Next weekend sees the last of National’s regional party conferences.

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of party members have met in Hamilton, Auckland and Wanaka and will meet next Saturday in Palmerston North.

The conferences are mostly morale boosters for them but there are also sessions which they close to the media on the practical techniques they need to employ to win next year.

So how do they do it?

How to they achieve the goal of their president, Peter Goodfellow, which he says is made necessary by the closeness of MMP elections and therefore the party needing to secure the highest party vote it can “so that gives us the greatest leverage in any post campaign negotiations.” 

JOHN KEY SETS THE PACE

The Prime Minister keeps a relatively low profile through the conferences. He’s at the Saturday night social function (closed to the media) and then for his Leader’s speech on Sunday.

Those speeches have been unusually reflective for Key. He talks about his family background, about the history of the party and extrapolates from that its core value; that if you work hard, you can succeed.

But the most important part is when his recites his own political mantra of what the Government needs to focus on.

He lists having a job, being safe in your house and on the street, having access to healthcare when you need it and quality education as the issues that are what people care about and are therefore at the heart of the Government.

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It’s clearly a reality check that he is able to apply to everything that happens in politics which coupled with his own almost freakish self-discipline has continually allowed him to zone out trivial and petty distractions.

BILL ENGLISH IS THE NATIONAL PARTY

Everything about Bill English points to the National Party heartland. But it’s a heartland that is different to what it was a generation ago and English typifies that too. Yes, he was a farmer in Dipton but he also has an English degree (along with one in economics) and is married to a GP of Samoan-Italian ethnicity.

He’s a conservative with a remarkably open mind. His mother ran the Southland National Party and he knows and understands its nooks and crevices. He has a subtly different mantra to Key; he says better government is small government and is extraordinarily proud of the political implications of his social investment programmes which mean that National is co-opting traditionally left-leaning non-governmental organisations into the process of delivering social services.

They’re lapping it up; he told one conference.

His speech to each conference has been the substantial core around which the conferences have revolved.

And Key has subtly changed his approach to English from last year.

Then he cracked jokes at his deputy’s expense but this year he quoted a comment from Country Radio host Jamie McKay, who said Steven Joyce was the Minister of Everything while English did everything.

NATIONAL IS THE BIGGEST PARTY

Party President Peter Goodfellow told the southern conference that membership [p had fallen over the past year.

“I am asking your help to achieve our goal of 30 – 35,000 members,”  he said in his conference speech.

As part of that, the central North Island region has set itself a goal of getting 5% of the party list vote as members.

Though Goodfellow likes to say that the mass membership is the party’s funding platform; there’s enough evidence in the party’s funding returns to suggest that members probably play a subsidiary role in donations to the big donors.

Perhaps with an eye to fund raising as well as votes the party has been actively recruiting ethnic minorities and Goodfellow highlights this during his standard conference speech.

Over 500, Filipinos turned up for a party function in Auckland but there were obviously more Chinese, Indians and Pacific Islanders at the Auckland conference though one North Island MP attending the Wanaka conference  suggested the idea of diversity was taking a while to reach the South Island.

But if the South was mainly white, it was younger.

For example, all of Gerry Brownlee’s Ilam electorate delegation were under 30.

THE MEMBERS HAVE TO SPREAD THE MESSAGE

Goodfellow places a huge premium on personal contact.

This starts with soliciting members and collecting membership fees.

“I really must ask you to work with us to make the phone calls that are so essential,” he said.

“In the past the service centre has tried to do that phone calling but there’s really nothing quite like the personal approach; the personal contact that will also enable your members to give you feedback on what’s worrying them or what they’d like to see and that makes us a stronger party.”

And so members are encouraged to talk to their friends, neighbours and workmates about what the Government is doing. To assist this an almost endless stream of printed and electronic material flows out of the Beehive to members with “The   Message” clearly set out.

The Prime Minister is important here too. Every Thursday he visits an electorate. These are big deals which look exactly like a typical day on an election campaign with photo opportunities, meetings with local heavyweights and even a press conference.

These visits were frequently referred to in speeches by both members and MPs.

THE PARTY’S HEART IS IN THE PROVINCES

Even though the Prime Minister, the President and eight Ministers – nearly half the Cabinet – come from Auckland, the emotional heart of the party remains in the provinces.

It is most notable in the central North Island region who held their conference in Hamilton.

The region stretches from East Cape to New Plymouth to just south of Auckland and National holds every electorate seat in it.

Regional chair, Andrew von Dadelszen’s claim that it was the party’s true blue heartland was not without foundation.

Their heartland is conservative but not reactionary.

National Party members tend to be phlegmatic in their meetings but now and then gasps, or murmurs or occasionally applause would point to a statement all of which indicated that a conservative boundary had either been overstepped or endorsed.

(Though one West Coast member who advocated the commercialistation of marijuana growing got a warm, if sceptical, reception in Wanaka.)

On the other hand, a call for compulsory blood testing for drugs of welfare recipients got a much cooler reception in Hamilton.

GETTING THE RIGHT CANDIDATES

National has established what it calls “Candidates’ Colleges” where people who want to stand for the party are schooled in various techniques by Ministers like Paula Bennett, the whips and outside experts on things like media training.

Goodfellow also announced that the party was bringing forward selection of candidates in what he called “strategic seats.” 

He said he hoped most of those seats would have candidates by the end of the year which could be a problem for the Prime Minister since some of them are currently occupied by Cabinet Ministers. 

THE NATIONAL PARTY

The party was officially 80 last weekend; the Prime Minister likes to say that it was called “The National” party because it is for all New Zealanders.

Not quite, there were some yawning gaps at its conferences, particularly a notable lack of Maori.

But if it was called the “Middle New Zealand” party, then he might have had a stronger point.