When people talk about the National Party these holidays it will be about its new people and what changes they might bring, not about an erratic and hopeless past, writes Peter Dunne

It is often said that the conversations around the summer barbecues shape the political agenda for the coming year. Last year’s conversations were all about Covid-19, the Government’s response and what might happen next. This year, with interest in the pandemic waning, the parlous state of the National Party and its leadership was shaping as a likely topic.

National MPs could therefore have been forgiven for not looking forward to the coming summer festivities with much enthusiasm. It would not have been much fun having to face the same nagging question from key supporters, electorate workers, and constituents alike – when are you going to sort out your leadership and start to get your act together?

However, Judith Collins’ extraordinary act of self-immolation looks likely to have done the party a favour in that regard. At least, now, people will be starting to talk about the National Party again, and to speculate upon the impact the new leadership team is likely to have. Until now, although National has had some good hits against the Government, it has been unable to convert those into any sort of momentum for sustained political change, because people simply do not believe the Party is yet capable of delivering it.

In this context, Labour’s increasingly inconsistent and indecisive performance matters little – despite everything that is going wrong, or its tortuously cautious approach to returning the country to something approaching normality, they are still seen as better than National. While that perception remains, there can be little real consolation for National, as the opinion polls currently confirm. Although many of the new Labour MPs elected in 2020 look destined to be looking for other jobs in 2023, that is not yet helping National because, on current numbers, a Labour/Green coalition would retain a comfortable majority in the House.

Something had to give – and Judith Collins’ brittle and erratic leadership was that final straw. Dramatic and destabilising as the events of the last week have been for National MPs, they almost certainly were accompanied by a sense of relief that their long nightmare might at last be coming to an end. Having gone through four leaders in the past 18 months, National MPs will be keenly hoping the new leadership can restore a measure of stability, enabling them to get on with real job of being a viable Opposition and posing a genuine challenge to the Labour Government.

A small, early sign that the message might finally getting through to National that it cannot continue to behave like a rabble and gain public support was the dignified way in which the leadership selection process was carried out. Unusually for a caucus that has become renowned for its ill-discipline, the apparent unity and tight discipline displayed over the past week has been remarkable. There was none of the public back-biting and gossip that has been the party’s hallmark of late. Time will tell whether it was more a case of shell-shocked MPs too stunned to say anything, or whether National has finally woken up to its failings and turned a corner.

Christopher Luxon’s emergence as leader after Simon Bridges’ withdrawal from the contest was also a good sign for National. That avoided a potentially divisive caucus vote, likely to have delivered a close result, and bypassed the potential influence of the bloc of five votes reportedly controlled by Judith Collins being the decisive factor in choosing the new leader. It was also reminiscent of the circumstances of Sir John Key’s arrival as leader in 2006 – in that instance, the late withdrawal in his favour came from his then rival, Sir Bill English who went on to serve as Key’s deputy and as Finance Minister for eight years in government.

However, that is where the comparisons many have tried to make between Key and Luxon should end. While Sir John was a remarkable leader and Prime Minister, his time has passed, so Luxon needs to carve out his future based on his own skills and abilities and be judged by the electorate on those. He must become National’s voice of the future, not a nostalgic reminder of its past. If he is to become Prime Minister it will be because of his plan for what he wants New Zealand to become, not because of a yearning for earlier times.

The selection of the urban liberal Nicola Willis as Luxon’s deputy strengthens National’s opportunity to become that voice of the future. This leadership combination, and the ultimately smooth and unexpected transition to it, is the best outcome National could have expected. Important as it is though, it is but one step, albeit an important one, along the party’s recovery, with many obstacles still to be cleared. Unifying and focusing the caucus is the most obvious of these and will be an early indicator of how successfully Luxon can transfer his corporate management skills from the business arena to politics.

A special challenge will be what to do with Judith Collins. In this regard, Luxon could well reflect on the advice of a famous nineteenth century British statesman: “A successful politician learns early on that when he sees a back he must either slap it or stab it; his mistake is to ignore it.” Luxon shrewdly and quickly indicated she will have a significant role, a pragmatic recognition that he cannot leave her, brooding and unoccupied on the backbenches, in the forlorn hope she will go away.

Then there is the question of the National Party board. Although the board is responsible for the administration of the party and is not therefore the responsibility of the leader or the caucus, its decisions do impact on the caucus’ operations. Poor candidate selections sanctioned by the board have embarrassed and cost National in recent years. Luxon needs to make it clear to the board from the outset that its processes on candidate selection need to become much more robust to prevent more of the problems that dogged National between 2017 and 2020.

Yet it would be wrong to assume new leadership will solve all National’s problems. It will not – but it will give the party the chance of a fresh start to get its message across to voters. The real challenge facing Luxon, Willis and the caucus is that their message still seems vague and incoherent. In part, this is due to the vagaries of being in Opposition at the time of Covid-19, in part it has been because of the need to hold a fractured caucus intact by papering over some of its cracks, and in part it is because National is perceived to be weak and divided, so its comments and plans, such as they are, have not been reported seriously by the media.

In this regard, there are two huge opportunities for National to cultivate, given the developments of recent weeks. The first is the Covid-19 recovery and the second relates to climate change.

National’s current approach to the Covid-19 recovery is broadly a me-too version of what the Government is doing, interspersed with abrupt kneejerk reactions every now and then. On MIQ, for example, National seems most of the time broadly committed to the Government’s direction, but then every now and then blurts out briefly that there should be no MIQ at all, and everybody should be self-isolating at home. The resulting impression is of uncertainty desperately seeking a populist angle to capitalise upon, which ends up looking like National has no real alternative plan at all.

However, Luxon and Willis are now free to present National as the recovery party, with the comprehensive plan for the next decade and beyond based on rebuilding the economy and jobs, in sectors which Labour seems to have abandoned, like tourism and overseas education. Luxon acknowledged this opportunity in his leadership acceptance speech. His challenge will now be to match the rhetoric with positive proposals.

There is also scope for National given its apparent interest in the mental health space, to be developing plans and programmes to deal with the serious mental health issues that will emerge over the next few years because of the pandemic. (We know from mental health experts that the effects of major incidents like this can often take four to five years to emerge.) As well, there are the ongoing issues of infrastructure – from housing to transport – and how these have been impacted by the pandemic, that are fertile ground for the development of new and innovative policies.

A similar opportunity exists with climate change policy, especially following the inconclusive COP26 meeting in Glasgow. National had earlier appeared to be developing a pragmatic approach to climate change issues, trying to steer its way through the noise of the various vested interests, but seems to have abandoned this in the past year or so, in favour of a more negative and partisan approach. Nevertheless, the chance is still there for National to seize some of the high ground on New Zealand’s policy response to climate change if it is of a mind to.

Although the challenges ahead of National and its new leadership remain enormous and will not be quickly resolved, the prospects of National MPs being able to relax and enjoy the round of summer barbecues and festivities have just got a little brighter.

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