While discipline is the current catch-cry of National’s beleaguered leader, Judith Collins isn’t making it easy for the caucus to stay united on polarising issues, political editor Jo Moir writes

Whether it’s trying to turf one of its own MPs out of caucus, or forcing its liberal wing to be whipped against banning conversion therapy, there is nothing “together’’ about the National Party right now.

Yet, somewhat ironically, “we’re better together’’ is the message leader Judith Collins was selling at the National Party annual conference at the weekend.

There is nothing perfect about the bill to ban conversion therapy that had its first reading in Parliament on Thursday.

On Tuesday the Prime Minister could only give an assurance that “it’s unlikely’’ parents would be prosecuted for discouraging or blocking teenagers from using puberty blockers.

But there’s a long-standing practice in Parliament that if a party agrees with the basic principle of a bill, it’s best to support it at first reading and try and make changes during the select committee process.

If those changes aren’t made, or consensus can’t be reached, then parties rightly pull their support for legislation at a second or third reading.

What the National Party did on Thursday was on the one hand claim it believes in the basic principle that conversion therapy is bad, while at the same time doing the complete opposite.

What’s almost more surprising than the National Party voting against the legislation is the fact its liberal MPs opted against crossing the floor.

If National thinks the legislation needs tidying up around whether parents can or can’t be prosecuted, then it should fight for those changes and run an effective strategy during the select committee process.

Instead, MPs are now claiming the legislation is “anti-parents’’ and National is the “party of parents”, while those who voted in favour of the bill (literally every other MP in Parliament) are not.

The ACT Party also had concerns with the bill and whether parents might be prosecuted for advising their teenage children against puberty blockers, but the basic intent of the bill trumped those concerns.

As leader David Seymour told Newsroom: “If you’re committed to public policy, you’ve got to hear what the arguments are.

“While we’re sceptical as to how it will work – to say we don’t even support people coming to Parliament to talk about it is not right.”

What’s almost more surprising than the National Party voting against the legislation is the fact its liberal MPs opted against crossing the floor.

National has always been seen as a broad church, but with the caucus having shrunk to just 33 MPs the liberal wing is very much in the minority, and was thoroughly whipped in all senses of the word by the conservatives.

Leader Judith Collins with two of National’s more liberal MPs – Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A fairer solution would have been to treat it as a conscience vote and give its liberal MPs including Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford the opportunity to support it.

The reality is the conservative wing of the party isn’t a majority. But justice spokesman Simon Bridges was leading the charge on the issue, and while he would have had his supporters in the form of Simeon Brown and Chris Penk, there are plenty in the middle who would have sat quietly and said nothing, waiting for Judith Collins to rule.

Collins sided with Bridges and the liberal wing was left with their backs against a wall, not wanting to cross the floor just 24 hours out from the party’s AGM where all eyes would be on how united the caucus is.

The fallout for Willis and Bishop has been a modern-day public stoning on social media.

Bishop and Willis could try claw back some dignity by crossing the floor at the second or third reading, if needs be.

That will only test the caucus, and in particular Collins’ leadership, even more.

On Sunday a Wellington woman posted a private online message exchange between her and Bishop where she said she hated his vote on conversion therapy, to which he responded: “Yeah. Me too.’’

That’s only reignited the division in the caucus ahead of their return to Parliament on Tuesday.

Bishop will no doubt be told off for sharing his views on the matter, but Collins is hardly going to demote one of her most competent and hard-working MPs.

Discipline, or at least the appearance of it, is at all-new heights in National.

In two weeks it will meet for the first time with its newfound caucus of 32 MPs.

After caucus forced Todd Muller’s resignation last month (he’s been on personal leave in the interim) he’ll make his return to Parliament in two weeks where he’ll hang out in the halls of Parliament but not have any portfolios or attend caucus meetings.

It’s highly unlikely Muller will stick it out until the 2023 election and National will be hoping its shambolic candidates college has a good contender ready to go when a by-election is eventually called in Bay of Plenty.

The college is, for the most part, the responsibility of the party president, Peter Goodfellow.

While there were whispers in the lead-up to the weekend’s AGM that Goodfellow might be rolled, it’s understood a last-minute change of tune by Collins secured his win.

Former Speaker of the House, Sir David Carter. Photo: Getty Images

Former Cabinet minister and Speaker of the House, Sir David Carter, had indicated last week that he was prepared to step up as president if called upon, having joined National’s board nine months ago.

While the full board votes on the president, it takes its lead from the party leader.

Newsroom understands up until Saturday night, Carter had Collins’ support for president, but somewhere along the way that changed and by Sunday Goodfellow was re-elected.

That left Carter little choice but to quit, saying he had no confidence in Goodfellow.

So, whether it be former, outgoing, or sitting MPs, the common denominator in National seems to be disunity.

Even former Prime Minister Sir John Key couldn’t quite bring himself to play the unity card.

He featured in a lengthy interview for the Herald on Sunday, as a reminder to National loyalists of the good old days, just hours before Collins’ big speech to 700 party delegates.

Collins was no doubt wishing Key was spending less time gracing the Sunday papers and more time at his brand new pad in Maui.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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