What National needs to do to win 2020
By Richard Harman (author)
Just after the election, POLITIK ran a piece suggesting – among other things – that Nikki Kaye might be a component of any future leadership change within National if Bill English were to retire.
The next day there was a phone call from one of National's front benchers.
It was dreaming to suggest Kaye could be part of the leadership, the caller suggested.
She was to the left of the Caucus on almost everything. It was not an isolated view.
The right-wing blogger, Whaleoil, almost frothed at the mouth about Kaye in this post two weeks before the election.
“National’s caucus loathe and detest Nikki Kaye,” he wrote.
"They loathe and detest her with a passion that is greater the more they work with her unless they are above her in the pecking order. "
Slater is obviously on the nutty right wing edge of politics, but he maintains some contacts within the National caucus --- not just Judith Collins.
And what’s clear from the phone call to POLITIK and Whaleoil’s attack is that Kaye is now seen by a faction within the caucus as a threat.
They need not worry.
Or at least they need not worry about her seeking the leadership.
For a start, she thinks Bill English may be the best person to lead National into the 2020 election.
“I’ll vote for Bill English as long as he is in the building,” she told POLITIK.
“I think he did incredibly well at the election.
“I think he is one of our brightest, smartest, kindest and most compassionate politicians.
“But if he chose to step down I am sure there would be a range of contenders.
“I don’t intend to be one of them.
“What I’m interested in is helping write the next agenda for the next National Government.”
She has a very specific set of goals. She doesn’t say so directly but she obviously wants to be part of the next inner Cabinet, and she wants to play the kind of role within it that English did in the Key Government.
However, she has a more radical agenda than English had; what she is talking about would change National as much as people like Ruth Richardson and Ian MacLean did back in the 80s with their conversion of the party to what is now called neo liberalism.
Except that Kaye’s ambitions do not centre only on economic policy.
In fact, she doesn’t agree with even some of her own colleagues who think that National lost the economic battle during the election because, in the words of one front bench MP, they had stayed in the GFC recovery process for too long and imposed too much austerity on the social services.
“I think people can squabble about the timing, about what might be 12 months or 18 months in terms of the purse strings.
“It may depend a bit on which electorate you are in, but I don't personally feel that was one of the reasons why we weren't able to form a Government."
She says that she does not think changing economic policies will get National an increased share of the vote.
“When I have done public meetings or been out on the ground that ‘s not what people have expected of us.
"They do expect us to get better results, sometimes for less money but they want us to be more innovative in health and education."
As the former Education Minister and now spokesperson she has already made it clear her focus will be on what she calls 21st-century innovation and skills and developing different modes of delivery for teaching those skills.
Just as important within the overall economic debate, she argues, is the need for a conversation on inter-generational equity.
“This is something that is really going to hit gen X, gen Y and the Millenials," she said.
(Like Jacinda Ardern, Kaye is “Gen Y” herself --- like Ardern she is 37.)
Back in March last year just after Ardern had become Labour’s deputy leader, she and Kaye clashed over the age of eligibility for national super with Kaye supporting National’s policy of raising the age of eligibility to 67 by 2040.
During the election campaign, Ardern doubled down on her opposition to that policy by promising to quit Parliament if her Government did not maintain the age at 65.
Kaye is equally intransigent on raising the age.
We have to be a lot better at very clearly pitching to the millennials, X and Y, and saying how National sees inter- generational equity; whether it is student allowances, housing affordability or superannuation.
She sees room for trade-offs between all three elements; perhaps with increased home start grants instead of free student allowances and raising the age of super to make it more affordable and therefore avoiding to having to make other cuts to accommodate it.
But that’s only part of where she wants to see her party review its policies.
“I don’t think people want to see us go in for a period of navel-gazing.
“But I think they want to be confident that we’ve had a really good look at ourselves and said these are things we did really well and these are things we want to change.”
She believes there has been a generational shift around environmental issues.
“What I have already said to my colleagues, and I think many of them understand, is that we have to continue to understand that movement and continue to be more blue-green ourselves.
“This is not just a movement that is being led by young urban liberals; it’s actually being led on farms in major businesses, and that's got to be a core part of our regeneration.”
There has already been a signal of change within National’s caucus on environmental issues with the proposal by Climate Change spokesperson, Todd Muller, that National in agreeing to a bipartisan position on climate change targets would also agree to an independent Climate Change Commission; something the National Government had opposed.
Muller and Kaye are close, and she says she "totally" supports him.
And she also singles out Environment Spokesperson Scott Simpson as someone who understands what she is talking about.
She believes that National can form the next Government if it can raise its vote at the next election because she believes National can be the party of innovative ideas that speak directly to the under 45 generations.
But she also clearly doesn’t think it can get there by being a traditional opposition.
“A lot of people will want to know what the contrasts will be between Labour and us.
“If it’s a spending competition, then Labour will win.
“One of the reasons we have been successful is that we have genuinely put up the case for good policies like social investment, like communities of learning in education and some of the work we have done in research and innovation.
“People genuinely understand if you have got leading policy ideas.
“And that’s where the election will be fought out.
“The other thing that gives me confidence that we can win is that I believe that if you look at the collective mix of skills of our caucus, then you can see we have got a huge amount of grunt.
“So part of this year and looking ahead for the next three years is not consistently attacking and throwing rocks; instead it is being able to regenerate and refresh out policy platform.
“What this year will be all about is being very clear where we did well but also being very open about areas where people didn't know what we were doing or where we need to refresh our thinking."
What she doesn’t say but what her arguments imply, is that there will need to be renewal of the top of National's team.
She sees herself as being part of the next generation of National leadership with a group that might eventually consist of Todd Muller, Chris Bishop, Paul Goldsmith, Mark Mitchell and Scott Simpson along with new MPs like Denise Lee and Erica Stanford.
Should Nicola Willis make it in off the list before the next election, she too would seem to be part of what Kaye is talking about.
She knows they can't all be front benchers; she is technically not one herself yet but she wants to see the shape and tone of the top half of the caucus change.
Obviously, as the caller to POLITIK and Whaleoil’s comments show, there is already resistance to any idea of a substantial generational renewal of National.
But there is also support.
The right-wing NBR and RNZ political commentator, Matthew Hooton, argues that the party should learn from how Labour deferred generational change over the nine years it was in opposition.
And in a reader poll in NBR, Kaye romped away as the preferred successor to English with 45% support against the two likely candidates of Simon Bridges on 29% and Amy Adams on 26%.
This sort of support will give her significant moral authority with her proposals to regenerate the party.
That she will not contest the leadership may also make the politics easier for her.
But anyone who doubts her determination might pay to check out what she is doing right now --- she’s in Chile trekking among the glaciers, preparing herself for next months' Coast to Coast.
She is going to be a key politician to watch over thee next three years.