Polling out late yesterday has raised more questions about National Leader Judith Collins’ future.
The poll, by National’s own pollster, David Farrar, for the right-wing Taxpayers’ Union, shows National slumped to 21.3 per cent dangerously near its 2002 election result of 20.9 per cent.
The party’s then-leader, Bill English, lasted 15 months after that before he was rolled by Don Brash.
That history might suggest that National may take its time to replace Collins.
Though Christopher Luxon is the next National MP after Collins to rate on the preferred Prime Minister rankings, and though he has the support of the former leader, Sir John Key, becoming leader after even two years in Parliament is a big ask.
David Shearer tried that. He had been in Parliament only two and a half years when he became Labour’s leader. He lasted less than two years in the post.
The most obvious choice is the former leader, Simon Bridges, and POLITIK understands there is a growing consensus both within the caucus and perhaps more importantly, outside the caucus within the National Party community, that Bridges may be the best answer.
Collins will go. She has made too many enemies and has too many critics. It is only now a question of when.
But Bridges still needs to assure the wider party that if he comes back, he will have learned something from his period in the wilderness.
Last night’s poll was hardly reassuring.
It showed him with a favourability rating of around 15 per cent and an unfavourability rating of 50 per cent, not all that far away from Collins’ ratings.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was the only politician to score a net favourability rating where her favourability exceeded her unfavorability.
Apart from his poor public image, there will be questions about whether he can manage a team, whether he can promote and work with people he doesn’t necessarily see eye to eye with, and who his key advisors might be.
But lurking in the background is another question. How much is he a part of the evangelical wing of the caucus, MPs like Simeon Brown and Chris Penk?
The political journalist and author, Colin James, has long argued that National generally succeeds when it is able to balance its conservative wing with its social liberals.
Any pronounced shift one way or the other by a leader would be bound to be divisive.
Bridges backed the evangelicals in their opposition to the Conversion Practices Prohibition Bill, which bans gay conversion therapy.
His position was seen as a challenge to Collins, but she changed her position — as she often does — and ended up agreeing with the opponents to oppose the Bill at its first reading rather than allowing it to go forward with the intention of defeating further down its legislative path.
That position was challenged by the Young Nationals, who distributed rainbow ribbons at the party conference to publicise their support for the Bill.
But Bridges is on the Justice Committee considering the Bill and among the submitters yesterday were the Young Nationals.
Their president, Stephanie-Anne Ross and Policy Chair Madison Chamberlain told the Committee that they had agreed to oppose conversion therapy after a nationwide consultation with their members.
“We firmly believe an individual’s right to be themselves empowered by the freedom to choose how they wish to live,” said Ross.
“For this reason, we are proud to add a voice to this incredibly important conversation today.”
Chamberlain said there had been speculation that the Bill meant religion was under attack.
She said the Young Nats “utterly” rejected that proposition.
“This is not an attack on religion, but a protection for vulnerable members of the Rainbow community,” she said.
When he began his questioning of the pair, Bridges went straight for one of the key complaints about the Bill.
It defines “conversion practice’ means any practice that “is directed towards an individual because of the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression; and is performed with the intention of changing or suppressing the individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”
The Paediatric Society of New Zealand told the Committee that these practices included any psychological approach or intervention that sought to convert, repress, and-or eliminate any person’s same-sex or non-heterosexual orientation, attractions, desires, identities and behaviours, or any person’s gender identity or gender expression, that did not meet expectations based on their sex assigned at birth.
But Bridges echoed the criticism that the Bill could criminalise parents.
“What’s your position on, say, a mum saying to the 12-year-old, no, you’re not going on puberty blockers until you’re 18?” he asked the Young Nats..
“I think when a child is obviously undergoing some uncertainties or wanting to make some decisions about their sexual orientation or gender identity, I think parents should feel like they have the obligation to have a constructive conversation with the child,” Ross said.
“But I think the Young Nats would collectively agree that criminally prosecuting someone for that sort of scenario would have a really negative impact on the family dynamic.
“And we would favour people engaging in a constructive conversation rather than going through a court process with criminal charges.”
Bridges: “So on that basis, would you support a carved out exemption for certain parental conversations? Because at the moment, the problem is both crown Law and Ministry of Justice make clear in the advice to their ministers that those conversations would be captured and criminal under the legislation.”
Ross: ”I think for my submission, what we’ve made clear is we think it needs to be clarity on that. So we would support clarity being offered around actually what is going to be prosecuted, especially around that definition of suppressing, because obviously there’s been a significant amount of commentary on this particular topic.”
However, the Salvation Army almost came to Bridges’ side. They said they supported the overall thrust of the Bill but had questions about the role of parents.
Ian Gainsford, the Army’s New Zealand Chair, said the Salvation Army knew a number of churches had raised some concerns about the Bill.
“Firstly, around the potential criminalisation of parents for seeking to have a conversation with their children,” he said.
“That’s not how we read the Bill.
“We think the Bill does provide for that kind of conversation to take place.
“But I do wonder if, in order to allay those fears, it might be expedient to clarify the boundaries of what is a respectful discussion and what is a parent, for instance, pushing their child specifically towards a conversion practice.”
Bridges continued on the question of puberty blockers, 12-year-olds and parents with the Law Society’s representatives. he maintained that the Bill had the potential to criminalise parents. This time he was drawing on his own career as a Crown prosecutor.
“It seems to me that it’s quite clear that if a parent, certainly more than once, tells their child, say a 12-year-old, that they cannot go on puberty blockers, they are not going to do that, they would be under clause eight covered. I want to know if you agree with me,” he said.
Paul Rishworth QC replied that questions about withholding consent also raised questions about medico-legal law.
“Criminal statute would trump all of that medico-legal stuff, wouldn’t it?” Bridges replied.
“Yeah, but Simon, which criminal statute?” replied Rishworth.
“You know as well as I do that the duties of parents and caregivers are set out in the Crimes Act as well.”
Rishworth then went into a lengthy explanation of potential defences that a parent might employ.
“I’m not asking you the rights and wrongs; I’m simply asking you, if in the scenario that media have run with around a 12-year-old and a parent saying, no, you’re not allowed, whether that would be covered under the law,” he said, but he wasn’t going to wait for the answer.
“And I suppose I’m just making the question to you that it’s pretty obvious it is.”
Rishworth continued to disagree and said he doubted courts would interpret the law Bridges aid they would.
“You’ve got a lot more faith than me,” replied Bridges.
It was a gutsy performance by Bridges, something that has been missing in many Select Committee hearings since the last election.
The conservative core of the National Party will be impressed even though the fundamentalists might have preferred a more full-on attack. That alone might assuage some fears.
But the real question remains; what does Bridges really believe, and what does he want.
The danger for the caucus now might be that the way the polls are going for Collins and National, there may be no time to answer those questions.