Bill Ralston: The major challenges facing National and Labour

OPINION:

We have one major party crippled by its failure and the other potentially hamstrung by its success.

The National Party has announced a full review of what went wrong at the last disastrous election. It has to ask?

The 413,800 former National voters who fled to Labour or Act know the answer, so it should be readily apparent to every MP, party apparatchik and those few supporters who are left.

What went wrong? Everything.

The review is due to report back with its draft findings early next year and its final report by the end of 2021. Let me save National money and time. The party was hopeless from top to bottom and gave most New Zealanders nothing to vote for.

Let’s start at the top. Having three different leaders in the run-up to the election is a recipe for disaster. It makes a party look as if it doesn’t have a clue. And, as it turned out, National didn’t.

Having two MPs forced to quit Parliament within weeks of the poll because of scandals of their own making and at least three others walk off from seeking re-election in a fit of pique after losing their positions of power in the leadership cabal cast a shadow on the fitness of all its candidates.

Voters deserted National because it had no policy that significantly differed from Labour. Quite what the party had been doing over the previous three years when it should have been developing new policy is not clear. When Simon Bridges was ousted as leader, the policy cupboard was bare. He may have taken it all home in his briefcase when he left office in a huff, but I doubt it.

By the time new leader Todd Muller spontaneously combusted a few short weeks later, no new policy had appeared. His successor, Judith Collins, came up with a few scraps that appeared to be made on the hoof, but being hardly memorable, they completely failed to resonate with voters.

‘Look in the mirror’

National’s problems are best summed up by its president (or in its president), Peter Goodfellow, who misguidedly told delegates at the party’s post-election conference that Jacinda Ardern was a “celebrity” leader, her Covid-19 updates “televangical”, Labour’s Covid-19 response was “temporary tyranny” and, oh yes, the media was “biased”.

Lest he read this and consider me also biased against National, I should repeat that my long-suffering wife was chief press secretary to both Muller and Judith Collins throughout the campaign. Blessedly, she has now quit.

Ardern may well be a celebrity, but I think a majority of New Zealanders consider she has earned that status handling some shocking crises during her time as Prime Minister and been rightly accorded international praise. No one, apart from Goodfellow, would seriously consider her a tyrant. That would be like calling Bambi a killer.

The media can hardly be considered “biased” when handed clickbait such as botched candidate selections, a flurry of resigning MPs, destabilising leaks by disaffected caucus members and a frenetic merry-go-round of leaders.

That Goodfellow would stand again as president when his party had just suffered one of the worst defeats in its history is staggering; that he would be re-elected is completely incomprehensible.

The only person talking sense was former Prime Minister Sir John Key, who said, “If we blame the media or go and blame other people, we’re going to forget to look in the mirror and we have to take responsibility.”

National needs to learn again to play as a team, set aside personal ambition and show loyalty to each other, listen to the electorate and deliver policy that voters actually want. It needs to present itself as a credible alternative to Labour. Currently, it is not. Importantly, it needs to reform its candidate selection system to exclude the dross it has delivered in the past.

National needs to ponder the fact that in the days of Robert Muldoon, the party had about 200,000 members. Today it has barely 20,000. It is withering and runs the risk of terminal decline.

Serious problem

In case Labour is chortling and snickering at National’s incompetence and stupidity, I should point out that its resounding victory has handed it a serious problem. To retain the huge hunk of the former National vote it attracted at the election, Labour will be forced to move even further into the political centre and abandon any thought of the kind of policies favoured by its traditional base on the left.

As a result, Labour’s old left support will become restless and, eventually, angry and disaffected. Ardern and Grant Robertson have a delicate balancing act to perform over the next three years. Pressure will grow to reconsider wealth taxes, capital gains tax and higher personal tax rates for the wealthier. Demand will increase for much greater spending on social services to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor.

Labour will need to solve problems such as the apparently insoluble issue of astronomical house prices without destroying the equity of fortunate homeowners.

One of the side effects of the Covid-19 crisis was that Robertson was forced to abandon financial constraint and rev up the Reserve Bank to print a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cash to keep us going, a move that the left will now see as a formula to also address the problems listed above. It will get ugly for Labour.

In the meantime, National has to figure out what to do next. Is Collins a “placeholder”, as some commentators suggest, appointed to keep the party ticking over until a better leader comes along? Looking at the depleted caucus, it’s hard to see who that may be.

Key and former finance minister Steven Joyce are said to be mentoring new Botany MP and former Air New Zealand boss Christopher Luxon, but it’s a big unknown whether he has enough room for take-off before 2023. Parliament and politics are a hard school to come to grips with in the space of one term. It is a painfully short amount of time for caucus members to figure out whether he is another Key or another fatally flawed Muller.

We have one major party crippled by its failure and the other potentially hamstrung by its success.

The next three years will be fascinating to watch.

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