The uneasy National Party conference
By Richard Harman (author)
The National Party’s annual conference opens in Christchurch on Saturday with an atmosphere of unease both within the caucus and more broadly, across the party.
There are two unanswered questions; whether the party has got the right person as leader and what to do about NZ First.
In many ways, the answer to the second depends on the answer to the first.
But the leadership has come into focus again after Party President Peter Goodfellow back in April shut down debate on Simon Bridges’ performance.
Goodfellow demanded unity from the caucus and senior party officials.
But that unity has begun to crack, and both through public statements and leaks it is obvious that there is growing concern about Bridges.
They centre on whether he can make any headway in the campaign against Jacinda Ardern.
Criticism is becoming more open.
That was evident when Bay of Plenty MP, Todd Muller, was bold enough to implicitly criticise Bridges’ position on the Government’s electric vehicle policy in an interview last week.
For good measure, Muller also cast doubts over Bridges’ ability as a Minister to convert the government vehicle fleet to electricity.
Papakura MP, Judith Collins, is now ahead of Bridges in preferred Prime Minister polls and many in the party and caucus will be keenly watching another poll expected over the weekend.
That poll rating gives Collins some insurance and her seniority also makes it difficult for Bridges to rope her in.
Muller is a different matter and is an easier target.
Bridges held him at Number 31 rating in the caucus during the recent reshuffle even though he is climate change spokesperson and has strong support from a number of senior MPs as a future leader.
It has been notable this week, despite last week’s announcements about farming and the Zero Carbon Bill, that Muller has not been allocated a single question on the issue.
Bridges however on Wednesday allocated himself two questions which is highly unusual.
Some MPs have taken this as a sign that he feels under siege.
Both his caucus and the party membership will be looking to his keynote speech at the weekend conference for signs that he is able to lead the party through the next campaign.
The speech is thought to focus on the Provincial Growth Fund, which raises another question about where National is headed.
Bridges has said that he will announce a decision on whether the party would consider forming a government with NZ First early in the new year.
Given the personal animosity between him and Winston Peters, and the fact that he may have a go at NZ First in his speech suggests it would be unlikely for him to say yes to that idea.
On Wednesday night, NZ First MP Shane Jones held a social function in his Beehive office suite.
He invited all National MPs, but only Judith Collins turned up.
The problem the Nats have with NZ First is that without them they have little hope of forming a government.
Though Winston Peters runs what amounts to a vendetta against National, the party would seem unlikely to regain the Beehive unless they can bury the past and do a deal.
National’s strategists argue that this is not the case; that what they could do is force the NZ First vote below five per cent and try and get more votes than Labour and the Greens combined.
The party’s pollster David Farrar, is also against a deal with Peters and says that would allow the party to campaign arguing that a vote for NZ First was a vote for Labour and the Greens.
By and large, the party members are not keen on Peters and NZ First so Bridges may be on safer ground on this issue.
And what Bridges might take heart from is that as his performance improved through the regional conferences, which seemed to dampen criticism of him.
What that suggests is that his performance this weekend will be crucial.
At the same time, there is also a contested election for the party board.
Originally there were eight candidates for four positions, but two have dropped out and a third, former MP, Paul Foster Bell, has hardly campaigned at all.
It is thought that sitting members Alistair Bell and Andrew Hunt will be re-elected with one of two of the women on the board; Pat Seymour or Glenda Hughes possibly missing out in the face of an energetic campaign by former Young Nationals President, Stefan Sunde.
All of this; misgivings about the leadership, uncertainty about the strategic direction and calls for a renewal of the organisation officeholders, is typical of a party as it starts to settle into opposition.
The trick is to get it sorted out and move on. That is never easy.