Judith Collins picks up an initiative of none-other than Nick Smith, the veteran MP she ushered out of Parliament, to help National think up alternatives to the policies of the Labour Government

The National Party wants to start seven debates, in four phases, over two years to prepare itself for an ‘easily winnable’ 2023 general election – but climate change, the border, the environment, rural issues, the Treaty of Waitangi and race relations do not appear to be among them.

Leader Judith Collins outlined the “seven fixes” during her keynote speech to the party’s annual conference in Auckland. “Today we start the debate…” she said of each of these policy areas, and the video playing behind her cut away from her face to the bold Demand the Debate slogan introduced just weeks ago.

It was a long and prosaic list of unsurprising ambitions – “you deserve to be safe in your home and community”, “we will strive to lift incomes and reduce the cost of living”, “how do we get Kiwis home safely and quickly at night?” – and delivered methodically to the partisan warmth of a party conference crowd.

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Collins acknowledged the policy debate process had been started by former MP Nick Smith, who exited Parliament after learning a potentially negative media story about him was looming. “I want to thank Nick for his work.”

Opposition parties need to be seekers of ideas and solutions, so to declare two years out that National would challenge itself on incomes policy, law and order, education, health and mental health, technology, transport, and the costs of house building should signal a willingness to change its status quo.

National’s 33-person caucus, and officials and supporters, with leader Judith Collins at Manukau on Sunday. Photo: Tim Murphy

The conference initiative would see each of the seven areas taken out for debate with four groups – first experts, then key sectors, then National Party members and finally the public. 

If that sounds long-winded (and it did take Collins 37 minutes to outline, in a speech scheduled for just 20 minutes) National can at least argue that it is doing the policy leg-work now, in advance of a possible return to government rather than mimicking Labour’s first-term approach of setting up numerous working groups and task forces while in power.

Oddly, the debate on the Covid-19 response, the border and reopening the country seems to have been levered into the overall examination of health and mental health. The vaccination programme was a shambles, the National leader said, and Labour had to “vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”  Her focus in health was on planned reforms to DHBs and the bureaucracy and improving mental health responses. “Health is more than just Covid.” 

But the health system has already been debated, by experts and the sector at great length and depth by the Heather Simpson-led Health and Disability Review. Labour’s reform, going beyond that review, is one National would stop, other than establishing a national public health agency.

Climate change was mentioned by Collins only in the context of her demand for a debate on how to create jobs in the technology sector, and in discussing the transport debate where she mentioned reducing transport emissions. Even then, however, she railed against Labour’s cutting road-building. “In a world where cars are set to be low and zero emissions, it doesn’t make sense that we need to stop using cars.”

Collins talked of National’s highlighting of the He Puapua report, a draft document from a working group outlining possible ways New Zealand could implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but there was no call for further debate on race and the treaty. It could be that National is happy with its stance on any moves to co-governance with Māori and doesn’t need to hear from experts, key sectors or the public.

Judith Collins received a warm, if not enthusiastic response from the conference delegates, and the customary standing ovation at the end of her speech.

No explicit debates were foreshadowed on tax, or welfare, which usually feature high on a National manifesto. The promised debate on lifting incomes would usually address such issues, but Collins did not point to them as focal points.

“We must create an environment where business succeeds, where we raise productivity by producing goods and services of higher value, where there is less government interference, fewer costly regulations and where business can pay higher wages because they earn more not because people work longer. Today we start the debate on ‘How do we lift incomes so New Zealanders can raise a family and get ahead?,” she said.

The emphasis in the speech and at the conference on mental health shows National thinks this is an area of weakness for the Government. Collins pushed it hard: “The mental health system has got worse over the last 4 years as the wait gets longer. Families are in despair.

“In Government, mental health will be a key priority for National. New Zealanders will no longer bear this burden alone. We will have the first Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention reporting directly to the Prime Minister.”

The current mental health and suicide spokesperson, Matt Doocey, led a conference session on the topic, focusing on rural mental health and access to timely services. He accused Labour of  ‘weaponising’ the rate of suicides when it had been in opposition, making politics out of tragedy. Yet his party, too, is clearly intent on making current deficiencies and failures a focus of political debate.

The two guest presenters on mental health provided harrowing and stark personal testimony to what was wrong with the system and how it is affecting individuals and their families.

In some ways the menu of debates Collins and her team have selected appear so broad as to span the gamut of policy areas. If the party succeeds in igniting a debate on all areas of lifting income, or education, or the health system, MPs will have a full two years ahead distilling which parts they want to adopt and take to the polls.

Collins acknowledged the scale of the undertaking. “The National Party has an ambitious vision for New Zealand in which every Kiwi has every opportunity to get ahead. This process will provide us with the roadmap for how to get there. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but the National caucus is energised and determined to be fighting fit in 2023.”

She declared the 2023 election easily winnable, claiming Labour had repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises and its 9.7 percent fall in party vote in the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll was the the single biggest drop that she could remember.

She did not mention other results, or the answers to other questions in the Newshub poll – but Newshub did within hours of her speech, revealing that of National Party voters, 47.9 percent say  Collins should be replaced as leader and just 35.6 percent say no. A further 19.5 percent of National voters didn’t know. National had risen to just 29 percent in the poll, still dire for a party of its history and scale and Collins had fallen behind Act leader David Seymour in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.

She says it isn’t so, but it has to be wondered if Collins’ confidence has taken a knock. Afterwards, she told media she would not be challenged before the 2023 election. “No, I won’t be rolled, I’m going to go into the next election and I’m going to win it, I’m absolutely, totally, focused on it,  as sure as I am as the sun comes up every day.”

Yet her presentation was Collins playing it pretty safe. She read and swivelled from autocue panel to panel adequately but there was little fire, not a lot of inspiration and, beyond a poke or two at Labour and the gangs, not even the attempts at humour she might once have delivered. 

During the speech, as she delivered lines that were designed for a crowd response, there would be a flicker of uncertainty in Collins’ eyes until the validation of a clap or laugh.

“Labour cannot use its majority to do whatever it wants,” she said, twice.

Well, it can, because it won almost exactly twice the party vote in 2020 as National under her leadership, allowing it to govern alone.

And while National goes through the motions of demanding and now having these seven broad debates with the country and itself, Labour could move ahead of that process and amend and implement changes in its most politically vulnerable areas.

* The party president Peter Goodfellow, who led the organisation to victory in two elections and to defeat in the next two, was re-elected to the role by the board, which had three new members selected by conference delegates.  As a result, former Speaker Sir David Carter, who had been tipped as a potential replacement for Goodfellow, promptly resigned from the board altogether, despite having been voted on as a director just nine months ago. Carter told media he had “zero confidence” in Goodfellow in the president’s role.


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

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