Despite plenty of discouraging signs for the Government, the National Party remains becalmed, unable to gain any traction at all, writes Peter Dunne.

Despite being an awkward amalgam of rural conservatives and urban liberals, the story till now of the National Party has been extraordinary success driven by pragmatism. But if it is to find its way back to the Beehive, it needs to define exactly what it stands for

The next year will be an extremely challenging one for the Labour Government on many fronts.

According to the International Monetary Fund, New Zealand’s economic clouds will darken significantly over the next twelve months.

The New Scientist magazine is reporting that countries like ours that have zero or very few Covid-19 cases will not be able to reopen their borders until they have achieved herd immunity through vaccination, which is likely to take some time, especially since community vaccination is yet to start here. There appear to be difficulties implementing a quarantine-free travel bubble to Australia and the Pacific Islands. On the housing front, the situation continues to deteriorate. According to CoreLogic, house prices rose 2.6 percent in February alone, and around 15 percent altogether over the last year.

Against that backdrop this week’s announcements of an extension to the bright line test, and the removal of interest deductibility from investment properties, but few immediate policies to build more houses, look somewhat underwhelming.

It is the very time the Opposition should be starting to prosper. Yet despite all these discouraging signs for the Government, the National Party remains becalmed, unable to gain any traction at all.

An apparently highly critical internal review of the party’s recent election performance has been completed by the party’s board but has not been released to the public. Nor is the party leader even requiring her MPs to read it, saying that “everyone in that caucus knows exactly what went wrong” and that “it’s up to them” whether they choose to read the report.

There are no immediate signs that anything much is about to change in the way the National Party does its business or the public impact it is having.

But National’s problems run deeper than just its performance at the last election.

Ever since its establishment in 1936 the party has been an awkward amalgam of rural conservatives and urban liberals, brought together initially by their common opposition to the position being advanced by the Labour Party. The previous conservative and liberal parties – Reform and United – had simply merged to fight the emergent Labour Party and what it stood for. There was no founding philosophy, other than opposition to what the Labour Government was doing.

The commitment to pragmatism as a virtual principle that the years in office necessitated is now catching up with the party.

This gap notwithstanding, National has become New Zealand’s most successful political party – winning outright or being able to form a government after 16 of the last 25 general elections. Over those years, the differences between its urban and rural wings, its liberals and its conservatives, had been held in check by the more overriding objective of winning and retaining office. The formula worked well under both First Past the Post and MMP until 2017.

However, that success has also had its costs. The commitment to pragmatism as a virtual principle that the years in office necessitated is now catching up with the party.

Its liberals and conservatives are still there but have been joined in recent years by a new strain, the evangelical Christians, which is shaking the previous comfortable urban/rural, liberal/conservative partnership.

Add to that the mounting diversity of the New Zealand population in so many ways, and National’s so far at-best tepid attempts to embrace that, and it is little wonder that many previously staunch National Party supporters are saying they are unsure what the party stands for anymore.

And all this is occurring when we have the most popular Government of the last 80 years. It seems to matter not that despite all its glittering promises, Labour’s actual achievements have consistently fallen far short of public expectations. Nor that increasingly it is beginning to look well out of its depth when it comes to addressing problems like the current housing crisis or rising levels of inequality.

Labour sails on supremely, untroubled by anyone around it. Its momentum has been built solely on the clarity of its communications about how well it has responded to Covid-19. But that will not last forever, and the early gloss is already starting to fade. Nevertheless, National has still been unable to capitalise and its prospects of doing so, let alone regaining office look a long way off.

Instead of settling down to be a neo-permanent Opposition as National appears to be at present, criticising the Government on a day-to-day basis, without being too provocative or divergent for fear of causing offence, the party needs to be focusing far more strongly on what it stands for. 

National needs to redefine and refresh the core values it holds, which underpin its approach to politics. Only when it has done so, and embraced them as a party, will it be able to credibly articulate specific policies in support of those to the electorate.

Because of its success over the years, National has not had to worry too much about core values. Its focus has been so much more on doing whatever it takes to be better than Labour. But those days are over – today’s voters want to know much more about the values that drive a party before they will vote for it. Hence the attraction of the Prime Minister’s appeals to kindness and compassion as the hallmarks of her Government and leadership.

In its efforts to better define what it stands for, National could well take a leaf out of the book of one of its former leaders and Prime Ministers.

Sir John Marshall advocated in his Maiden Speech to Parliament way back in 1947 “… a social individualism that imposes duties as well as rights on each and all … not a concourse of little men each concerned simply with their own advantage, but a commonwealth of self-respecting, self-directing citizens accepting their mutual responsibilities and co-operating for the general good.”

He promoted a society built on liberty, property and security, which encouraged small business, home ownership, and controls on land aggregation, and opposed the agglomeration of power in too few hands.

Given the issues New Zealand is facing today, there is much in Marshall’s prescription that the modern National Party could build on to become an effective political force once more. Promoting individual rights to liberty, property and security objectives are enduring values around which today’s National party could unite without recourse to the internal divisions now appearing to bedevil it.

Moreover, their adoption would give the public a clear sense once more of what the National Party stands for and would better focus what passes for political debate between the major parties at present. In so doing, it would clearly differentiate itself from the hard-line laissez-faire approach of Act on its right, or the soft social democracy of Labour on its left.

It would be interesting to know whether National’s recent review document focused in any way on what the party stands for. From what has been said so far, it appears the emphasis was much more on the poor behaviour of some MPs before the election, and changes to the way election candidates are selected and list places allocated to ensure greater diversity within the caucus. However these measures alone, without some clearer statement about what National stands for today, will not be enough to recover its political position.

Unless it does so, along the lines Sir John Marshall set out so eloquently all those years ago, National will continue to look like no more than the grumpy little dog snapping at every passing car, and therefore not being taken seriously. Up against a Labour Government that has made clear, positive and constant communication of its meagre record its top priority and has used every lever of government available to it to do so, National will otherwise continue to be swamped.

To have any chance of future success, National needs to establish its own narrative of contemporary events and what it would do about them.

Clarifying its core values and what it actually stands for would be a good place to start.  

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