiltration by more right-wing groups like religious fundamentalists …

Of course, New Zealand lacks the social and political divisions of the United States, but, apart from that, the point the Republican commentators are making is relevant to National’s plight today.

Its loss of support at the election has left the party more vulnerable to potential infiltration by more right-wing groups like religious fundamentalists than National would usually wish to be associated with. If that were to lead to a full takeover, the 414,000 votes shed in 2020 would likely be lost for good, along with National’s future prospects.

Therefore, as a starting point National needs to restore its traditional relationships with the farming sector and the business community, and its credibility within the higher echelons of the professions.

Alarm bells should have been ringing loudly earlier this year when “mood of the Boardroom” media surveys started reporting favourable impressions of the Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, rather than National spokespeople. The fact that National was no longer winning there showed how out of touch it had become. Similar comments from the farming sector, despite the Government’s indifference to its challenges, should have reinforced that message.

This is not to suggest that a new coalition with business and the primary sector will be all it takes for National to get back on top – clearly that is not so – but, rather, getting its traditional support base back on side would be a start in National’s rebuilding process.

After all, it if it cannot give those traditional supporters “a reason to vote for us” it will be unlikely to persuade the rest of New Zealand to do so. And as it reconnects with its base, it should be looking to encourage the more progressive and diverse groups within those sectors to become explicitly involved with National, to help present the fresh public face it needs.

From them, National needs to reach out to aspirational young families in the mortgage belt and take on their concerns as its own. Policies to make it easier for such families to access and afford quality child-care for their children might be an example of the types of issues to be focused on here.

Similarly, ideas like mortgage repayment tax relief for first home owning families, or allowing people to borrow much more from their Kiwisaver funds for first home purchase, provided the amount borrowed is repaid to their Kiwisaver when that first property is eventually on-sold, could be considered.

But whatever specific policies are promoted to whichever groups, National urgently needs to re-establish a clear constituency of voters to whom it seeks to appeal, and whose interests it will champion. At the moment, that coalition is so diluted that over one-third of it felt National no longer spoke sufficiently for it, so deserted it at the recent election. 

The make-up of the current Parliament, not just in numbers but more so in diversity, should be a daily reminder to National just how out of step with the aspirations of modern New Zealand it has become.

The make-up of the current Parliament, not just in numbers but more so in diversity, should be a daily reminder to National just how out of step with the aspirations of modern New Zealand it has become. Indeed, for the foreseeable future, as the first week of Parliament has shown, the “excitement” factor of politics is going to lie with the new Labour MPs, and from time to time the Maori Party and ACT.

But rebuilding its base does not mean that National has to try to appeal to every group in society. If it tries to do that, it risks seeking to stand for everything meaning it actually stands for nothing.

In all probability National’s road back to office is likely to be a long one, barring mighty unforeseen failures by the current government. After all, election results are not aberrations that will be corrected next time, but genuine expressions of the public will that deserve to be respected as such.

National failed to heed that lesson after 2017 – it cannot afford to so again after 2020. As Key told the National Annual General Meeting, it can take up to a decade for the public mood to change again.

That is why prioritising rebuilding the traditional coalitions of interests on which the National Party has been based, as a pre-cursor to seeking wider support networks, is critical. Until that happens, there is no real reason to vote National.

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