Judith Collins got two standing ovations after her speech to National’s Central North Island conference in Tauranga yesterday.
She had read the conference mood perfectly.
She dialled back the rhetoric about Maori separatism of the previous three regional conferences and even went as far as to propose areas where a National Government might work with Maori on housing initiatives.
Instead of the Treaty she talked about aspiration.
Right from the start of the party’s regional conference in Tauranga it was clear the mood had changed.
The party’s health spokesperson Shane Reti gave the first indication when he made it clear that what National opposed with the Maori Health Authority was not its role but its structure.
Most notably, the 190 delegates unanimously passed a motion calling for a reform of the way the party list is ranked in order to promote more diversity.
Meanwhile, in the background, a handful of young Maori are beginning to impact the party as they revive the Maori interest group, Kahurangi.
But the young Maori have some questions.
Hunaara Waerehu, an Auckland University student, has joined the party in his home East Coast electorate.
He told POLITIK he believes the party can be successful with Maori because it supports empowering Maori to do their own thing. He is part of a revival of the Maori sector group within the party, Kahurangi but he says the party has a lot of catching up to do.
“We want to empower Maori as individuals and we want to empower Maori as communities,” he said.
Asked how Judith Collins comments on Maori separatism would impact on winning the Maori vote, he replied enigmatically.
“Mainstream parties other than the Maori Party, I suppose, have never realised the full extent of Te Ao Maori,” he said.
“That’s why Kahurangi is there; to assist National to do that; to give a Maori perspective into all the party does in terms of policy, in terms of candidates selections, in terms of engagement with Maori.”
The Central North Island region of the party has a star Maori candidate, 28-year-old Tania Tapsell, who lost to Kiri Allan in the East Coast electorate last election.
Tapsell, a grand-niece of former Labour MP and Speaker, Sir Peter Tapsell, is the Chairperson of the Rotorua Lakes Councils Operations and Monitoring Committee which oversees $1.3 billion worth of public assets.
Her professional experience includes working for international accounting firm Deloitte, BNZ Business Partners, and within tourism and Iwi organisations. Tania affiliates to Te Arawa & Tainui Iwi and is currently completing her Masters of Management.
But the party ranked her 64 on their list last election.
It appears she had been ranked considerably higher on the list submitted by the Central North Island to the party’s national list ordering committee and was moved down by that committee.
Delegates from the Hamilton West electorate proposed a remit calling for the National Party to commit to a “more transparent and democratic List Ranking selection process which implements the decisions and input of its delegates while striving to reflect New Zealand’s demographic diversity.”
“Last year, we lost 14 of our MPs who were seeking re-election,” said Electorate Chair Edgar Wilson.
“Our party was well down. So losses were inevitable, But three were Maori, two were Indian, one was Filipino and two Pacifica.
“There goes the diversity.”
The party’s general manager had earlier, in a session closed to the media, published on a screen the Central North Island regional list, but, apparently, it only showed for a matter of seconds.
Delegates told POLITIK it showed Todd Muller at the top of the list and Simon Bridges in second place. That would have been embarrassing enough.
But Wilson went further.
“The list ranking exercise for the 2020 list published earlier this morning showed there was considerable variance between the ways you regional delegates voted and the composition of our list,” he said.
“How can it be democratic for new candidates to be relegated to the bottom even when they attract more support than several sitting MPs in their region?”
Another Hamilton West delegate followed that up by talking specifically about Tapsell and saying if the list process had been democratic, she would now be an MP.
It is clear that in a heavily Moari region, like the Central North Island, Maori representation for National is an issue.
Perhaps for that reason, or perhaps because of wider feedback she has received, Judith Collins presented a very different speech to the conference.
There were no leaked documents showing alleged secret attempts by the Government to enforce a separatist agenda onto the country.
Instead, she said National was proud of the progress it had made in Crown-Māori relations.
“We settled more Treaty claims than any government before, or since,” she said.
