There was a rather large elephant in the room through the weekend at the National Party conference.
Though the party had, in the words of one senior Beehive adviser “stage managed the shit out of the conference” talking to MPs and delegates revealed a party that has one major issue on its mind.
And the issue is the Rt Hon Winston Peters.
National strategists have believed for a while that NZ First was making up ground but that it was winning that ground off Labour.
However, the election results in Australia, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump all point to this being a time when established parties need to take populist insurgents seriously.
It’s not just a question of whether National will need New Zealand First and Peters to form a Government, but would he even consider it as long as John Key leads them, and if he did, would their agreement to have him join to end the same way his previous engagement with National did under Jenny Shipley in 1998.
Their preference is to have the current Government and its support parties be re-elected with much the same numbers it has now.
And that’s the official line; that’s what the goal is.
So the Prime Minister’s message to the conference – though it was confident – was also a warning.
“We have to recognise that we have to earn the right to be the Government every single day,” he said.
“We get judged on every decision we make; good or bad.
“We get judged on the way we handle the decisions, not by the complexity of them, not by whinging about how difficult they might be but by actually coming up with solutions and delivering on them.”
But some of those solutions play into the New Zealand First constituency.
Right through the party’s regional conferences, the question of the proposed changes to the Resource Management Act giving iwi participation in planning decisions and also a proposal to give iwi a role in water allocation has provoked opposition from some party members.
Outside National, their former leader, Don Brash and Mr Peters himself have campaigned against the proposals.
The Government’s nervousness about this was reflected in a conference workshop which was addressed by Minister of Treaty Negotiations, Chris Finlayson.
“There are some very nasty elements out there who want the votes of our good members, and they are fond of saying that we’ve got some sort of secret Jesuitical plan to hand over water to iwi,” he said.
“So I’ll say now, in not one Treaty settlement have we talked about ownership of water because no one owns the water.
“That is a bedrock position of the National Party.”
But the sensitivity of the party as far as relations with Maori are concerned was also evident during a remit debate on the conference floor calling for the it to clamp down on tax exemptions for commercial ventures by “charities,iwi and other not for profit ventures.”
Though the debate on the remit began by focussing on the cereal company, Sanatarium, which is owned by the Sevenths Day Adventists Church, it soon swung to attacking Ngai Tahu-owned ventures such as Shotover Jet and Go Bus.
A New Lynn delegate said the remit would win no new voters but would alienate the party’s closest coalition partner, the Maori Party.
But Jordan Williams, the head of the Taxpayers’ Union, said that if delegates went to Queenstown and talked to the jetboat operators they would find they all paid tax except for one which was because it was owned by Ngai Tahu.
He said there should not be a separate class of company “simply because of who it is owned by including on the basis of skin colour.”
That’s the kind of rhetoric that New Zealand First voters like to hear.
But if National is to retain the Maori Party in Government, it’s exactly the kind of rhetoric it does not want to hear.
Ironically the conference had begun with a long Powhiri and Karakia led by list MP Nuk Korako(Ngai Tahu) who used slides to explain the references in the Karakia, the Rainbow, to a key Ngai Tahu peak in the Port Hills.
Steven Joyce, who will manage National’s campaign next year, doesn’t seem too phased by Winston’s pitch to the anti-Maori rights electorate.
“There’s different challenges in different areas and that way you solve those challenges is by getting everyone round a table and come up with practical solutions.”
Mr Joyce though knows Peters power only too well. Last year he managed National’s campaign in the Northland by-election which saw a long time National seat turn over to NZ First. In part, tghat was driven by the same forces of voters’ alienation that have been seen in the Brexit vote and in the support for Donald Trump.
So could it spread here?
“Lots of people will assume that that sort of phenomenon applies all over the world,” he told POLITIK.
“But I don’t think that’s the case, but then you should be vigilant and stay really connected to your voters because if you don’t, then you risk the sort of things that we’ve seen in the UK.”
And as Minister of Economic Development Mr Joyce has quite clearly been targeting those provincial areas where NZ First might get a foothold.“
“We need to stay close to th e regions, look to adopt projects that will catalyse growth and look to solve the infrastructure problems.”
He believes that it’s not National who is losing in the regions – but Labour.
“I think that’s because Labour hasn’t got much to say to the regions at present,” he said.
“For us, it’s a case of staying close to our constituency who tend to be a productive part of thee economy.”
And he says that’s why National focuses on things like ultra-fast broadband, trade deals and irrigation projects.
He won’t admit it, but it is clear that the Northland loss was a major wakeup call to the party and that it is now taking regional New Zealand seriously.
However among National officials, there seems to be a consensus that the party will not win back Northland at the next election.
The party would need a high profile candidate to do that and officials frankly admit they haven’t seen one appear so far.
Instead, the talent is apparently headed for the East Coast Bays safe seat that Murray McCully will vacate next year.
Meanwhile the Australian result caught many part officials by surprise.
The Australian Liberals had assured the New Zealand National Party last week that they were confident of victory.
The first reaction of party officials at the conference to the Australian result was to suggest that Malcolm Turnbull had not run a very good campaign.
But as they reflect on it they must worry whether the grass-roots rebellion among voters that we have now seen in the UK and the USA and which looks to spread to Australia could easily spread here.
For that reason expect National to keep a focus on Mr Peters and NZ First while it attempts to bolster its support in regional New Zealand.