National Party President Sylvia Wood

National began its annual round of regional conferences over the weekend in Auckland, with delegates and the party hierarchy visibly nervous about how this election year may play out.

That nervousness was clearly evident In a keynote speech from Party President Sylvia Wood.

It was there in a decision to close off media coverage of remit debates for the first time in POLITIK’s history of covering these conferences going back to 1984.

(Though, to be fair, Labour has an outright media ban on its regional conferences. Only NZ First really opens up remit debate.)

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, National’s head office has asked candidates to do a second trawl through their social media so that any issues, in the words of the President, can be “managed.”

The nervousness is a product of the party’s precarious position in the polls, with a growing realization among many that they might not be able to form a government after the election unless they have NZ First as well as ACT in the mix.

And it is also a product of the tension between its rank-and-file members and what its leadership, both at the Caucus and party level, are hoping to project as National 2023.

That was evident in the Taieri selection, which saw candidate Stephen Jack resign after sexist and offensive comments he had made were revealed.

Jack was selected as a candidate after a background examination which included his social media record and an interview by a committee of party heavyweights.

A senior National Party member who had participated in one of those committees in the North Island told POLITIK that they had received voluminous background material on all of the candidates but that they had been unable to share it with the voting delegates because of privacy reasons.

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That may explain why party president Sylvia Wood is now talking about another review of the party’s selection procedure even though a comprehensive review was only signed off in 2021.

“The need to significantly improve our vetting processes was a key outcome of the review, and you asked your board to treat this with great seriousness,” she said.

“This election cycle, we’ve featured close to 150 nominees, and we will shortly have 40 new candidates across the country.

“I calculate vetting alone has taken 6000 hours conservatively; that is three working years.

We had feedback from our preselection committees about the improved rigour of the process, but there is more to do, and we are focused on continuous improvement; of course, we must work within our rules and during the course of this cycle, we have seen areas of the rules that we will be proposing amendments to.

And in a veiled reference to Stephen Jack’s Facebook posts, Wood zeroed in on the challenge.

“Social media can pose a problem if content doesn’t represent the values and the standards of our great party,” she said.

“Will we find everything?

“No, the reality is we won’t find everything there is to find about everyone.”

But in its quest to do so, it has now asked candidates to do a second trawl through their social media.

Wood told delegates that selection problems distracted the leader from his ability to get his political message across.

POLITIK National Leader Christopher Luxon engages with delegates

What is curious about the Taieri selection is how Jack’s positions on controversial issues like race relations were widely known before the election within the electorates.

POLITIK has been told by a number of sources that he startled a Three Waters stakeholders meeting after the chair, Clutha Mayor Brian Cadogan. He had d opened with a Mihi, which Jack then responded to with a speech containing several racist comments about Maori.

The problem is that the party’s selection process places the ultimate decision in the hands of local members.

In an electorate like Taieri, where Labour is well ahead on the electorate vote, the party members are more or less left to their own devices.

In contrast, Auckland, where the party is hoping to win back the electorates it lost at the last election, it has presented its most diverse selection of candidates ever, with Maori, Pasifika and Asian nominees present across the city as candidates.

Across the country, the party is now standing candidates in both Tamaki Makarau and Te Tai Hauauru and has at least five Maori candidates standing in general seats, all of which are winnable.

But there is still the ghost of the 2002 campaign and its “iwi/kiwi” billboards and Don Brash’s 2005 Orewa speech on the Treaty evident among older members of the party who were disproportionately represented at the weekend conference.

And perhaps because of that, Luxon got by far his longest (and loudest) applause during his speech when he talked about Three Waters.

“National won’t be forcing co-governance on communities as Labour’s Three Waters will,” he said.

“That’s because New Zealand is one country with a single system of public services to support all New Zealanders on the basis of need, not ethnicity.

“We are all equal under the law, and democracy means one person, one vote.”

Later, speaking to journalists, Luxon blamed the Government for the public backlash against co-governance.

“This government has failed to spend any political capital to make its case to take the New Zealand people on what it talks about with respect to governance,” he said.

“It’s done  a poor job under Jacinda Ardern;   Chris Hipkins said there were challenges with it, but he hasn’t been any clearer, and he’s continued to sit on the fence and not define what it is or what it isn’t.”

Luxon, however, is very clear about his rejection of co-governance.

“We live in a liberal democracy where democracy matters, and it is important; one person, one vote, and under Article three of the Treaty, we are all given equal citizenship,” he said.

“I’ll call out racism at every opportunity I have

“But don’t conflate are two issues when you want to discuss democracy;  one person, one vote being called a racist.

“That’s lazy.”

Luxon unveiled what he said would be the four themes of National’s campaign this year; the cost of living, resilient infrastructure, law and order and health and education.

Oddly, he didn’t use his conference speech to launch National’s policy to persuade more people to study nursing. That had to wait until yesterday.

Instead, the big focus was tax, where National must believe it has been given a free pass by Labour with the launch last week of the Inland Revenue report on tax paid by ultra-wealthy individuals.

It came with a reluctance on the part of the Prime Minister to confirm or deny whether the report would eventually lead to capital gains or other forms of wealth tax, and that was a  vacuum that Luxon was only too happy to fill.

“Labour loves a new tax,” he said.

“And can’t we all see where they’ll be going next?

“It’ll be a capital gains tax or a death tax or a wealth tax, or all of them.

“I am proud to say – National is the party of lower taxes.

Under me, there will be no inheritance tax. There will be no wealth tax.

“And there will be no capital gains tax. 

“And I challenge Chris Hipkins to make the same commitment – but he won’t.”

POLITIK Three of National’s key spokespeople; Simeon Brown (Transport), Erica Stanford (Education) and Nicola Willis (Finance) at the conference.

Some National candidates, however, told POLITIK they were seeing a definite socio-economic divide on who was supporting which main party from the door-to-door canvassing that party workers have already begun.

Support for Labour was concentrated among Kainga Ora tenants, welfare beneficiaries and Maori and Pasifika.

“They’re the door slammers,” said one candidate for an Auckland suburban electorate.

But if Labour is consolidating its core support, National is still having to fight off ACT on its right flank.

In a move obviously intended to embarrass National, ACT timed its announcement of its deputy leader Brooke van Velden as its Tamaki candidate to coincide with the conference.

Meanwhile, the well-connected right-wing columnist, Matt Hooton, has speculated that National might have to consider an Epsom-type electoral “arrangement” with NZ First in Northland to get Shane Jones elected and thus bring extra centre-right seats to Parliament.

POLITIK knows there has been some discussion among influential National Party figures about boosting NZFirst so that it does return to Parliament, which, presumably, is why it has recently received $100,000 in donations from rich listers Trevor Farmer and Mark Whytborn, who have also donated a similar amount to ACT.

As always in the National Party, when there is talk of activity from rich listers, the spotlight immediately turns to former Prime Minister (and rich lister) Sir John Key.

He told POLITIK that he believes National should be able to form a government without needing to call on New Zealand First.

And so he is sceptical about an electoral deal.

“Ultimately, that’s for the leadership to decide what they can do,” he said.

“But Winston’s always said he’s not a fan of electoral deals. I’d be surprised if he’s changed.”

Luxon himself was not quite so dismissive.

“We’re not ready to talk about electoral calculations or coalition arrangements,” he said.

“What we are fixated on is actually driving the party vote.”  

However, even the fact that there is speculation points to the fundamental issue confronting National at present. It is the same force that was behind the nervousness over the weekend, that the party (and its leader) have yet to convince themselves that they are in a commanding position to form the next Government.