National’s leadership race now has three confirmed candidates, and already it threatens to open up the divisions which the Key – English Governments were able to contain.
The contest is pitching social liberals against social conservatives, Auckland against the rest of the country and it is raising questions about how ethnically diverse National wants to be seen to be.
The divisions between the candidates were apparent right from yesterday morning when Papakura MP, Judith Collins was the first to announce.
She is said to have the support of the party’s ethnic MPs, and a big part of her pitch is her argument that National cannot win power without Auckland and that Auckland is a diverse and complex city.
“I represent Papakura in South Auckland,” she says.
“It has the poorest people in the country and some of the richest.
“It is a complete microcosm of New Zealand; 28% is Maori.
“It is ethnically diverse.
“Almost every ethnicity in the country is there.
“And yet my vote went up by almost two and half thousand last time.
“I can reach across those ethnic divides, but I’ve also been Ethnic Communities Minister twice.”
That contrasts dramatically with Amy Adams’ Selwyn electorate which is 91.6% white and has only two per cent unemployment.
Adams announced her candidacy yesterday with MPs Nikki Kaye, Chris Bishop, Tim Macindoe and Maggie Barry standing behind her.
Kaye and Bishop are regarded as some of the most socially liberal members of the National caucus and Adams was happy to have herself described that way as well.
She said she was not a practising Christian.
She grew up in Auckland, the child of a solo mother but is now married to a wealthy Canterbury farmer.
“In 2014 just two of the family farm properties were valued at nearly $6 million, but the family trust also owns a number of commercial properties.
Asked yesterday if there was one word which would describe her politics she replied “aspirational.”
She continually returned during her press conference to saying that she thought her blend of urban experience as a lawyer and her rural experience made her somewhat unique.
“I would describe myself as economically conservative and socially liberal,” she said.
“I’ve always been a supporter of gay marriage; I voted for the first reading of euthanasia.
“I’m on record as being at the more liberal end of some of those issues.
“When it comes to economic and fiscal policy and backing people who want to get ahead under their steam and taking personal responsibility I am right in core National heartland territory.”
Simon Bridges is not a liberal. The son of a Baptist Minister, and a believing Christian, he is regarded by his colleagues as being on the conservative end of both the economic and social spectrum.
Though he represents Tauranga, he grew up in Auckland. He would be the first Maori to lead either of the country’s major parties if he was elected.
He has his critics who say he is polarising and arrogant. Nikki Kaye was clearly referring to him when she told POLITIK earlier this year that there was more to being in opposition than simply throwing rocks at the Government, a reference to his confrontational tactics as Shadow Leader of the House.
But he has strong support, and it was only the intervention of Murray McCully and some heavy lobbying that stopped him rolling Paula Bennett from the deputy leader’s job in 2016.
He Rejects the argument that he is a conservative.
“I’m a centrist, a pragmatist,” he says.
“Economically I’m relatively dry; socially, I’m relatively conservative.”
In interviews, Bridges is being careful to stress the range of views within National saying he is comfortable with that.
And he cites his role as both Climate Change Minister and Energy Minister as evidence of his environmentalist sympathies. He says he is running as part of generational change.
“It’s not about throwing out the old, but we do need to renew.
“And that’s both in terms of people, promoting new talent and it’s true about values and policies.
“We have to develop and evolve.”
The question of renewal on the front bench will be a major issue in this leadership campaign.
Adams chose to make her statement having four MPs stand alongside her, not one of whom was on the front bench. That said a lot about her view on renewal of the front bench.
But she wouldn’t be drawn on specific policy detail. She said that had been discussed by the caucus last week and she said she didn’t think it was right or appropriate to play that out in public.
“What I can say is that I strongly believe that you have to have that blend of sensible fiscal management, strong economic growth, that is what underpins a National Government.
“But New Zealand needs to know that that economic growth is for a purpose and that is to make more opportunities available for every New Zealander.”
Collins is even more explicit.
She wants to see renewal on the front bench.
“I think it should be on merit.
“I don’t think it is turnsies’ time.
“You are in Opposition. It is the time to look at all your policies but also to reconnect to your base.
“So I’m probably someone who is pretty close to the National Party base, and I think that people are very foolish if they think the base will always come out for us.
“I’ve seen the base stay home and I’ve seen the basee go to other parties.
“And that’s what happens if they don’t feel that we are being true to them.”
Perhaps surprisingly Collins says that though she is a small “l” economic liberal she is also aware that some people have the advantages, others don’t and cites her own family where her generation was not only the first generation to go to University but also to high school.
So how does this all add up?
Immediately after the election, many thought Simon Bridges was the heir apparent to Bill English and that is evident by the number of caucus heavyweights he has backing him. Gerry Brownlee and Chief Whip Jami-Lee Ross are both said to support him.
But as his star slumped a bit as time moved on, Judith Collins’ seemed to rise. She demonstrated that she knew what being an Opposition MP meant, but there are still considerable pockets of resistance to her within the caucus.
Amy Adams liberal support was no surprise; the question will be how extensive it really is. But Nikki Kaye is an important backbencher, and it is believed that Michael Woodhouse and Todd Muller may also be supporting her.
The wildcard is Collins. Her greatest support will come from outside the caucus and from the party rank and file. If that can be translated into pressure on to MPs, then she has the ability to disrupt this contest. While she may not get enough support to win, she may place herself in a powerful position to broker the outcome and to eventually become the deputy.
However, another potential broker may be Mark Mitchell who is probably too junior to become the Leader now but who by running may place himself in a very handy position for a future leadership run or even the deputy’s job.
This is a real contest with real divisions and real issues.
National hasn’t seen anything like it for years.