The Nats' difficult road to 2020
By Richard Harman (author)
National's policy rewrite is underway, and the party is showing signs of making a dramatic swing to the centre.
However, there are tensions within the party about how far to go.
The MP charged with overseeing the party's comprehensive policy review, Nick Smith, says don’t expect too much.
“I don’t think you are going to see in the present climate where National is polling very strongly, where there is a strong sense in the party of confidence about our direction in the Key years of a massive rewrite of National's basic philosophy,” he said.
Maybe not, but some of Smith’s senior colleagues were surprised at his caution.
After all, Leader Simon Bridges in his opening comments had said there was no room for complacency.
“We have to be a 56 strong MP policy machine,” he said.
.The difference between Bridges and Smith was perfectly defined by former Australian PM, John Howard, in an opening address.
"Proud though of what you have achieved, under Simon's (Bridges) leadership you are now focussed on the future," he told delegates in a keynote address.
"It will be a different future, but it will combine the good elements of the past with some new elements.
“It is the task of a successful political party to strike a balance between treasuring its legacies but at the same time embracing change and opportunity.”
And striking that balance was really what the conference was all about.
At first glance, National still looks like the party that it did when it was in Government last year.
Though there was a substantial turnout of over 600 at the conference, few looked like it was their first conference.
What had been rumoured last year to be challenges to board members, possibly even the President, did not eventuate and the party will go into 2019 with more or less the same board it went into 2017 with.
Only the Parliamentary team has changed, but again, the faces that were presented to the conference were the familiar.
To the surprise of some delegates, the new MPs were not introduced to the conference at all..
National’s problem is that it does not accept that it lost the election.
It wasn’t surprising therefore that Howard got applause when he said they had been the subjects of a “disappointing, unjust and unfair” political result last year.
But though Simon Bridges assured delegates that the party would win power back in 2020, this may be a more difficult task than he is willing to admit in public.
POLITIK spoke "off the record" with a number of senior MPs and long-standing party members.
All agreed they have a problem.
They may win the largest share of the vote next election but how do they get a centre-right majority in Parliament?
In the short term (which means through the next election) their only strategy is to hope that either NZ First or the Greens fails to make the five per cent threshold.
Opinion is divided about whether it would be NZ First or the Greens who fall over.
The consequence of this, which was evident at the conference, is what appears to be a change in strategy by National.
They now realise that the Greens are in reality a left-wing party and that any suggestion they might support a National Government is fanciful.
The situation with NZ First has changed.
The prevailing view in National until very recently was that all they had to do was wait for Winston Peters to retire and Shane Jones would lead NZ First across to National.
But a close study of the Northcote by-election results has shown senior Nats that Labour’s nine per cent increase in its candidate vote share looks like it came from the Greens and particularly NZ First voters.
The theory that many NZ First voters would have preferred the party to have gone with National was shot out of the water.
Now, National will have to work on the principle that a vote for NZ First is a Labour vote.
This was possibly behind what seemed to be a step-up in the number of personal attacks on Peters at the conference; the most pointed of which was from Judith Collins when she said a New Zealand First proposal to raise drink drive limits was "self-interest".
But the other, more substantial, move appears to be an apparent willingness to move to the centre on some key policies.
The most obvious was Bridges’ announcement of support for smaller class sizes.
“Simply having more attention from teachers will make a difference to young children,” he said.
That was a remarkable statement from someone who had been a junior Minister when then-Education Minister Hekia Parata announced in 2012 that she wanted to increase class sizes.
Then the National Government argument was that class sizes didn’t matter.
In fact, Parata told Parliament that increasing student/teacher ratios, could “free up funding that could be used to support initiatives to enhance the quality of teaching.”
But teacher ratios were not the only epiphanous moment the conference allowed itself.
Some of the policy breakout sessions were equally revelatory.
A session on foreign trade and defence policy was prompted by its chair, Todd McClay, to offer ideas on what an independent foreign policy would look like.
And Defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell, obliged with a contribution criticising the criticism of China in the Defence Policy Statement
“I was pretty disappointed and surprised to see the clear change in the language used about China in the Defence Policy Statement,” he said.
"That could have serious repercussions for us as a nation, and actually historically we have been fiercely independent with both our foreign policy and our defence policy.”
A debate on a remit calling for more support for water storage and flood control measures turned into a discussion about climate change.
Walter Scott, a Kaikoura delegate said there were two issues facing New Zealand; no water where it was needed most and too much water where it was not needed at all.
"The effects of climate change are being experienced in New Zealand by the destruction of our communities both urban and rural,” he said.
“What we once knew as 100-year floods are now becoming more frequent.
“The other effect is droughts which are now seemingly becoming continuous from season to season.”
Scott offered a farming perspective outlining the economic destructiveness of both floods and droughts.
Another Kaikoura delegate talked of flying up to Auckland for the conference and looking at the landscape below.
"All of that is under threat from an unpredictable climate unless we act now," he said.
Climate change was discussed in depth at a breakout session, and spokesperson Todd Muller outlined his approach to the bipartisan policy development being undertaken by James Shaw.
But perhaps reflecting that National’s new centrist streak goes only so far, he set out some important qualifications for National's support.
Shaw has set out three options for which gases might be included in the emissions trading scheme.
One option includes methane --- the gas produced by ruminant animals. But methane is short-lived in the atmosphere, and farmers argue that therefore it should not be included in the scheme.
"I see no reason to pursue an all gases strategy," said Muller.
There was an interesting undercurrent at the farmers’ session.
Atr regional conferences and selection meetings last year National candidates (like Rangitata's Andrew Falloon) sharply criticised urban environmental groups for what they said were their attacks on farmers.
This reached something of a crescendo with the Morrinsville farmers' protest in September last year during the eelciton campaign.
But instead, speakers talked about the need to "tell the farming story".
The former Agriculture Minister, Nathan Guy, challenged members to invite local schools and newspapers on to their farms to show them what they were doing to manage water pollution.
However John Sunckell, an ECann councillor warned that the current Government could be soon insisting on inserting prescriptive requirements into regional plans dealing with land use.
Muller said that underlined the philosophical difference between National and Labour.
"They are focussed on driving inputs or the way you farm from the centre," he said.
“We focus on outputs,” he said.
That philosophical difference was at the centre of Howard’s address and offered a reminder that at heart, the Nats are conservatives.
He said that centre-right parties believed in the fulfilment of individual hopes and dreams "and the centrality of the family as the most influential and stabilising influence on our community."
This was greeted with widespread applause as were his following comments about a coherent family being the best welfare system that "mankind has devised."
Another sign of the inherent caution within the aprty came with its refusal to endorse an Auckland remit calling for National to compete as a aprty in local government elections.
Instead, the party’s board, has been ordered to investigate the idea.
Looking back at the weekend, one of the party's senior figures, a veteran conference attendee compared the mood with two other conferences which followed election defeats; in 1985 and 2000.
Both were dominated by division over the leadership and factionalism within the caucus. In 1985 there was even an alternative conference which ran simultaneously organised by supporters of Sir Robert Muldoon.
From that point of view, this one was a success; the party is united; Bridges is unchallenged as leader but the path ahead is complex and uncertain, and National is not really in control of its own destiny.
Whether that starts to impose stresses on both the caucus and the party remains to be seen, but it is undoubtedly a risk.