If anyone was looking to National’s first regional conference over the weekend for signs that the party was headed back to the Beehive they would have searched in vain.
Instead what was visible was a party membership who are starting to become impatient with short term politics.
Over the course of two days in Hamilton, 200 or so delegates from the party’s central North Island electorates heard no new policy.
Instead, the need for vision was talked about though only the Party President really attempted to define it.
At least last year in Rotorua, the party had a fresh new leader to celebrate, and the promise of wide-ranging policy reviews which would be finished by the end of the year.
So far only one, on the Environment, has been completed, and that was dealt with in a breakout policy session.
There was maybe a reflection of that difference with a low key reception to Bridges’ keynote speech— he got a standing ovation, but it took a while for delegates to get to their feet.
Bridges is promising that the second policy, on foreign policy, will appear within two months and Education spokesperson Nikki Kaye says her education document is being worked on.
But the lack of new policy left Bridges in his speech to a lengthy recitation of which Labour policies would be repealed (oil and gas, industrial relations law, fees free and so on) and which former National Government policies would be reinstated (charter schools, roads of national significance, health targets and so on.) It all sounded a bit like a pitch for a fourth term for the Key-English government.
“We are rolling out serious and substantial policy documents that together make up our plans and policies for New Zealand,” he said.
“There will be eight this year.”
And that was that.
If there was one new policy direction Bridges went in, it was to enlarge on previous comments he has made about the Prime Minister’s trip to meet French President Emmanuel Macron to try and develop some controls over the way social media deals with terrorism.
“I think it is because of the lack of policies and plans for New Zealand that the Prime Minister has sought to distract us with a – quote – global conversation about social media with French President Emmanuel Macron,” he said.
“She has started taking her working groups global.
“You may have guessed; I am very sceptical about this.
“I believe you and New Zealanders will be as well.
“There is no detail and so the likelihood of just a talkfest, frankly, it will be like the UN at its worst, will be very high.”
And he got his best reaction from delegates when he pledged that National would be vigilant over any erosion of freedom of speech.
“A week after ANZAC day, when we honour the sacrifice of our servicemen and women be very cautious about eroding our fought for and hard held views on freedoms.
“Free speech matters, Prime Minister.”
But ultimately politics is all about winning and Bridges was anxious to reassure delegates that was still possible.
In an indirect swipe at Herald columnist Matthew Hooton and his argument that National is in reality 16 per cent behind the combined polling of Labour, the Greens and NZ First, he started talking about fake news.
“There is a lot of fake news out there, and the media hype is that we can’t win.
“Some of them are desperate for Jacinda-mania and are doing everything they can to help it along.
“But here is what the public and private polls show us.
“The Labour Party in the 40s; the National Party in the 40s; New Zealand First consistently under five per cent; a Green Party is hovering somewhere between four and five per cent either just in or just out.
“Somehow we are meant to be the ones that are worried.
“We are in good shape.”
Party President Peter Goodfellow also tried to assure delegates that the media were wrong to write off National.
“Some of the more sycophantic elite in the media saying that National have lost our core point of Opposition attack against the government (the capital gains tax) — well, how wrong could they be,” he said.
Goodfellow set out what the party stood for in a relatively detailed shopping list of principles which he summed up by saying: “National understands truly that hard-working New Zealanders are the foundation of economic progress and a good economy gives you the foundation to support vulnerable families, build more roads schools and hospitals and clean up the environment.”
But the debate about victory next year and vision goes to the heart of the mumblings of complaint that are coming from the backbenchers.
There was, one senior official told POLITIK, an awful lot of politicking going on at the conference.
And it is about the future; they don’t believe victory is inevitable and they worry that the party is getting left behind in the debate over values.
It was Education spokesperson, Nikki Kaye, who struck a chord with that view more precisely than any other speaker.
“From my perspective, I think the vision is quite clear,” she said.
“We want all young New Zealanders – and National believes in equality of opportunity – regardless of background; regardless of what family they grow up in; regardless of what town or city they live in to have the ability to have access to basic knowledge in reading, writing, maths and science.
“But also to have core competencies; to be able to problem solve; critical thinking and people in the profession all say to me that great teachers have always enabled young people to know how to think.”
Kaye was careful in her deconstruction of Labour’s education policies, to leave room for some areas where a bipartisan approach with Labour could work.
“What a number of people ask me — and some are National Party voters and some are left-wing voters — is can I identify areas where there can be cross party agreement.
“I sense that more than ever we need to do that.”
She is not the only one thinking that way.
Todd Muller has been doing that on climate change, and Matt Doocey has revived his cross-party group to tackle mental health.
However, Muller is not bipartisan in his support for a remit which a working group he chaired passed unanimously without debate calling for a public debate on gene editing; a proposal that has already been rejected by Climate Change Minister James Shaw.
(The debate is relevant to climate change because of the potential to develop gene edited grasses that would reduce animal methane emissions.)
There was also a demand by delegates for a longer term view of future policy.
A remit calling for a 30-year infrastructure plan to be agreed between central and local government was passed even after Young Nationals regional chair, Matt Horsfield, suggested that most of the delegates present would be dead in 30 years.
And in a debate that had all the potential to go right off the rails, Chinese delegates succeeded in getting the conference to support a grandparents’ visa.
The regional chair of Blue Dragons, Chong Feng, explained that China’s one-child policy made it more important that grandparents be able to come to New Zealand to be with their migrant child and their family.
Feng proposed that holders of such a visa would not be eligible for social benefits and pensions and , after some debate, could access health care on a user-pays basis.
But he too wanted to talk about the future.
“The Asian population is projected to grow from 540,000 to between 1.2 and 1.4 million in 2038.
“A lot of the Chinese living in New Zealand, like me, are from a single child family.
“We face a dilemma.
“If we want to stay here, we have to leave our parents behind in China, or we have to leave the country.”
There was a small vote against it, but it passed — a signal that even in the central North Island, the party is not nearly as anti-migrant as the party leadership seemed to assume when it opposed the UN Compact on Migration.
It is.clear that National’s membership is becoming impatient; that it wants to see the party produce a plan for the future and engage less in day to day brawling with Labour.
There has been an amount of credible media speculation that this is being reflected within the caucus by questions about Bridges’ leadership.
There was almost a tacit acknowledgement of that yesterday with a lengthy defence of his leadership by his deputy Paula Bennett.
“There are things you want in a leader,” she said.
“I want somebody who is intelligent.
“I want someone that is going to work harder than me, because that is what I expect in my leader.
“And without sounding it, I work pretty bloody hard for this party and this country.
“But he works harder than I do.
“He works harder than any of our other MPs.
“I want someone who has a vision for this country and puts that first.
“And someone who knows that whatever discussions we are having in the caucus are not about who is sitting in what seat but what is best for this country.
“That is what I want in a Leader, and that is what you have got in Simon Bridges.”
National has three more regional conferences to go. There were signs in Hamilton that the grassroots party members want change, possibly big change. The challenge over the next three conferences will be for the leadership to demonstrate that they are listening. Otherwise those standing ovations will become even more reluctant.