'Every now and then events occur within the National Party that have a whiff of dirty politics about them, suggestive of an “attack culture” within the party, that has focused more on vilifying opponents than promoting policy.' Photo: National Botany website

Opinion: It is often perception rather than performance that shapes the way we think about politics and politicians.

The current Labour Government’s indifferent performance on many of the issues that it campaigned on so strongly in 2017 has led many commentators to conclude that although Labour scores highly in articulating a vision, it rates extremely poorly for implementing it. The confirmation that the one-off cost-of-living payment will be paid to people who no longer live here is but the latest example. It matters not that there are up to 10,000 people affected and that, according to the Minister of Revenue at least, the practical cost of removing them from the system outweighed the amount of money involved. The fact it has occurred at all will confirm for many the perception that Labour cannot implement change competently.

It is a similar and potentially more deep-seated situation for the National Party. National has never managed to shake off the perception there are elements in the party who think they are smarter than everyone else and can therefore get away with things other people cannot. This is not altogether surprising in a party that was for many years the natural lead party of government, but which has been forced to cede that role to Labour since the advent of MMP.

Every now and then events occur within the National Party that have a whiff of dirty politics about them, suggestive of an “attack culture” within the party, that has focused more on vilifying opponents than promoting policy. Recent revelations about the leadership wrangles National has faced since Sir John Key resigned have drawn fresh attention to the dramas the party has faced in going through five leaders in just five years. A case before the Court in Auckland at present involving former MP Jami-Lee Ross seems set to lift the covers on National’s fundraising activities and the devices it and Labour have employed to get around the constraints of electoral funding laws.

It has not been a good few years for National. Its candidate selection procedure has been shown in certain cases to have been flawed at best, and open to the most appalling manipulation at worst. While there have been some particularly strong candidate selections, there have also been some disasters that have hit the party hard. Too often, candidates have been selected because of strong party credentials but without sufficient life experience to successfully manage the challenges of being an MP. The scandals that saw the demise of MPs Todd Barclay, Jami-Lee Ross, Hamish Walker, and Andrew Falloon, and the revelations that led to the hurried withdrawal of Jake Bezzant’s candidate nomination are cases in point.

Although there has been a review of the party’s candidate selection procedures in the light of these cases, that has also become mired in controversy. Because the review’s outcome has been kept in-house, it is not clear what steps are being taken to prevent a repetition of the candidate selection disasters of recent years. Much of the public criticism has been directed at the outgoing party president, but even his imminent departure is attracting controversy, with allegations he has timed it to ensure he will have a strong influence on the selection of his successor.

Meanwhile, it seems the “attack culture” remains with the party, at least among some of its younger members. It was reported last week that the website of current Auckland Mayoral frontrunner and Labour-endorsed candidate Efeso Collins was being tampered with. Investigations have now identified a clear link to members of the Young Nationals Northern Region.

At a time when National is holding on to a narrow lead in the public opinion polls, which since May have been showing that National could form a government with ACT, albeit with an extremely small majority, the last thing it needs is to be associated afresh with dirty politics and all the associated baggage of recent years. So far, National leader Christopher Luxon has managed to draw a line under his National Party and what went on before.

However, the confirmation of National Party-linked dirty tricks, at however junior a level, in the Auckland Mayoral campaign will leave some people wondering how much has really changed. There still appear to be people within the National Party who see using trickery to sabotage an opponent’s campaign as a legitimate tactic, and who still suffer from the arrogant conceit they are bright enough to get away with it.

On top of that comes Luxon’s “confusion” over whether he was in Te Puke or on holiday in Hawaii during the recent Parliamentary recess. The release of his “Today I am in Te Puke” post while he was in Honolulu was either a ham-fisted attempt by his office to cover up for his absence on a legitimate family holiday, or sheer incompetence. Either way, it was a bad look for Luxon. The issue becomes important because it raises doubts about his credibility and judgment in letting it happen, or, if he was unaware of the timing, brings into question the political judgment of those in his office who were responsible. With the National Party still having a somewhat tarnished image on the “playing political games” front, this incident raises again the question of whether National and its leader can be trusted.

In today’s politics, perceptions over substance are all that matters. It is why the Prime Minister can get away with empathetic sadness about the numbers of people sleeping in cars, and not be held accountable for the number having gone up 400% under her government. She “cares”, and that is now apparently all that counts. But Luxon now risks being backed into a corner by “that” social media embarrassment and the Young Nats’ sabotaging of a Mayoral opponent’s website. He quickly needs to find issues he can “get alongside” New Zealanders on and be seen to be backing them.

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