National’s nerves over the coming election were on display at the party’s first of three regional conferences.
During his keynote address to the Mainland conference in Christchurch Prime Minister, Bill English put the challenge facing the party simply.
“There’s no complacency on our caucus,” he said.
“If I could describe our mindset it is confident – but paranoid.
“And that is because on any given day a coalition of the losers can beat us.
“If just two people out of every hundred decide not to vote, because they have always voted for National and it looks like we are doing okay, then we could lose the election.
“Just two out of every hundred is the difference between 46 per cent and 44.
“And at 44 it’s all over for stable government in New Zealand.”
The warning about complacency was a constant theme.
Finance Minister and Campaign Chair, Steven Joyce, repeated it at the conference dinner.
And on Saturday, Party President Peter Goodfellow made it the main theme of his opening address.
“We cannot allow the current polling to make us complacent,” he said.
“MMP makes every election a tight race.
“Our focus has to continue to be to get every single National supporter to vote that we can.”
But there is a thin line between complacency and apathy and Goodfellow hinted at that in his speech.
“At this point, our membership is only tracking much the same as last year.
“However this is election year, and our target is to get not last year’s renewals, not last year’s membership, but the 2014 numbers and then some more.”
And in a section of his speech praising the Young Nationals for their work on University campuses he said: “Their membership is growing more strongly than our overall membership.”
Goodfellow even went as far as to acknowledge that Labour was looking like a real threat this year.
“`I don’t know how sophisticated our opposition’s get out the vote campaign will be this year.” he said.
“But I do know that they are already very actively harvesting data through robot calling and phone canvassing.”
However he said the Labour candidates that were likely to get back into Parliament would look tired.
“It’s all very well for them to pick some interesting new people but they haven’t got a dog’s show of getting elected on the list or in some of the seats that they are standing in.”
One senior Minister told POLITIK that the current electoral environment felt like 2005, when National almost toppled Labour but not quite.
Certainly, Ministers speaking to the conference often revealed issues on which the Government is obviously worried that it is vulnerable.
Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse, called on party members to be sensible and dignified when they debated immigration.
“It is an issue that concerns our base, and I understand that,” he said.
“And if you are stuck in traffic for two hours in Auckland every day you probably are wondering whether or not net migration is having an affect on that.
“But this country would be far more worse off if it wasn’t for overseas workers supporting a strongly growing economy.”
The vexing issue of water came up and once again Environment Minister Nick Smith was forced to defend the Government’s proposed water quality standards though this was the South Island where National has heavy support from the new intensive dairy farm regions.
The new candidate for Rangitata, Andrew Falloon, put it bluntly.
He told the conference that the media and National’s opponents would try to denigrate farmers over water quality and environmental issues.
He said they needed to have a narrative ready to respond to these attacks.
But if the issue with water in the South Island is water quality, both the party and political leaderships know that in the North, they could face a backlash over the Mana Whakahono ā Rohe Iwi participation agreements included under a deal with the Maori Party in the Resource Legislation Amendment Bill.
“On the iwi participation stuff we’ve got to be absolutely clear,” Smith told the conference.
“We do believe that Maori have an absolute right to have a say and be involved in the decision making around their own resources.
“But it ain’t control, and it’s not co-governance.
“It’s around ensuring Maori participate in the way in which we manage our natural resources and I think that a modern National Party needs to be in that position that Maori have an absolute right to be having a say in how we manage our freshwater and we look after those protected species and that is a strong position for modern National Party to have.”
Smith’s plea for a “modern” National Party reflects a major change within the party over the role of Maori.
It now has a Maori caucus whose chair, Nuk Korako, told the conference now had as many Pakeha members as Maori
One ongoing issue has been whether National supported the Maori seats.
Though both Bill English and John Key have previously proposed that the party abolish the Maori seats and obtained caucus support for their positions, there was debate (and some confusion) at the conference as to whether this was actually party policy.
The matter arose because of a remit moved by Christchurch East delegate, Philip Tikao, to confirm that the party supported the seats.
Tikao is aprt of a group that has been established in Christchurch by Korako called Kahurangi Blue intended to attract Maori to the party.
Groups are also being formed in Palmerston North, Whanganui and Whangarei.
“We believe that by changing our policy to retain the Maori seats and in time standing people in those seats again will send a powerful message of inclusiveness to Maori,” he said.
The former Deputy Speaker, Jim Gerrard, was the only person to oppose the remit and he did so because he argued that National did not have a policy to abolish the seats.
Regardless, the remit was passed.
English conceded that the Government had its challenges.
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the daily challenges that we are dealing with now are the challenges of success.
“And its perfectly logical that to some extent this election should be about New Zealanders wanting to ensure that the quality of life that is the envy of the developed world and ranked in the top two or three no matter how you measure it, is something they want to retain and strengthen at the same time as we have economic growth.”
And that’s the dilemma the Government now faces, how does it deal with the politics of growth while it ensures that growth continues while at the same it motivates its supporters to go out and vote.
These are nervous times.