National Leader Simon Bridges appears to have heard the complaints from party members and today will embark on a tour to “listen” to small business.
POLITIK understands that some senior members of the party have been letting Bridges know that they were unimpressed with his focus on hunting for whoever leaked his limousine usage details and instead wanted him to focus on declining business confidence.
That issue became more urgent with the Government’s appointment last Thursday of Air New Zealand CEO, Christopher Luxon, to head up a new Business Advisory Board.
Luxon’s appointment was criticised by Regional Economic Development Minister, Shane Jones, and by a number of the country’s employer organisations.
They argued that Luxon did not represent small business.
Bridges however held back.
But today in front of the Newmarket Business Association in Auckland he will launch National’s 2020 election policy development process, beginning with a so-called ‘Have your say’ listening campaign for small businesses.
“I’m launching our process to develop policies for the 2020 election,” he said.
“We’re beginning with small businesses, the engine room of the economy.”
Last night he denied that this was a rushed proposal, dreamed up in response to the Government’s announcement and the criticism from within the party.
“No,” he told POLITIK.
“We were always going to this tomorrow, but fortuitously the timing is good.
“Small business is very much interested in a party that is listening to them in a way they feel the government is not.”
And last night Bridges was more pointed in his criticism of Air New Zealand and also Westpac who hosted the Prime Minister for the Thursday announcement.
He said the establishment of the Business Advisory Council seemed pretty solely focused on the “big end of town.”
“It will be involved in a bit of a love-in with Government rather than a Council that will give the real feedback the Government needs.
“When you think about the issues that small business has to worry about, industrial relations, for example, these are not things that Christopher Luxon has to worry about.
“He has got massive teams that deal with that and direct lines into the Government to manoeuvre Air New Zealand’s way around them.”
That may hit the nail on the head over the business confidence issue.
Big business has been talking to the Government; small business has not.
Writing yesterday in the “Sunday Star Times” the former director of the Institute of Economic Research, Shamubeel Eaqub said that the easy and informal networks John Key, Bill English and Stephen Joyce enjoyed in the previous Government have been missing.
“Informal contact is more powerful and candid than the scripted, slow and time-pressured official engagements,” he wrote.
“Getting to ministers through a thicket of obstructive public servants is a near impossible task in any government.
“Listening to stump speeches by ministers, or their seconds is frankly a waste of time.”
This “contact gap” is what Bridges is hoping to capitalise on.
But today’s launch also marks the beginning of National’s policy development programme for the 2020 election.
The party has set up a surprisingly complex process to develop policy which is being overseen by Nelson MP, Nick Smith.
In effect, it is reviewing all its policy from the ground up.
Smith is planning to visit each electorate to discuss broad policy directions and has asked that his visits include contacts with more than the usual National Party figures.
Now Bridges is to tour the country also seeking input.
“We will have a series of these consultations,” he said.
“I think it is highly symbolic that we start with small business, traditionally strong supporters of National because we back them.
“There will be more in areas like families, seniors; probably about one a month out to the end of the year.
“So the process is listening this year; discussion documents next year before final policies early 2020.
“We want to be ready to go and say what we will do if we get the privilege to lead in 2020.”
That focus on policy and talking about government is what National’s membership want to hear.
The test for Bridges will be whether he can keep the focus there or whether he allows himself to become distracted by day to day politics as he did over the limousine leak.