National Party President Peter Goodfellow has dodged a potential challenge to his presidency which had the implicit backing of party leader, Judith Collins.
Goodfellow was re-elected to the party’s board who then unanimously re-elected him president during the party’s annual general meeting at the weekend.
The challenge built on a foundation of party members wanting substantial change in the party after the election defeat.
There were four candidates contesting the three positions on the board.
The three successful candidates were former Speaker, David Carter; Southland regional chair, Rachel Bird and Goodfellow — in that order.
The fourth candidate, who missed out, was Northland party official and former board member, Grant McCallum.
The new board met on Saturday night and unanimously re-elected Goodfellow president.
McCallum had lobbied delegates with a call for change and was nominated by a number of electorates including two influential ones; Papakura, the home electorate of Leader, Judith Collins and Port Waikato, the electorate of Treasury spokesperson, Andrew Bayley.
It was widely known within the party that had he been elected, he would have challenged Goodfellow at the following board meeting.
He was the only contender to call for change within the party which as former leader, Sir John Key, reminded the meeting had just lost 413,800 of its 2017 voters.
Judith Collins has not commented on the presidency and her only media availability on Saturday was before the vote.
The party itself went to some lengths to keep media away from the election and did not allow journalists to be present for the announcement of the results or to take photographs of the candidates.
Goodfellow did not speak to media at all during Saturday and instead appeared to be partly blaming them for the election loss.
“The majority of the media world are not here to write helpful stories about us,” he told delegates.
“Quite the opposite for our centre-right side of politics the world over.
“You see it your news feed on a constant basis with opinion. dressed as fact.
“We are held to a higher standard, more so than the Labor government will ever be. no matter their failings.”
He had campaigned almost solely on his ability to raise funds for the party. His message was that only he had the level of access to the country’s boardrooms that could deliver the amount of funding the party would require to beat Labour at the next election.
As for this year’s loss, he seemed to see a conspiracy aligned against National over the course of the election campaign.
Prior to Covid, National had been preparing for an election camopaign which would have been a battle of ideas, he said.
“We were poised to have that fight early this year, but that quickly descended into a race of celebrity leadership in trying times.
“Politics as usual was locked down and reasoned debate on contentious issues almost became treasonous, and the understandable human expression of fear and uncertainty by the public gave rise to solidarity for the greater good.”
He said it became a crime for the Opposition to ask legitimate questions or comment.
“And daily broadcasts became televangelistic, like the gospel to the masses,” he said.
“Democracy for a period of time gave way to a form of temporary tyranny that one should fear death threats or violence for voicing an opinion, no matter how much you disagree. That was the reality.”
McCallum had taken a different tack.
In an email to delegates he had said: “Our Party, New Zealand’s representative of individual freedom, equality of opportunity and personal responsibility – has lost touch with its members, and as a result, everyday New Zealanders.
“These are issues that start from the top and must be addressed from today if we want any chance to win in 2023.”
McCallum was dismissed by his critics as a “wild card” although he had experience as a former board member and was considered polarising by some.
But it was clear from Judith Collins’ speech to the conference that she was closer to his view of what went wrong than she was to Goodfellow.
And she seemed to have the delegates on her side.
Having given Goodfellow polite applause at the end of his speech they then gave her a prolonged standing ovation when she rose to speak.
Her post mortem was simple.
“We were far too focused on ourselves,” she said.
“We did not spend enough time talking about the things that matter to New Zealanders and the consequence of that can be seen in our election result and in our reduced caucus.”
She said that National needed to give New Zealanders a reason to vote for them.
“We must be bold and we must be an inclusive,” she said.”
“We must motivate people to change the government in 2023 because people will not vote for change without a reason.
“We need to convince them to have high hopes for themselves to believe that a better New Zealand is possible; to expect more from their government.
“We must make ourselves an inspiring alternative.”
Collins’ call for inclusivity would have rung hollow with some would-have-been delegates to the meeting.
Representatives from some of the party’s ethnic groups such as the IndoNats (for Indian New Zealanders) were told they could not come to the meeting unless they came as delegates from an electorate. Otherwise they would need special dispensation from the party board.
But the party did agree to stand candidates next election in Maori seats and Collins herself arranged for Pasifika delegates to sing a hymn of thanks after her speech.
In what was the highpoint of the public part of the meeting, the former Prime Minister, Sir John Key, delivered a speech that as some delegates suggested afterwards, displayed exactly why he was such a successful leader for nine years.
And it seemed as though he was directly aiming at what Goodfellow had said earlier.
“We actually have to be honest enough to admit that our own failings have played a role in our defeat,” he said.
“Some people who previously voted for National voted for Labour this time or for Act, because a combination of leadership changes, missteps, disunity, links and mixed messaging from National put them all off us.
“I know it’s hard to stand up and say that.
“I know it sounds harsh, but it’s true.
“And if we don’t acknowledge that, if we don’t take responsibility for it, then we won’t learn from it.”
Key said he believed National could win again in 2023 because it had something Labour did not have.
“We have an ambitious set of values and principles that encourages people to make the most of their own lives under their own steam, to go as far as their imagination allows them,” he said.
“We have trust in people and their fundamental capacity to succeed without overbearing government interference.”
The party has already begun its internal review process with a review of governance by its former leader, Sir Jim McLay which is understood to largely focus on the role of the board.
Mclay has apparently suggested that board members play no active role in candidate selections beyond the initial vetting process.
That addresses a widespread concern that Goodfellow and other board members were present on virtually every candidate pre- selection panel for this year’s selection. That criticism implies an equally widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of some of the candidates.
There is now to be a full review of the election and the events leading up to it.
“Your board and our senior leadership, are committed to the most comprehensive, robust, free and frank review in the history of our party,” said Goodfellow.
“My expectation as your president is nothing less than that.”
But perhaps ominously, Goodfellow has also said the review should stretch back over the three years that National has been in Opposition. That would allow it to canvas issues like the handling of Jami-Lee Ross, the speculation around a Judith Collins’ putative leadership challenge last year and the debacle that was the Todd Muller leadership.
All of those events remain divisive within the caucus and the party more generally, particularly the Muller leadership.
That was widely seen as a win for the party’s liberals and then when the leadership collapsed, as a defeat.
McCallum is widely regarded as a liberal within the party. His failure to make the board may be seen by some as another failure for the liberal faction.
Whether it was that, or whether it was simply that Goodfellow spooked delegates with his claim that only he could raise sufficient campaign funding, the party would appear to be divided.
Goodfellow himself appeared to acknowledge that as he concluded his speech.
“We can rebuild and can reunite and we must for the future of our country,” he said.
The events of the weekend suggest that the jury is still out on that.