“These settlements meant iwi could invest in the future of their whānau, hapū, and their whenua.
“There is now a growing Māori economy.”
And she committed to working with iwi.
“We will work with iwi on ways to enable the construction of papakāinga on their whenua,” she said.
“That’s housing on Māori land – land that’s already owned, and land where social housing could be built – and we will empower iwi to take a more active role in community housing of whānau, through construction and management.”
This winding back of the rhetoric was also evident in a session featuring the party’s health spokesperson, Shane Reti.
Setting out why he opposed a separate Maori Health Authority, Reti then said: “My observation over 30 years of clinical practice is if you treat people in a culturally competent context, you get better outcomes. Be it Maori, be it Indian, be it non-Maori.
“But culturally competent context needs to be in one system, not as a completely separate system. r
That is fundamentally where we disagree on the Maori Health Authority.”
Ironically that position is not all that different from that of Heather Simpson’s report, which lies at the base of the reforms.
But though Reti revelled in a half-hour session on health policy, politics was not all that far from the surface throughout the weekend.
Most notable was the presence of last year’s two leaders, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller.
Both appeared to be on their best behaviour, and even a half-hour session from Bridges on housing avoided anything likely to provoke leadership speculation.
But tensions within the caucus surfaced when the region’s MP’s addressed the conference.
Agriculture spokesperson and Judith Collins’ numbers man in her leadership bids, David Bennett, criticised the agricultural lobby groups Dairy NZ, Beef and Lamb and Federated Farmers for negotiating with the Government rather than confronting it.
“It means that we don’t have any support when we go out there and oppose those rules because those organisations are negotiating with the governments,” he said.
“So long term, we need farmers to react and the sector groups to get in behind and reposition.”
Both he and Collins have been saying this privately for some months now, and some farm sector leaders, in turn, have told Collins that they want Bennett replaced by Todd Muller.
And there was a veiled criticism of Collins from Waikato MP, Tim van de Molen.
“We can learn from this government,” he said.
“The prime minister is very good at selling ambition and hopes and rainbows, lollipops and sunshine.
“And you feel good about what you hear, even if it doesn’t have much substance.
“We need to do a lot better about telling why.
“People don’t care what you do; they care why you do it .”
But if Van de Molen had wanted a template for that, he only needed to listen to Rotorua MP Todd McClay, in what may have been one of the highlights of the conference.
For his ten minute turn on the stage, he set out what he argued should be National’s core values.
“If you do research and ask people what they think of the National Party, it is boiled down to three things; a National Government grows the economy; they cut taxes, they create jobs,” he said.
“It’s as simple as that.
“What they think of the Labor Party boils down to they increase spending and increase taxes, and they grow bureaucracy.”
McClay said that people were no longer saying that Labour looked after workers and National looked after business.
He said that the reason for that was that the hard-working Kiwi felt left behind a long time ago.
“The point here is we are the National Party,” he said.
“Every centre-right Government in the world has been elected on the things that are on the front of our membership books, the things we stand for, and we always have.
“We need to modernise them.
“We need to change our language, but we can’t throw them away because that’s how centre-right governments are elected and centre-left governments are elected in the other direction.”
McClay’s speech seemed to resonate with delegates and maybe provoked some lines in Collins’ speech the next day.
“National knows that enabling commerce will enable Kiwis to work together and grow their own future,” she said.
“We want a New Zealand that is ambitious for itself and New Zealanders who have the tools they need to succeed.
“We want a Parliament that will work for all New Zealanders to guarantee their hard work gets a fair reward.
“When the country is moving forward, New Zealanders have enough money in their pockets to afford more than just the essentials.
“When the country is moving forward, houses are getting built, and people can afford to buy them.
“This is what will see our inequities addressed.
“This is what will see health outcomes improve for all.
“But more than that, it will mean our children will grow up with aspiration and opportunity.”
Maybe, at last, National has found its voice again.