The National Party’s lack of leadership and failure to offer an alternative to Labour mean it is likely to have a long time in the wilderness to rethink its purpose and personnel, writes Peter Dunne

National’s complete failure to land any hits on the government over its mishandling of the Covid-19 vaccination response, or anything else for that matter, coupled with the mounting apparent internecine war within the party are leading to speculation that National’s days as a mainstream political party are coming to an end.

The issue is not just the usual one of an Opposition party struggling in a time of great uncertainty to make any headway against a popular government, but rather one where the Opposition seems unable to convey any sense of what it actually stands for, let alone pose a credible alternative to what the government is doing. National just seems bereft of coherent ideas.

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To be fair, when, in the early days of the pandemic outbreak last year, then National leader Simon Bridges did start to articulate an alternative approach, highlighting many issues that have proven subsequently to be valid, he was widely howled down by the media and commentators. His criticisms were portrayed as polarising, carping and negative, contributing to a slump in his party’s polling fortunes that saw his colleagues rush to judgment and summarily depose him.

But things have only got worse ever since. National’s increasingly “me too” approach on Covid-19, while certainly more constructive, leaves the party wallowing in Labour’s ever more unsteady wake, and looking as though it has no ideas of its own. While it has made noises about New Zealand’s appallingly low Covid-19 vaccination rate – the lowest in the OECD – it has offered no alternative strategy or suggestions for improving this. Nor has it taken the opportunity of the Government’s seemingly increasing reluctance to ever contemplate what a post Covid19 world might look like, and how we get there, to put forward its own alternative.

Even on an issue like the Government’s planned “hate speech” law – which should be a “bread and butter” issue for National – its approach looks perfunctory rather than passionate. It seems to prefer letting the appallingly inept way the Prime Minister and her Justice Minister have gone about explaining the issue speak for itself. But letting Labour dig a deeper hole for itself does nothing to build National’s case or bolster its support. Moreover, it just leaves it open for other parties like ACT to make the running – at National’s expense.

And, as more stories of dysfunction within National’s caucus emerge, but with little accompanying sign of any the changes suggested by the Party’s post-election internal review being progressed, it becomes harder to escape the conclusion that National is now so distracted by its internal tensions that it is no longer capable of functioning as an effective Parliamentary Opposition. That inevitably raises the questions about its longer-term viability.

However, it is one thing to say that National Party’s situation is terminal, or at least moving steadily that way, but quite something else to say what should replace it. There are no immediate candidates on the political horizon to do so.

There have been suggestions both ACT and a resurgent New Zealand First could fill the space National currently occupies, but these are hopelessly optimistic scenarios. The idea of disaffected urban liberals flocking to ACT is as disingenuous as the suggestion the country’s farming communities are about to decamp to New Zealand First. Both parties simply have too much baggage to make the step up. While ACT’s position in Parliament as the voice of right-wing libertarians – urban and rural – seems assured for the time being, the same is not true for New Zealand First. With or without its current leader, it still stands for a time and space that New Zealand has moved on from and it has little relevance to contemporary New Zealand or its future. Its journey back to Parliament in 2023 will be harder than when voters last dumped it in 2008, and almost certainly will fail.

In short, neither party holds any appeal for liberal centrists looking for a party with a hard head but a soft heart to rebalance the current government’s direction. This creates an ongoing problem for National which still not shaken off its hard-hearted legacy of the 1990s.

While the last National-led government showed a softer heart than its predecessors – adopting Labour’s flagship Working for Families and Kiwisaver policies, for example – it never quite lost its hard image from the 1990s. Consequently, National was tolerated in government rather than embraced, which makes the idea that liberal centrists still wary of National will now consider moving further to the right to ACT that much harder to take. Indeed, many of them have already moved, albeit reluctantly, leftwards to Labour at the last election because they did not see National as a viable option any more.

But their dalliance with Labour is likely to be short-term. With the current Government increasingly coming across as all heart, no head, there is a growing fresh opportunity to develop an alternative scenario based on inclusive, progressive social and employment policies founded on a sound economy. This is especially so, given the likely challenges the post Covid-19 recovery will pose for future social and economic policy. That would draw the contrast between a party with a clear and balanced plan for the future and a government with plenty of good intentions, but a chronic inability to achieve any of them as intended.

Whether National can be that party with the balanced plan for the future, or whether a new party needs to emerge remains to be seen. Certainly, in its current state, National still has a long way to go before it is likely to be taken seriously once more by the voters it has shed. So, its travails will carry on for some time yet, meaning speculation about its long-term future will continue.

But this is not the first time in recent history that there has been a woeful Opposition, whose days seem numbered. Similar things were being said about the Labour Party before the 2017 election, and the National Party after 1999. Yet both came back from the brink to regain office after lengthy spells in the wilderness.

Some say National’s problems would ease with an exciting new leader, but there is no sign it has such a person. Waiting for such an event, were it to occur, just glosses over the deeper issue that political parties are notoriously bad at leadership succession planning. Labour’s problems in the Goff/Shearer/Cunliffe/Little era highlighted that in the same way as National’s Bridges/Muller/Collins situation is now. Dominant leaders, like Helen Clark or John Key, invariably leave a vacuum when they move on. National should be using its time in Opposition to build a wider leadership pool so that if becomes the lead party of government again, it does so with a strong all-round team, and is not solely reliant on its leader to shape its political fortunes.

It is likely to have plenty of time to do so. A major international survey of 17 advanced economies that was released last week by the Pew Research Centre showed that New Zealanders feel much more united than before Covid-19, bucking a global trend that has seen the majority of countries descend into division. According to the survey 75 percent of New Zealanders said they felt the country was more unified than before, only behind Singapore at 86 percent. By contrast, in the United States the opposite was true with 88 percent reporting they felt more divided. New Zealand came out on top for the proportion of people who felt the restrictions imposed by their government were about right, at 80 percent.

While the results of this survey are good news for the Government, they are cold comfort for National. They show that New Zealanders’ sense of unity currently leaves little interest in an alternative message. Broadly supporting the government’s line as National has been doing just pushes it into the background, perversely giving rise to more questions about its effectiveness and what it stands for.

While this situation continues – the government’s stumbling approach to vaccination notwithstanding – National will have all the time it needs to get its house in order and redevelop its message to the public. The problem remains that it is yet to give any sign it is capable of doing so. Although its demise is far from assured, and still seems unlikely, its inactions have set the clock ticking.

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