The National Party seems to be playing to an ever-decreasing base of European New Zealanders and evangelical Christians, writes Peter Dunne. That is not the path to victory.

According to a slew of recent opinion polls the gap between Labour and National and the centre-left and centre-right blocs is narrowing, although not yet sufficiently to put the government at risk in the next election. Part of the shift is due to those voters who voted Labour for the first and probably only time in their lives returning to their natural homes. And part of it is due to the natural attrition in support any government suffers after a period in office. None of that is unusual.

All in all, it suggests the next election will be a more traditional one than the Covid-19 referendum of 2020. Politics as usual is likely to prevail once more, with the usual issues of housing affordability, the cost of living, access to health and education services and law and order likely to dominate the political agenda the way they have usually done,  with more immediate and critical issues like climate change.

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For National, so decimated in 2020, as well as other non-government parties, a return to politics as usual could not be more welcome. However, it may not that simple.

The vagueness of the timing of Labour’s roadmap out of Covid-19 announced last week suggests it still hankers to be surrounded by at least some of the Covid-19 glow come the time of the next election, to take the attention away from its lesser achievements in so many other areas. After National’s recent conference, there are still doubts about what sort of party National is going to be and to whom it will seek to appeal in the future.

Speculation that the absence of anyone on the board of the National Party from a rural background is a major rupture in the traditional coalition of rural and urban interests that has underpinned the party since its formation is probably overstated. Nevertheless, there is no doubt the party faces major challenges holding its traditional rural vote that will need to be resolved if the party is to become a viable political force again. Reports that National is keen for disgraced former leader Todd Muller to remain in Parliament until the next election, because it is scared it would lose his historically safe Bay of Plenty seat to either ACT or even New Zealand First if he were to precipitate a by-election before then, are not all that surprising. They underscore National’s anxiety about its once rock-solid rural base.

There are also changes underway within National’s urban base. Its long tradition – from the days of influential urban liberals Sir John Marshall, Sir Jim McLay and more latterly Nikki Kaye within the Party seem at an end. Well-performing current urban liberal MPs like Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis look more like an endangered species. They are being supplanted, on issues like conversion therapy, for example, by more socially conservative urban MPs like Christopher Luxon and Simeon Brown, holding extremely safe seats from which they are unlikely to be toppled. The evangelical influence has been growing steadily among National MPs in recent years, with even former leader Simon Bridges and current leader Judith Collins showing sympathy from time to time for the evangelical line.

Yet according to census data, evangelical Christians are a very small subset of New Zealanders professing a religious affiliation – only 15,000 adherents according to 2013 data. More significantly, a Colmar Brunton survey conducted for Victoria University’s Institute of Governance and Policy Studies in 2019 found that evangelical Christians were the most distrusted religious group in New Zealand with nearly 38 percent of respondents having little or no trust in them, well ahead of other religious groups recording figures of around 24 to 26 percent.

The figures suggest strongly there will be little salvation for National in seeking to court this group at the expense of other urban voters, or to allow itself to be further infiltrated by them when it comes to future candidate selections.

However, deeper demographic challenges may lie ahead for National if some overseas trends become reflected in New Zealand. The American political analyst Ezra Klein, founder of the Vox entertainment and news website has contended that political power runs a decade behind demographic change. He argues that at the same time cultural changes run about a decade in advance of demographic change. Cultural change is focused on younger, more urban and diverse groups. The consequences are that more conservative groups start to feel alienated from what they see going on around them, and right-wing politics become more radicalised. The “this is not the country it used to be” line, if you like.

Now Klein freely acknowledges his leftist (or in the American lexicon, liberal) biases but his analysis provides a useful explanation of how America moved so quickly from the positive enthusiasm about what America could become unleashed by the election of Barack Obama to the regressive negativity of Donald Trump, all within a decade. Perhaps the most chilling thing Klein had to say was that the rise of the influence of Hispanic and African American voters as part of the Obama coalition occasioned a reaction amongst white voters that not only their historic power, but also their very identity, was under threat. All they needed was “a master marketer who astutely read the market” the way Trump did to create the circumstances that led to his election in 2016.

While there are many differences between American and New Zealand political cultures, there are nevertheless elements of the Klein view that are relevant to New Zealand and the National Party today. For example, it is estimated that by 2043 the only population group in the United States in decline will be white Americans. By then, African American and Hispanic voters will outnumber their white counterparts for the first time. In New Zealand, over the same period, according to official statistics, it is projected that European New Zealanders will be the only population group reducing in size, although, unlike the United States, they will still be about a two-to-one majority.

Nevertheless, while slower, the trend here is similar to the United States and puts some context around National’s negative reactions to issues like designated Māori wards on Councils, the He Puapua Report, the more frequent use in the media of the Māori language, and references to the name of the country as Aotearoa. At a time when the Labour Government is placing more emphasis on reducing the social and economic disparities of Māori and Pasifika communities, National, either by accident or design, seems to be focusing its future appeal on the same disaffected political “markets” Trump courted to secure his victory in 2016.

Thankfully, at the moment, National lacks a Trump-like potential leader to capitalise on what Klein described as the threat to white identity. But that may be only a matter of time. The more National feels its market is coming under threat, the more ardent will be its reactions, and the more likely will be the eventual emergence of a demagogic figure to promote that message.

If that all that seems an unlikely outcome, a quick look at the current television series about the Dawn Raids of the 1970s might be in order. The most insidious aspect of the Dawn Raids was the way National’s Rob Muldoon and his cronies presented the issue as a threat to our traditional lifestyle, that only they could preserve, and, playing on the public fears they stirred up under the successful election slogan, “New Zealand – the way you want it”, they won a landslide election victory in 1975.

National’s current flirtations with very narrowly focused groups, and its apparent willingness to stroke latent white identity anxieties are a worrying reminder of those days. They are out of step with the greater diversity of our changing social and population mix. What is more worrying, though, is that there were no signs from the recent National Party conference that it is even mindful of this, let alone has any intention of abandoning this divisive and unappealing approach.

Divided days lie ahead.

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