Simon Bridges

National’s review of its election defeat is blaming the leadership both at the Caucus and party levels for what happened.

The party unveiled its Review report at a members-only meeting at the Remuera Club on Sunday night and again last night in Cambridge. Tomorrow they will be in Hawke’s Bay.

But the members may not be getting the full story. 

POLITIK understands some information, particularly polling numbers, has been held back.

And whilst the Review committee is believed to have received hundreds of submissions, POLITIK understands key people in the campaign, such as the Campaign manager, Tim Hurdle, were not interviewed.

The meeting on Sunday night was chaired by the review chair, Mark Darrow who summed up its conclusions.

Security was tight and attendees were asked to leave their mobile phones at the door.

Darrow apparently told the meeting that the review was very critical of caucus leadership after John Key resigned as leader in 2016.

That raises questions about Bill English’s leadership but, more particularly, Simon Bridges in his two years as leader.

Bridges was not mentioned by name, but members would not have needed reminding of issues like Jami Lee Ross, which happened under his leadership.

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Bridges told POLITIK last night he had not read the report. (MPs were able to do so).

He said he didn’t accept that issues had been allowed to fester under his leadership.

“My approach as leader of the National Party was to confront issues when they arose head-on,” he said.

“What happened is pretty clear.

“It was a Covid election; the government had an hour and a half of TV every day, and on the other side of that National just fell apart.”

The current leader, Judith Collins, however was more apologetic.

She repeated her acceptance of responsibility for mistakes she made but said they weren’t deliberate.

The review did apparently criticise the other of 2020’s three leaders,Todd Muller, particularlyhis decision, during his brief leadership term, to have Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams effectively rewrite all the policy which had been developed over the previous two years under the leadership of Nick Smith.

That was not surprising. Adams began her policy rewrite four months before the election and had made only slow progress when she too resigned two months later when  Muller resigned from the leadership.

The net effect of this was that Collins was left to campaign on a very thin policy platform. In her first few weeks on the campaign trail, it seemed all she had to offer were roads and other transport solutions, which had been developed by Chris Bishop[, the party’s transport spokesperson.

But the review seems to have been highly critical of the party organisation.

One person who attended the meeting said issues like MP recruitment; list ranking problems;  diversity; a lack of focus on the party vote; the campaign management; fundraising; digital…” not a lot was left unscathed,” the source said.

There has been a long-simmering issue over candidate selection which came to a head in the disputatious Auckland Central selection.

Prior to Peter Goodfellow becoming President, the party board kept out of candidate selections which National Party electorates jealously guard as their own territory.

But during the runup to the election, POLITIK heard repeated complaints about decisions made by Goodfellow and other board members who attended the party’s pre-selection interviews where potential candidates face a panel.

This was an issue in Auckland Central when local members claimed the board was trying to impose Nuwanthie Samarakone as candidate on them; in Southland, a high profile local person pulled out when they thought the board opposed them becoming the candidate.

However, Goodfellow told the Sunday night meeting that the board accepted everything in the review – including the significant criticisms of it that they were confused about their role, they were too operationally focussed, and they meddled too much in selections.

“That got the biggest applause of the night,” an attendee told POLITIK.

Recommendations From the review focus largely on the board and the party organisation, but POLITIK  has been told there is a suggestion that the party might look at the way it selects its leader.

How that might change was not spelled out.

The thrust of the organisational changes seem to be in two directions; internally and more widely where the party interacts with the electorate.

There is a proposal to enshrine the Treaty of Waitangi in some way in the party constitution.

In 1988, at the party’s conference, a remit was passed declaring the treaty to be the country’s founding document. But it never made it to the constitution.

The remit debate saw the party divided almost exactly in two, with Sir Graham Latimer leading the proponents and Winston Peters the opponents. But the proposal never made it to the constitution.

It will almost certainly attract some strong opposition if it is revived this year at the Cosntititoonal conference the party is proposing to have.

There is also a proposal to have a Maori board member, an ironic move given the caucus’ opposition to Maori wards on Councils. But the party historically had a Maori Vice President, a position which was dropped after Stephen Joyce’s 2003 “corporatisation” of the party organisation.

There was also a proposal to impose board member term limits and what is bound to be a contentious proposal to appoint external directors.

Party sources say this springs from a recognition that the party finds it difficult to get people with substantial governance skills to go on its board.

Party members could at least reflect that it is making slow progress forwards in the polls.

Last night’s One News Colmar Brunton poll echoed last week’s Roy Morgan poll showing Labour down four points to 49 and National up two to 27 per cent.

So far, it seems member reaction to the review has been muted.

The real test will be what happens on the board, who stays and who is elected on to it and how those decisions affect Goodfellow’s presidency.

That will determine how extensive the response to the report will be.