Buoyed by recent polls showing they could form the next Government, a National Party conference spent yesterday getting down to the nuts and bolts of what the party might do in power.
Around 100 delegates at the party’s Lower North Island conference gave leader Christopher Luxon a polite reception for his keynote address breaking into applause when he attacked Labour’s support for co-governance.
But he is new to politics, and sometimes it shows.
His declaration in his speech that the party would scrap the Maori Health Authority had to be subsequently modified by his media staff, who explained that it would not be completely abolished but “folded” into Health New Zealand, where it would become a “Maori Health Directorate”.
But what it seems Luxon has brought National is a belief that they can win next year.
And maybe the fact that he has not been involved in their bitter and almost continuous internecine warfare since 2017 is partly responsible for that.
Deputy-Leader Nicola Willis said as much to the conference.
“It is very clear to me that our party is going strong, and that is thanks to you, and it is also thanks to our leader who has brought unity and discipline to our team,” she said.
Much of Luxon’s speech was predictable; it focused on inflation and Labour’s spending and what he said was its inability to deliver.
But in what looked like a new emphasis, he went on the offensive over co-governance.
“This is part of a series of changes around governance, which has been sprung on the public, and the government hasn’t been transparent and articulate what it actually means to them,” he said.
“So let me be clear; National doesn’t support co-governance of public services.
“We are ruthlessly focused on delivering better outcomes for all New Zealanders, Maori or Non-Maori, because we want every Kiwi in this country to flourish.
“We know Maori economic and social outcomes are poor, and our ultimate goal must be New Zealand, where that is simply not the case.
“But we don’t need separate systems for Maori and non-Maori to achieve this.
“We need a single system that supports innovation and delivers tailored support on the basis of need to drive decent outcomes.”
“The answer is not more bureaucracy and more central control.
“And that’s why we want to abolish the Maori Health Authority.”
But if Luxon’s attack on co-governance sounded like a typical Opposition attack on the Government, much of the conference was devoted to what National might do in Government.
Wairarapa delegate, Mark Bridges, called for a National Government to match Australia’s proportion of GDP spent on defence.
Interestingly Bridges acknowledged that current defence spending at 1.5 per cent of GDP was the highest it had been in a decade.
He wasn’t the only speaker to acknowledge either directly or indirectly that previous National Governments had failed in some areas.
Chris Bishop talked about the current housing crisis, having been 30 years in the making.
Bridges remit on defence spending was passed.
However, delegates also agreed to reverse export controls on goods that “materially enable or support operations or functions of a military or internal security nature”.
The remit was proposed by David Bennett, the CEO of the Whanganui company, Pacific Helmets.
He said his company was prohibited from exporting helmets to the Hong Kong police even though helmets were defensive items.
“We manufacture only safety products; we’re not in the business of arming people or manufacturing weapons,” he said.
But Bridges opposed the remit.
“When you see what the Hong Kong police have been up to in the last couple of years, I can absolutely understand why we would want to block it,” he said.
A proposal to remit housing-related tax income like GST, the brightline test and other taxes to Councils to fund infrastructure for housing provoked a debate on funding infrastructure. Several speakers who were also councillors said was necessary if more land was to be zoned for housing.
But delegates did not agree to a proposal from the Otaki electorate to replace the first year of “fees free” tertiary education with a scheme that would rebate all fees after the student had spent four years in New Zealand post-graduation.
The conference, however, kept coming back to the election next year and the acknowledgement that the party was now in with a chance.
“New Zealand is returning to a bit of normality after two really tough years, and that means normal politics is returning as well,” said Bishop.
“The good news for us is that in 2023 the Government will be judged not on how it dealt with the pandemic in 2020 that was election 2020.
“We will move on from there.
“In 2023, the Government will be judged not on how many one p.m. press conferences they managed to hold from the podium of truth, not how much money they can spend on monitoring what we get up to on social media, and not on how many new versions of the traffic light system they can come up with.
“They won’t be assessed on all that.
“In 2023, they’re going to be judged on traditional political and economic metrics.
“Are Kiwi families getting ahead economically, or are they going backwards?”
No one in National will say so directly, but inflation is the party’s political friend.
Inflation is a robber at every door,” said Willis.
“If you are a saver, it’s eroding your savings; if you are a household trying to keep up with costs, it is making you poorer each day.”
Luxon said he tried to visit two or three towns a week.
“And when I talk to people up and down the country, there is one very clear message coming through loud and clear is that the cost of living crisis has become broad-based,” he said.
“It’s affecting everyone, and it’s affecting everything.
“Inflation is running at a 30-year high, and the gap between the wage growth and inflation is the highest on record.”
Party President Peter Goodfellow, however, was emphatic that pointing out the failings of the current Government would not be enough to get National back to power.
“The thing that’s going to win the election for us next year is, yes, the ideas, the positive policies that come out of the work that’s already underway,” he said.
“Unlike Labour, we know that the rights and privileges that we borrow from Kiwis every three years at an election need to be returned intact or better off.
“We don’t just believe in good Government for the sake of it.
“Good government delivers results.”
There comes a point in the trajectory of every Opposition party where it has got close enough to the Government to be able to change tack and stop endless opposition and start building its credibility as a future government.
National would seem to believe it has reached that point.