Now Bridges faces a dilemma
By Richard Harman (author)
A buoyant National Leader, Simon Bridges, was yesterday revelling in the Australian election result and the news that National may have found a support party at last.
Speaking at his party’s lower North Island conference in Lower Hutt Bridges was quick to adopt Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s description of his supporters as the “quiet Australians”.
“They may not be on Twitter; they may not always be in the media but they have power when it comes to the ballot every three years, and we know that like they backed the Liberals in Australia, they back National in New Zealand,” he said.
Later in the speech, he said a capital gains tax would have been not just an attack on our “kiwi way of life” but also on “those quiet New Zealanders like those quiet Australians that Scott Morrison has talked about”.
And though Bridges may argue he won that debate his problem is that on current polling he cannot win the next election because National has lost its support parties; the Maori Party and United Future.
But yesterday he was happy to confirm the reports from Friday that he had talked to List MP, Alfred Ngaro, about the possibility of Ngaro forming a Christian Party.
However, neither Ngaro nor Party President, Peter Goodfellow, would talk about it yesterday.
Ngaro said he was not making any comments.
But he told POLITIK he had not met with the New Conservative Party as some reports suggested he would.
Goodfellow said the reality for National was that it needed to focus on its party vote.
And he didn’t say much more.
When this news broke on Friday, the party’s board was meeting in Wellington, and board members seemed totally unaware of any move by Ngaro which suggests that Goodfellow was kept out of the loop and that apart from a small group of National MPs, it was Bridges who knew the most about the idea.
The idea of a Christian conservative party being sponsored by National is not new.
Tamaki MP, Simon O’Connor, was named last year as a potential leader of such a party but that idea went nowehere.
Though Bridges said he was happy to allow Ngaro to explore the idea of a new party while still a member of National, he drew the line at any electorate deal in Botany as had been suggested.
“We want a National candidate in Botany,” he told reporters.
“I’m not interested in electorate deals.
“That is certainly not something I have canvassed with Alfred or anyone else for that matter."
Bridges said that at last the election New Zealanders had seen Winston Peters rule the roost and they did not like that.
“They want to see scenarios where that does not happen.”
Behind the scenes, National MPs have reacted with views ranging from cautious interest to scepticism about the Ngaro proposal.
One argument put forward was that it was "bloody hard" to get a new party off the ground and that TOP showed that even with a huge amount of money, it was not easy.
Others said that the worth of a Christian Party would depend on whether it could take votes off Labour.
And that raised the question of whether it could target Pasifika votes in South Auckland.
The three electorates with the largest Pasifika population; Mangere, Manurewa East and Manurewa, all saw Labour get between 58% and 71% of the vote while National got between 17 and 19 per cent.
But turnout is low --- around 66% for all three electorates.
If National did not do an electorate deal with Ngaro, then he would need approximately 150,000 votes to get to the five per cent threshold.
That's a big ask.
That was demonstrated when a Christian party which started out as Christian Heritage competed in elections throughout the 1990s and which peaked with only 4.4% of the vote in 1996.
But one senior caucus source said that if all Ngaro was to do was to show that National had friends then that could end the perception that it cannot form the next Government because it has no support parties.
Whether it was the prospect of Ngaro providing at least that perception or whether it was Morrison’s victory in Australia, Bridges seemed to be in a much more energised mood than he has been at the two previous regional conferences.
'What I see is a government built on one person, on celebrity that can’t and isn’t delivering to New Zealanders<" he told delegates.
“And I know that we have the best team in New Zealand politics on offer and that we can and will deliver for New Zealanders.
“There is a difference between spin and substance.
“I want to deliver a government that is the most substantive New Zealand has ever seen.”
On Saturday there was a glimpse of the substance that National is capable of with a panel discussion on New Zealand in 2050.
However the debate may have gone further than Bridges, a natural conservative, might have liked.
It was, maybe, an indication of the frustration that some of the younger members of the caucus have felt at the apparent lack of interest in new ideas by the party’s front bench.
The three MPs; Todd Muller, Chris Bishop[ and Nicola Willis, are not in the tight group that is close to Bridges. Indeed one told POLITIK that they were amazed he had agreed to the discussion taking place at all.
Muller is the Opposition Climate Change spokesperson, and he was emphatic that temperatures were rising.
“If we don't address that, we are going to have changes in terms of polar melts, changes in weather patterns and they are going to fundamentally impact the globe as we understand it,” he said.
“Look forward to 2050; you overlay those climatic changes with nine billion people, with an increased rise of populism that pitches this anxiety as something that can be leveraged for political gain, and you can see a world that is going to be very difficult for us to navigate.”
But Muller is critical of some aspects of the current climate change debate.
"When do we decide that our balance sheet is best focused on adaptation rather than the eye-watering cost of mitigation," he said.
This kind of talk is miles away from the prosaic debates about the finer points of existing policy delivery that we have heard at the two previous regional conferences.
Hutt South MP, Chris Bishop went even further discussing the current housing crisis.
“We must care about the moral dimension of this problem,” he said.
“Young people must have the same opportunities to get into home ownership that their parents and grandparents did.
“That is not true now and unless we change it won’t be true in 2030 or 2050.
“There is a moral dimension to this.
“I do not believe anybody in this room wants to live in a New Zealand in 2050 where people live in motels.
“That is morally outrageous.”
Wellington list MP, Nicola Willis, argued that the whole system of social support needed refocusing.
“Our opponents are still boxing at the shadows of Rogernomics,” she said.
“But we have moved on.
“Today we are the party of reducing waiting lists; lifting unemployment benefits and of doubling investment in early childhood education.
“What’s even better; we did all of that while cutting taxes.
“We know that government investment will increase in the coming decades.
“The question is how to do we get better results for it.”
These younger liberals within the caucus are becoming a force to be reckoned with. They lined up behind Amy Adams in the leadership contest last year, and they are likely to have been some of those recently who have been questioning Bridges’ leadership.
They represent a more metropolitan, younger, more centrist approach to policy.
But they, along with Alfred Ngaro, pose a considerable dilemma for Bridges.
Logically, he should move the party towards where they stand in the centre to make room for Ngaro on the right.
That way, theoretically, he could eat into some of Labour’s vote.
But that is not his natural instinct as he amply demonstrated yesterday with his endorsement of Scott Morrison’s “Quiet Australians” who are made up of conservative non-metropolitan voters.
It happens to all parties in Opposition; sooner or later they find themselves in a grand divisive ideological debate about what they really stand for. National looks to have stated.