What appears to have been a pushback by Nationals president and senior party members in the North Island would seem to to have put an end, for the meantime anyway, to any attempt to depose leader, Simon Bridges.
POLITIK has learned that immediately after the party’s Central North Island conference in Hamilton, a meeting of electorate chairs made it clear to Party President, Peter Goodfellow, that they had questions about Bridges’ leadership.
POLITIK understands that Goodfellow, in turn, warned the chairs of the dangers of public shows of disunity.
The next night in Auckland, another meeting of another group of electorate chairs also included three MPs; Chris Penk, Simeon Brown and Agnes Loheni. Goodfellow also attended.
One attendee told POLITIK that the fact that all three were first-term MPs limited any attempt to get into a debate about Bridges’ performance.
Instead, the MPs were told to take back to Caucus the concerns of the chairs that any public disunity would be frowned on by the electorate membership.
And it would seem from public statements from Goodfellow and not-for-attribution comments from senior party officials attending the party’s South Island conference over the weekend in Invercargill that the party hierarchy not only backs Bridges but is opposed to any move to roll him.
“We’re really lucky,” Goodfellow told the conference.
“We’ve got Simon Bridges as a very enthusiastic and decisive leader of our party.”
Goodfellow did not offer this endorsement at the Hamilton conference.
Meanwhile, within the Caucus itself, it seems that the surge in support for Collins may be subsiding.
That does not mean there is not still a significant pocket of scepticism among MPs about Bridges’ leadership.
But if, as seems likely, at Collins peak she had the support of 29 caucus members, that was not enough for a convincing win, and it appears that some of that support may have been soft and has now retreated in the face of the message from the electorate chairs.
The tide does seem to be turning for Bridges.
He apparently got a good reception at a big party fundraising dinner in Auckland on Thursday.
So maybe because of this, he presented a much more confident face over the weekend to his party’s mainland conference in Invercargill than he did in Hamilton.
It should have been a comfortable environment.
The National anthem was sung by Suzanne Prentice, last seen in the National Party supporting Jim Bolger in the 1987 campaign and then the conference was opened by one-time 1960s student radical now recently knighted, Invercargill Mayor, Tim Shadbolt.
Referring to his knighthood, Shadbolt described himself as a Knight-Mayor but in fact, he was anything but; rather his attacks on Jacinda Ardern over her fees free and polytech restructuring proposals were music to the ears of the generally older National Party delegates.
So Bridges has been reprieved; not let off and there are still questions about what direction the future of the party will take.
A younger group of MPs including Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop and Todd Muller will form a panel to discuss New Zealand in 2050 at the next regional conference in Wellington.
That will be a first for the party.
And in his report on policy to the conference, Nick Smith, offered some glimpses into the direction the protracted policy-formation process might take.
For a start, in an apparent contradiction of Bridges’ Leaders’ speech at the Hamilton conference which promises to reverse a long series of Labour’s actions, Smith said this couldn’t happen.
“We should not be excessively focused on us undoing what Labour has done,” he said.
“Actually it is unoriginal and boring.”
He unveiled the headline results of the party’s “Have Your Say” campaign which he said had had 10,000 responses.
Much of his report was predictable; small business wanted less regulation; seniors were concerned about health; families wanted help with dental care and were concerned about special education. There were concerns about mental health and rural communities wanted more action on bio-security.
Respondents were asked to rate government agencies and perhaps surprisingly, the Inland Revenue Department topped three lists while less surprisingly local government came bottom in all of them.
Young people, however, were concerned about rents, the environment and wanted a commitment to tackle climate change.
But even Smith could not avoid the unity issue.
“There is lots of commentary about a party in opposition and how it can be united,” he said.
“The political movements that are unstoppable are those that have a unity of purpose; those that don’t have an ambition for person but an ambition for one’s country.”
And Bridges seemed to have absorbed the message; his keynote speech, unlike his Hamilton effort, focussed on policy.
Almost in contradiction to what he had said there, he said National could not afford to simply attack the government.
“We can’t assume that we are going to win just because they are incompetent,” he said.
The conference which involved some of National’s largest farming electorates took place three days after the Zero Carbon Bill unveiling and so, from the farmers, there were strong concerns about the impact of the 2050 methane targets.
The conference, like Hamilton, unanimously passed a remit calling for support for genetic editing so that the AgResearch ryegrass which can reduce methane emissions by 25% can be grown in New Zealand.
This looks like becoming a signature issue for National and Bridges.
“If we want to have a prosperous economy that makes food and is serious about climate change we actually have to confront the issue of bio technology,” he said.
Once his speech was over, he opened the floor up to questions, and he was challenged by Rangitata delegate Alan Andrews to explain how National could “derail the profile that Ardern has got.”
It obviously struck home with Bridges and his reply amounted to the case for his leadership.
“I don’t think it is about the Prime Minister,” he said.
“They have a profile built around one person but they can’t deliver.
“We are a team that can deliver.
“Time is our friend.
“The media don’t necessarily see this.
“But the truth of the matter is that the pressure in politics right this very minute isn’t on me and the National Party; it is on the Labour Party.”
Bridges said that by the end of the year he expected to see delivery in mental health, housing transport and the economy.
“Over style and celebrity, I chose substance and delivery and a team that can deliver any day of the week.
“Keep the faith. Give it a few months; time is on our side.”
Bridges is obviously buying time, and Petr Goodfellow has bought time for him, but it must follow that if Labour is not beginning to slip back in the polls by the end of the year, then the questions that were asked after Hamilton will be asked again.