National’s conference over the weekend ended up going far better than sceptics within the party feared it might.
However that doesn’t mean the party — or leader, Simon Bridges — can celebrate yet.
There are still many unanswered questions.
For the meantime, one of those is not Bridges’ leadership.
In part that is because of his performance at the conference and in part, it is because the only logical alternative, Judith Collins, is still unpalatable to too many MPs and party members.
The party organisation is another matter.
Wellington party member, Glenda Hughes has been on the party’s ruling board since 2014 but lost her seat at the board elections this conference to former Young Nats’ president, Stefan Sunde.
Hughes has accumulated a reputation within the party as a sometimes heavy-handed troubleshooter for party president, Peter Goodfellow. She is also said to be close to deputy-leader, Paula Bennett.
Sunde has run an energetic campaign obviously founded on a platform of renewal.
He told POLITIK last night that he was excited and humbled by the delegates’ vote.
But the message from the party is clear; they wanted a shakeup at the top.
That demand for more say from delegates was evident throughout the conference.
Introducing a remit session, chair David Patterson said it was one of the great occasions in the conference “because experience suggests National Party members prefer to talk than be talked at.”
Policy breakout sessions attracted large numbers of members ready to propose and debate policy.
The party’s policy co-ordinator, Nick Smith, said he could not recall a time in the party’s history when there was so much policy work being done.
Smith headed up the party’s “Have Your Say” campaign which got 15,000 responses which have been filtered through 11 caucus policy groups matched by 15 party policy groups.
Smith said electorate chairs had also facilitated “dozens of policy workshops” throughout the country.
Before the end of the year, the party will publish policies on the economy, justice, health and education.
But if there was a policy area that dominated the conference, it was the whole question of climate change and how to respond to it.
Though the party has its share of climate change deniers like veteran Auckland member, Terry Dunleavy, Bridges affirmed the party’s support for the Paris Agreement in his landmark speech on climate change at the Agriculture Field Days last year.
“I am proud to have been a part of the previous National Government which signed New Zealand up to the Paris agreement with its ambitious challenge of reducing our emissions to 30 per cent less than 2005 levels by 2030,’ he said.
That, however, has become a real challenge for the party’s rural and provincial membership base with the proposal in the Zero Carbon Bill to reduce biogenic methane emissions by 24 – 47 per cent by 2050.
Party members have enthusiastically taken up the cause of genetic modification after a presentation by the former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman at the Blue Greens Conference in February.
That is because AgResearch has developed genetically modified High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass which has been shown to produce up to 23 per cent less methane.
But New Zealand’s Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act which regulates GM crops has forced AgResearch to trial the grass in the United States.
It is not clear, therefore that it could be grown in New Zealand at all.
Remits calling for a debate on GM have been passed at some of the party’s regional conferences.
Hamilton West member, Ritesh Chandra, moved a remit calling for engagement with the public to revisit genetic modification.
“We want to be able to protect and future proof our industries, enhance the environment and increase animal welfare,” he said.
Andrew von Dadelszen, from Simon Bridges’ Tauranga electorate and a party board member, wanted a tougher remit.
“The debate has moved on and to just adopt a policy of engaging and revisiting is too soft,” he said.
“We need to say that the National Party promotes gene editing as a method of employing a science-based approach to environmental sustainability.”
But his amendment was lost, and the conference agreed to Chandra’s proposal.
In a breakout session on the environment, spokesperson Scott Simpson admitted that it was hard for National to win the environment debate.
”It’s a bit like the government trying to convince us that they know how to manage the economy,” he said.
“We just have to position ourselves in a calm, pragmatic, practical way and apply our principles as National Party people,’ he said.
That doesn’t mean that everything is going smoothly on the environment front.
Judith Collins has been named as spokesperson on the Resource Management Act (rather than Simpson) and raised eyebrows last week with her claim that she had a private members’ Bill ready to go to reform the RMA.
Some big National Party stakeholders including Business NZ and the Employers and Manufacturers’ Association have been working with the Environmental Defence Society on proposals for reform, and these are about to be considered by Judge Tony Randerson in his review of the Act.
POLITIK understands their concerns about pre-emptive action by Collins have been communicated to Bridges.
So over the weekend, he was saying that if the Government got its act together, and had serious, bold RMA reform, “we will be co-cooperative.”
However, he is not convinced that Environment Minister David Parker can get all the parties in the Government to agree on a law.
“Winston Peters is in one camp; probably Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party are in another and, of course, you’ve got the Greens right out on their own.
“I can’t see them getting anywhere.”
What is also clear is that Collins’ proposed Bill has not been agreed by the caucus.
There was, of course, one elephant in the Christchurch Town Hall, all weekend and that was Simon Bridges’ future.
In part, he had provoked this himself with his comments last week about Boris Johnson being a buffoon.
In the National Party, you don’t say things like that about British Prime Ministers.
And he probably wasn’t helped by the incessant attention that former Prime Minister, Sir John Key, attracted as he moved around the conference.
But the only public hint that his leadership has had its critics came from the party president, Peter Goodfellow.
“There are some people who want to tear down our vision for New Zealand, and our hardworking team,” he said.
“Whether they are trolling on Twitter or picking on our accents, it might serve as a personal crusade, but it doesn’t serve the needs of Kiwis who are doing it tough in the face of ever-rising costs.
“When you denigrate or attack one of us, you attack all of us.
“Bullies only respond to strength.”
Bridges would have been pleased with the applause that broke out at that point.
The new party slogan — “Our bottom line: You” — also has the presumably planned intention of taking some of the spotlight off Bridges and turning it onto policy.
This weekend was a start down that path.