The conservative heartland that drives the National Party
By Richard Harman (author)
To understand the National Party, and the forces that drive its MPs, then a selection meeting in its rural heartland is a revealing insight.
On Sunday 57 National Party "delegates", a number of Waikato MPs and party observers got together in the Puketaha Hall, near Gordonton on the outskirts of Hamilton to select a replacement for the retiring Waikato MP, Linsey Tisch, who had a majority at the last election of 16,169.
This is dairy farm country, the home of the former NZ Co-op Dairy Company, one of the main progenitors of Fonterra.
It was a hot afternoon, and the windows in the hall were left open which meant the candidates had to be positioned some distance from the hall so they couldn’t hear each other’s speeches.
The ladies had brought a plate; everybody had dressed up, and the meeting was conducted with an almost Teutonic adherence to party rules and procedures.
One of those was that though POLITIK was invited to stay, nothing that was said during the candidates’ speeches could be directly reported.
There were three candidates. All had farming connections which delegate after delegate stressed was critical if they wanted to be selected.
They had undergone a rigorous pre-selection interview process and though one of the interviewers told POLITIK that really only two should have gone through it was decided to give all three a chance.
Most of the delegates POLITIK had spoken to before the meeting began, thought that either one of two of the candidates could win.
One of the MPs present later said he understood that one of the two, had lost it with his speech and possibly because his wife had been unable to attend.
Wives matter in rural electorates, and the two who did appear had plainly spent some time worrying about their appearance.
The speeches were all remarkably similar; focussing on challenges faced by the farming community such as environmental standards and more generally getting the rest of New Zealand to understand farming.
They emphasised the virtues of hard work and community and loyalty to the National Party.
One candidate talked of how his grandfather had bought 100 acres in the district back at the beginning of the 20th century only to discover it was peat swamp.
Undeterred he had gone ahead and drained it and developed a proper dairy farm.
That sort of story was clearly what the audience wanted to hear.
The candidates had to answer two questions – one set by the person who within 24 hours was to resign as Prime Minister.
It was a typical key question focussing on marketing the political message -- -asking them how they would explain the strengths of the Waikato to a metropolitan audience who would not understand anything about the region or farming.
The rigorous adherence to the rules meant that the votes were taken across a paddock to the local school and counted there and while that took place Maurice Williamson entertained the meeting to an explanation of the American voting system. This was greeted with some cynical groans from some of the MPs.
But after nearly half an hour and a hushed consultation with Party President Peter Goodfellow outside the hall, the winner was announced.
The winner was Tim Van de Molen, a 33-year-old former Young Farmer of the Year, Territorial Army officer, rural banker, company director and holder of a degree in psychology.
Offered up for an interview by party president Goodfellow, he was excited, nervous and very careful with what he said.
He was delighted, thrilled and all the usual clichés. He wanted to work for the electorate and looked forward to being the MP.
He was undoubtedly one of them; a true representative of the community, embued with its values but with the kind of CV that could easily be seen as that of a Cabinet Minister some time in the future.
Selection meetings like these are the grassroots engine that drives the National Party, and it pays to remember that when you try to work out who might make it as their leader.
It is a party of conservatives, and it holds very firmly to its basic values of hard work and community.
That’s why Bill English who understands the meetings that take place in halls like the Puketaha one, resonates so well with the grass roots party membership.