The past week has seen a series of columns intending to analyse the so-called problems within National.
Their arguments are worth canvassing because between them the three point to the core issues now confronting the party.
POLITIK comes from a position of being the only journalist and probably one of the very few people to have attended every one of the National party’s five regional conferences for the past six years.
Perhaps the most salient observation from those trips is that the people there haven’t changed much. That is a point John Bishop also makes.
Bishop is the father of National MP, Chris Bishop, a former TVNZ Press Gallery journalist and a former chair of the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union.
He says that in 1972 he voted against National, which he saw as the party of his parents’ generation, “of the Great Depression, World War II, narrow, insular, male and farmer dominated, ladies in hats carrying fluffy sponges, white, middle-aged, middle class, arrogant, patronising and condescending.”
“They just didn’t get the younger generation, its values, music, aspirations, and their new view of the world,” he says.
“What was important to the under-25s didn’t rate with the over-50s in National.
“They were out of step with the ”new consciousness” of the age.
“Sound familiar? The personnel have changed, but many voters see National in much the same terms now.”
The second thing that stands out from the regional conferences is how little debate takes place.
Back in the 1980s and 90s, before Stephen Joyce corporatised National, conferences were defined by lively debates.
In 1989, for example, at the party’s annual conference in Rotorua, there was an intense debate over proclaiming the Treaty of Waitangi being declared New Zealand’s founding document.
The motion was moved by the Northland Maori leader, Sir Grahame Latimer and opposed by the new MP for Tauranga, Winston Peters.
Speaker after speaker lined up on one side or the other. Some of the speeches were raw. Racism was not far away from a few. But the motion passed, and the party survived.
These days the party’s debates only a handful of carefully selected remits at its regional and national conferences.
In 2016 at the party’s Central North Island conference in Hamilton, a delegate, Margaret Murray-Benge was told her remit on changes to the Resource Management Act could not be discussed because it would have opened up the issue of the iwi participation clauses being included in proposed amendments to the Act and that could lead to embarassing racist speeches.
The courage of 1989 had gone. Instead the racism went underground and leader, Judith Collins, told journalists during the campaign the party would not support iwi participation clauses in the new resoruce management legislation.
Terry Dunleavy, is in his 90s, was the inaugural CEO of the New Zealand Wine Institute and is one of the founders of the New Zealand Climate Change Coalition which questions much of the current climate change science and policy.
He is a frequent thorn in the side of some in the National caucus and party hierarchy.
But he believes the party has lost a lot in subduing debate at its conferences.
Writing on the right-wing BFD website, he says that in his earliest years attending National Party conferences then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake used to remind his ministers and MPs that the conferences belonged to the delegates.
“As a result, delegates talked, and MPs listened, and the highlights were always lively debate on remits,” he wrote.
“These days, there are few remits discussed, and anything remotely controversial doesn’t even reach the agenda; the stage is dominated by ministers (or, in opposition, shadow ministers) who talk while delegates listen.”
Writing in the NZ Herald, the former National Party press secretary and (briefly) this year, member of the party’s campaign team, Matthew Hooton says that with party membership downgraded to little more than providing North Korean-style applause at annual conferences, it is no surprise National is now even further from being a true mass-membership party.
The consequence of all this has been that the party relies almost exclusively on its caucus for policy.
And a decision by the former deputy leader, Paula Bennett, to redeploy the party’s Parliamentary funding away from policy advisors and into social media meant that it went into the election severely under-gunned in terms of policy development.
That problem was further exacerbated by a long-running dispute between then-leader Simon Bridges and Treasury over embedding a Treasury official in his office.
Yet the party membership covers a wide range of experience.
This is often demonstrated in the Blue Greens annual conference where local government councillors, farmers and academics can often emerge to debate issues like climate change and freshwater policy.
The Blue Greens are the nearest National has to an organised faction, and though Simon Bridges and Todd Muller both attended their annual conference, Judith Collins has not appeared in the six that POLITIK has been to.
The failure to allow party members to have any meaningful input into policy may be why party membership appears to below.
The recent (and late) Auckland Central selection meeting gave something of an insight into this.
The room was packed not with local electorate members, but delegates from other electorates appointed to make up the numbers because Auckland Central had not reached its membership quota.
POLITIK understands that membership may be as low as 200, but there are similar stories from other electorates like Ilam.
And this raises what is undoubtedly the most controversial issue within the party at present; candidate selection.
And that, in turn, raises questions about the President, Peter Goodfellow and the party’s board.
POLITIK understands that Goodfellow took part in almost all the party’s pre-selection meetings to vet candidates to go to the full selection meeting.
It was apparently his practise to include a board member and the party’s regional chair in the meeting along with two or three representatives from the relevant electorate.
There are those with long experience in the party who argue that not only is this a practice he has introduced but one that should never have been considered in the first place.
One consequence of this heavy-handed approach is that some candidates have withdrawn during the selection process.
The former Mayor of Queenstown, Vanessa van Uden, is believed to be one that was so frustrated with the process that she withdrew from the Southland selection. Another potential candidate for that electorate, a former Singapore-based investment banker, Simon Flood, arrived at the same conclusion and abandoned plans to stand.
Hotton says that with head office control and regional chairs appointing “top up” delegates from outside the electorate, a young former staffer can fly in from Wellington and beat the community leader who has spent 20 years building up a successful local business and chairing the high school board of trustees.
“The upshot is that the best way for an ambitious young person to become a National MP is no longer getting to know and earning the respect of their local community, but to leave town and get a job for a current MP. That MP is then incentivised to help the young staffer become an MP to build up their own power base in caucus.”
He argues that this has made the caucus inward looking and like Bishop he believes it makes the party detached from real people in communities.
There are other problems.
When Jami-Lee Ross turns up in court in September next year to answer the Serious Fraud Office charges that he and six Chinese businessmen set out to evade Electoral Commission party donation disclosure requirements, the whole question of the relationship between the party hierarchy and wealthy Chinese providing candidates is sure to be raised.
Rather than looking to the Chinese community’s grassroots fortis ethnic candidates, National has sought to obtain them from the community leadership.
Labour has taken a different tack, and both its Indian and Chinese candidates have much stronger community credentials.
But at least National has selected some Asian candidates.
Its record with Maori is poor.
The party now has only two Maori MPs; Shane Reti and Simon Bridges. ACT, in comparison, has three; David Seymour, Nicole McKee and Karen Chhor.
Many blame the selection process. As an example, the Palmerston North electorate passed over an accomplished Maori businessperson and former Hastings District Councillor, Adrienne Pierce, in favour of a 17-year-old Pakeha schoolboy.
Hooton says that National is almost completely disconnected from contemporary New Zealand — and its main urban centres in particular.
Though the change is needed within the caucus, the only place where that change can originate is within the party.
Bishop argues that means it needs to reshape its values;
Dunleavy says National Party members need to reclaim ownership of their party, bring its processes up to what is required for the post-Covid world and elect to the leadership of their party organisation people able and willing to restore the mass membership enthusiasm and voting support National needs to return to government in 2023.
Referring back to the restructuring of the party that then-President, Michelle Boag, carried out after the 2002 defeat, Hooton asks “after a catastrophe, shouldn’t a Boag-style shake-up at least be possible?”
The leader, Judith Collins, will argue that these are all issues that should be left to the party’s review of the last three years and the election campaign.
But in three weeks time, the party will meet for its AGM in Wellington.
The party’s internal debate is about to begin. It is long overdue.
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