The National Party, holding its first regional conference since its defeat at the last election, appears to have taken a right turn and is now headed straight back to its base.
Delegates to its northern conference called for New Zealand to reject China and look to its traditional allies for defence and trade.
And Leader, Judith Collins, continued her campaign to question Labour’s moves to introduce co-governance with Maori into local government and the health system.
Yet neither move is as extreme as it may at first glance look.
Maori wards have been possible since 2002, and the Maori Health Authority proposal lacks any detail on what a veto over New Zealand health Authority decisions might mean in practice.
However, Collins will strike a chord with her rhetoric.
There is a nervousness both within the senior levels of the bureaucracy and the Beehive about our trade dependence on China.
Hence Nanaia Mahuta’s argument to the New Zealand China Council that for long term economic resilience, it is prudent not to put all our trade eggs in the China basket.
And the highly elevated level of expectations among Maori, particularly the potential for co-governance, also has raised questions about the possibility of a Pakeha backlash.
Collins’s speech to the conference was a carefully worded piece.
Its key argument that the Government needed to start a conversation on what she called its separatist proposals for Maori wards on councils and a Maori Health Authority.
“It has to be a national conversation – one that has honest, respectful and open debate,” she said
“A debate where every voice is heard. A clear vision for where it leads, and one that goes to a referendum if needs be. It cannot be snuck through.”
But at the same time, in what could be seen as a dog whistle, she repeated the “one people” line that has been adopted by the Hobson’s Pledge movement led by Don Brash.
“Did the Treaty bring us together as one people or split us apart as two?” she asked. And later in the speech, “New Zealand, like all countries, works best when we are one people.”
Brash argues that Captain William Hobson said, “now we are one people” after the Treaty was signed in 1840.
However, it is disputed that he actually said it. It was first reported by the Missionary, William Colenso, some 49 years later when he was nearly 90.
What is undisputed is that no Maori who signed the Treaty said it.
Nevertheless, Collins reaffirmed it in her speech.
Speaking about the proposed Maori Health Authority, she said: “ Is this what the Māori chiefs and Hobson imagined in 1840 when they agreed: we are now one people?”
Regardless it is not in the Treaty, and it is now the calling sign for the Hobson’s Pledge movement, which is at the extreme end of those questioning the extent to which the Treaty now plays a role in New Zealand life.
There was equally subtle wording in the debate about New Zealand’s foreign policy through party members did not display the same restraint as the three MPs who led the debate.
The three, Simeon Brown, Chris Penk and Simon O’Connor, are part of an evangelical right-wing faction within National, somewhat unkindly called “The Taliban” by some of their more liberal colleagues.
O’Connor is the associate foreign affairs spokesperson, and it was clear that he has a different view of China to that of the spokesperson Gerry Brownlee.
Brownlee, a former Defence and Foreign Affairs Minister, has been cautious about joining condemnations of China and was notably silent on the announcement by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta that New Zealand would not join Five Eyeyes statements on human rights abuses there.
O’Connor, on the other hand, claimed that a motion calling for an investigation into foreign interference in New Zealand was not aimed at China but at the Chinese Communist Party.
The Party’s General Secretary is Chinese President, Xi Jinping and the Premier Li Keqiang is on the Standing Committee. The People’s Liberation Army is actually the armed wing of the Party.
Nevertheless, O’Connor insisted there was a difference.
“The CCP (Chinese Communist Party), not China, is interfering in New Zealand,” he said.
“ I just want to put that up there just very, very briefly. It is happening.”
With Labour MP Louisa Wall, O’Connor supports the
Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China which is critical of China and is currently campaigning to have Taiwan join the World Health Organisation.
O’Connor also boycotted a Chinese Embassy briefing on Xinjiang on Friday on the grounds that it was a propaganda exercise.
Party members were overwhelmingly in support of the motion to hold the inquiry though some sceptical voices emerged during the debate.
One delegate said New Zealand had become addicted to Chinese money.
“We have seen the influence in our political parties,” he said.
Dairy farmer, Grant McCallum, brought up the broader economic question about New Zealand’s trade with China.
He asked how it would be possible to balance the criticism of China with the fact that New Zealand did not have a free trade agreement with the United States and that Asia was where our economic future was.
Murray Scott, from O’Connor’s Tamaki electorate, however, said there was a benefit in challenging China.
“I would say there’s a benefit, and that’s the future freedoms of my children,” he said.
“So really, the question is whether national security is negotiable for the tradable sector.
“The future potential future for my children. Is that a negotiating chip?”
This rhetoric marked a major departure from National’s stance in Government on China when it had what was widely recognised as the closest relationship of any western country with China and when former leader, Bill English, declared New Zealand’s foreign policy to be “independent”.
Even that is now being challenged by National.
Though O’Connor does not believe New Zealand should rejoin ANZUS, he does say we should stand with our traditional allies.
“In terms of allying ourselves with our traditional allies, particularly democratic countries, which share our common values, that makes sense,” he told POLITIK.
National is a party licking its political wounds after its landslide defeat last election. Scars were evident in the conference booklet, which included reports from various sub-divisions within the Party.
Womens’ Advisory Group Sarah Trotman included in her report a reprise of the bitter Auckland Central selection dispute when she was one of a number of members who opposed the selection of Sri Lankan businesswoman, Nuwanthie Samarakone as the candidate. (A decision which was ultimately overturned in favour of a Pakeha banker, Emma Mellow.)
“I do not hesitate in calling out bad behaviour within our Party, and it is clear to me that that is not always welcomed from people in a leadership position within the Party,” said Trotman in her report.“
“The apparent willful disregard for the Party’s constitution by the current President, current regional chair, board Members, Auckland Central chair and three Auckland Central electorate representatives, who sat on the 2020 Auckland Central selection panel, and the apparent manipulation of that selection has resulted in me wanting to take time out to reflect on where I am best able to serve the Party to ensure quality future leadership.
“Swift implementation of recommendations from the recent review will send valued Party members, who are of course our donors and volunteers, a message that they can have confidence that the poor behaviour of 2020 is behind us. “
Trotman may, however, may have been disappointed by party members’ reaction to the Governance and Election reviews which
were discussed in a closed session on Friday night.
Though members were restricted to 30-second speeches, POLITIK understands that proposals to transfer more power to the Party’s board and to supplement that board with two appointed directors were rejected.
A particularly controversial proposal was to have the board play a larger role in the election of the leader.
POLITIK understands that was provoked by a view that there should have been a mechanism to stop Todd Muller from challenging Simon Bridges for the leadership six months out from the election last year.
But it appears that party members took the view that matters like this were best left to the caucus.
National has more regional conferences planned over the next three weeks.
But Auckland is the biggest (the attendance this weekend was over 400), and both Collins and the conference have now set the tone.
It is, for the meantime, for the Nats, back to basics.