Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and his auto prompters during his speech to the conference

Maybe the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister expected the worst, so they mounted a stout defence of the Budget tax cuts to their party faithful at a party conference over the weekend.

In turn, they were greeted with applause, which, though it may have been less than wildly enthusiastic, was at least polite.

And that was the overriding mood of the 220 delegates to the party’s combined Central and Lower North Island conference in Palmerston North.

It was polite.

Though five Ministers addressed the conference, there were no announcements of any great weight, and Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s speech was more or less the same as the one he gave the South Island conference a fortnight ago.

But this time around, there was more emphasis on the tax cuts, perhaps evidence that mounting criticism of their economic wisdom is beginning to reach the Beehive.

“We are going to make sure we give hardworking, low and middle-income New Zealanders tax relief,” said Luxon.

“We’re going to increase the take-home pay and the income of over  83% of New Zealanders over the age of 15.

“Over 90% of households in New Zealand will actually have some benefit out of the tax relief introduced. 

“National has been incredibly consistent and steadfast in its support for tax relief for low and middle-income working New Zealanders.

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“And I look forward to Kiwis getting that tax relief thanks to National being in government.” 

That got some moderate applause.

POLITIK Party President Sylvia Wood and Infrastructure Minister Chris Bishop

The party had taken a risk and opened the conference up to the media in contrast to their fellow faithful in Auckland and the South Island.

They also left plenty of time to debate remits, some of which had the potential to provoke embarrassing headlines, but that didn’t happen.

However, in a closed session, according to some delegates present, there were complaints about the way the party made policy and a call for party members to have more input into the process.

But there is a tension between the party members and the Parliamentary party over policy.

The MPs are understandably focused on getting elected, and that means appealing to voters who may have more polarised views than the party members.

This was evident in a debate about when to open nominations in Maori electorates.

Session chair John Charlton reminded delegates that it was not a debate about whether National should stand candidates in the seats. It had been its policy not to stand until the last election.

But the mood has clearly changed. No one mentioned co-governance or the over-use of Te Reo.

Bay of Plenty delegate Margaret Murray-Benge, the partner of Hobson’s Pledge chair, Don Brash, demonstrated that mood change when she told the conference he had donated to the Te Tai Hauauru election campaign.

And no one complained when Te Tai Hauauru chair Carol Raukawa began her speech in the debate with a lengthy Mihi in Te Reo.

POLITIK Te Tai Hauauru electorate chair, Carol Raukawa

Luxon’s speech was a lengthy recitation of what he says is the repair job that has been forced on National it by failed Labour policies.

It has become a recurrent theme, and law and order is near the top of his agenda.

“We’ve also delivering 500 new cops over two years, and our young offender military academies will be piloted in the next couple of months,” he said.

“And we’re bringing back three strikes because we want the rights of victims, as I say, not criminals or offenders, to be at the heart of our justice system.”

Delegates got close to debating law and order with a remit asking that  “the National-led government consider permitting registered and censed security personnel to use all reasonable force to prevent a crime, to prevent an alleged offender from leaving premises or event.”

Delegates did not seem to entirely share Luxon’s confidence that National was getting on top of crime, and there was a widespread view that the police were not keeping up with crime, hence the need for security guards.

“We don’t have enough police, and we will never actually have enough police in every spot. That’s why there are security personnel,” said Ron Scott from Tauranga.

Wairarapa delegate Mark Bridges worried that the remit might leave out dairy owners.

“ I’d like maybe to consider longer term is, is this quite a corporate middle class remit,” he said.

“What about dairy owners and those people with small businesses because I absolutely agree with the intent of this.

“Something is seriously wrong.

“And I know when it comes to kids, and probably with many adults, they will do what they can get away with.

“And so if we can stop them getting away with things, that’ll just stop. “

The remit was passed.

POLITIK Agriculture Minister Todd McClay at the conference

A remit calling for nurses on placement during their training to be paid was passed, with speaker after speaker sympathizing with the financial plight of trainee nurses and trainee teachers.

There was a passionate debate about the cost of rates, calling for the government to pay rates on the Department of Conservation land to ease the burden on ratepayers.

Tauranga delegate Andrew von Dadelszen said the central government was making some changes to the bureaucracy right now, but the local government had not been encouraged to address its cost-plus mentality. 

“Somehow, we have to fix this; the aim behind this remit is a comprehensive look at the whole structure of local government.”

Mark Bridges (Wairarapa) worried that if DOC had to pay rates, that could become an incentive for it to offload some of its land.

“Regardless of how you see it it, the taxpayer is still going to pay for this so there go your tax cuts,” he said.

However, the remit was lost after Conservation Minister Tama Potaka intervened and pointed out that DOC owned 30 per cent of New Zealand, and the fiscal cost would be huge.

The only slight niggle during the conference was some hints that all might not be that easy within the coalition.

Rangitikei delegate, Shelley Dew-Hopkins congratulated Agriculture Minister Todd McClay on his speech to the conference and said she had been disappointed he had not been able to come to speak to the Rangtikei “Woolshed Tour” that the coalition agriculture Ministers have been undertaking,

“Particularly as I had to sit there and listen to Andrew Hoggard,” she said – a reference to ACT’s Associate Agriculture Minister.

However, there was possibly a more pointed reference from McClay himself to Foreign Minister Winston Peters.

McClay is the only minister of the new government to have visited China so far, and he clearly has a different view from Peters about how the relationship should be managed.

Margaret Murray Benge asked if he would ensure our defence policy did not affect our trading policy.

“The answer is yes,” he said.

“But it’s all of government that will ensure that we have an independent foreign policy.

“We have the ability to talk about things that are important to New Zealand publicly, and we’ve always done that, and we need to, but we’ve got to do it respectfully, and we’re going to do it in such a way that it doesn’t surprise anybody around the world.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s the US, UK, Europe, India, or China.

“We owe them the courtesy of talking to them directly, not just doing it in public.”

POLITIK Finance Minister Nicola Wilklis with (to her left) the aprty’s pollster, David Farrar.

The conference ended with a speech from Finance Minister Nicola Willis.

She is popular with the party members, and she understands them.

She began her speech with a reference to her attendance at the Ahuwhenua Trophy for  Excellence in Māori Farming award dinner on Friday night.

“If you ever want to get a fillip for your soul and you want to feel good about this country, go and spend an evening with those 860 people,” she said.

“In that room was the future of our country because what we celebrated were people who are creating value from their whenua,  value from the land, who have innovative ideas about how to produce food of value exported around the world.

“And in doing so, not only do they create wealth for the people, for their iwi, but they create jobs and contribute back to the community, to make the places that you live. better.”

POLITIK Prime Minister Christopher Luxon disentnangling himself from his hug of Finance Minister Nicola Willis at the end of the conference

There was more to her speech than that, but it was what delegates wanted to hear, and they gave her a standing ovation. That obviously impressed Luxon, who joined her on stage and hugged her.

He must know now that the whole future of his government is going to depend on how well she, rather than him, can sell the tax cuts.