National Party members gather for their annual meeting buoyed by a hint of vulnerability in the polls for Labour, and with their leader and president urging internal discipline and unity

Ten months since a historic drubbing at the election, the National Party has gathered for its annual conference with twin pleas for unity from its leader and party president, who both face scrutiny over their positions.

“Our party has always been strongest when we all remember we are on the same team,” leader Judith Collins said, in brief opening remarks for the three-day meeting.

The president, Peter Goodfellow, whose judgment over candidate selection and vetting has been under acute focus, placing him at possible risk of a challenge for the role at the weekend, told party members: “We are a team, and we need to behave as one, and a winning one at that.”

Goodfellow, who has been president for two National Party general election wins and now two election losses, warned members not to let themselves be captivated by those who were highly critical of the 2020 election performance, or what he termed “the scorn” of a minority.

“That’s not me, not us and not the way the National Party conducts itself.”

His comments appeared coded attempts to shore up his own support base as three party board members, Alistair Bell, Andrew Hunt and Pat Seymour stand down, and talk of a vote by a new board for a replacement president, likely to be former Speaker Sir David Carter, persists. Carter told Stuff on Friday “I’m going to keep an open mind. I’m prepared to consider it – it’s a decision of the board.”

Sensitivity around Goodfellow’s fate is high, with concern on Friday morning there could be an unsanctioned attempt to call a vote of no confidence in him from the floor.

In his speech, Goodfellow heaped praise on Collins – “a woman of incredible strength, resilience and vision” – who National was lucky to have as its leader, but exactly where Collins, who also serves as a board member, stands on Goodfellow’s fate has been unclear. She declined to endorse him this week to Stuff.

Goodfellow laid it on thick in support of various National caucus members taking the fight to Labour.

“You can feel the tide just starting to turn,” he claimed. “The shine is starting to wear off Labour. People want more than just Covid spin.”

He said reviews of the party governance and candidate selection processes would be implemented, with the first tranche of changes to be voted on on Saturday by delegates. 

But his emphasis on how significant the changes to candidate vetting and selection would be seemed to raise the very issue most acutely raised against him. “It’s critical that we get that process complete, that we have learned the bitter lessons of 2020. We are absolutely committed to ensuring the new process will give you confidence in any candidate that carries the National logo next to the name on the voting paper.”

There would now be “extreme and comprehensive vetting”, and support, mentoring and insistence that candidates focus on core National values. “We can accept nothing less.”

Goodfellow’s role in attending candidate selections, and in particular a lack of sufficient oversight over the candidate for the Upper Harbour seat, Jake Bezzant, who was subject to complaints of inappropriate and sexual social media posts after already being investigated over his business background, still leaves him vulnerable.

The coming changes at board level are a focus for party delegates, but it is clear it wasn’t all the board’s fault that National’s political campaigning under Collins and the campaign chair Gerry Brownlee contributed to a collapse in its vote by 413,800 votes between 2017 and 2020, or 35 percent. The party lost 23 of its 56 seats in the rout, with Labour winning a clear majority on its own for the first time in the history of MMP.

Soon after the election loss, National’s board opted against replacing Goodfellow, partly to keep some continuity as Collins was a relatively new leader and Brownlee had just been replaced by Shane Reti as deputy leader. 

Collins appeared buoyant at the conference Friday afternoon at the Vodafone Pacific Events Centre at Manukau. The auditorium wasn’t full and there were trestle tables of name tags unclaimed in the foyer as she spoke, but many delegates would have been tied up with work, and around 700 are due across the weekend.

She promised to address “the big questions we have been working on” in her keynote speech on Sunday lunchtime. “We have been demanding the debate up and down the country. It’s only right that we have some constructive debate at our own conference.”

That would have come as music to the ears of at least one delegate, Terry Dunleavy, of her Papakura electorate, who had publicly challenged the party to debate race and Treaty of Waitangi issues at the weekend, after having had a late bid for two remits on the subjects rejected by officials.

Collins this week saw her Newshub-Reid Research poll rating for preferred Prime Minister dip beneath that of Act leader David Seymour, a galling result for National, and although Labour has fallen a steep 9.7 points to 43 percent overall, National still languishes below 30. Before the last election Collins herself said under 30 percent was not acceptable.

She told delegates on Friday that National needed not just its “wonderful and excellent policies, but we need to support each other, respect each other, show our discipline and our professionalism”.

She added: “Right throughout the party.”

Her caucus had heard the wider party’s demand for unity and had listened and “we are serious”. While there is no immediate threat to Collins’ position, there can be no confidence yet that she will see out this term.

Two party chiefs. Both hanging on, calling for unity, and promising a brighter future.   

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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