Matthew Hooton: Nationals next leader? First they must slow things down

OPINION:

On whether Judith Collins is callous or kind, National will forever answer with the former and Labour with the latter.

On Wednesday, Jacinda Ardern’s Government was under fire from no less than Amnesty International, the Human Rights Commission and liberal legal academics for ramming through under urgency its latest removal of basic liberties under the guise of Covid.

Chris Hipkins’ COVID-19 Response (Vaccinations) Legislation Bill provides some of the certainty so desperately needed by employers, workers and the public, and can be justified on public health grounds.

But it still removes basic civil liberties, making unvaccinated New Zealanders second-class citizens. Before that happens, they are owed at least the courtesy of putting their side of the argument to a Select Committee.

Moreover, Hipkins keeping the legislation secret until Tuesday meant major errors weren’t picked up before it became law, They now must be fixed.

Ardern’s regime was also under fire for Wednesday’s decision to continue imposing the MIQ lottery system on New Zealanders abroad, including those who built up immunity from Covid after getting sick last year, who have now had both Pfizer shots not more than six months nor less than two weeks ago, and who test negative every day.

To Labour’s rescue rode Collins, with her late-night media release claiming to have sacked Simon Bridges with the unanimous backing of the National Party board. There is no evidence a board meeting was held, let alone that it made any decisions, unanimous or otherwise. Nor were National MPs advised in advance.

The pretext was a lewd joke Bridges made five years ago about the laziness or otherwise of male compared with female sperm, and copulation strategies that might therefore lead to the conception of a daughter instead of a son.

It’s not an original or even uncommon joke, albeit one that isn’t appropriate for a Cabinet Minister at a public function. After Jacqui Dean’s complaint, Bridges was told off by then Deputy Prime Minister Bill English, no minor matter for a minister.

Collins raising this at all, let alone with the heavy innuendo in her media release suggesting much more, demonstrated why National luminaries like English, John Key and Steven Joyce always judged her unsuitable for the leadership.

If Ardern didn’t open the champagne last night, she would at least have been able to have an undeserved early night. Her visit to Auckland today, which should have been a political calamity, went by unremarked.

The brand damage to National from these events – and all those dating back to Bridges’ ill-judged Facebook post on Covid, including the short-lived Todd Muller fiasco to which I was connected – is appalling. There is now a reasonable chance that National’s very existence is drawing to a close, to be replaced as the major party on the centre-right by David Seymour’s Act.

That would be unfortunate, not least because conservatives should always bewail the end of an important institution and because free-market true believers would surely lament the ideological compromises Act would have to make to defeat Labour.

Legendary National strategist Murray McCully always advised colleagues in trouble to slow things down. That surely applies to National as a whole.

The party made major errors with Collins, Muller, Bridges 1.0, and in English and Joyce’s handling of 2017 coalition negotiations with NZ First. Had different attitudes been displayed and different choices made, English may have led National into a fourth term, become the hero of the Christchurch terrorist attack and Covid-19, and so secured a fifth.

But National must accept that didn’t happen, and it was beaten fair and square by Ardern in 2017 and 2020. It’s inability to accept that not just factually but also viscerally has been its undoing for four years.

National thought it could limit Ardern to three years first by offering reheated, left-over Keyism with the unpopular Bridges rather than Key himself and then – ludicrously in retrospect – by hoping Muller could be National’s Ardern.

There are no quick fixes for parties after losing power. They need to go through some bitter personal scrapes, renew from first principles on policy, forge a consensus on what type of government they next want to be, and then learn to respect and like one another again, before setting out as a team to smash their hated foe.

National is, at best, only through stage one. Its senior figures still barely tolerate being in the same room. Their only strategy has been the purge.

Interim leader Shane Reti is probably the only colleague they can all tolerate, and whose integrity is unquestioned. The worst MPs says about him is that he is too serious.

In announcing that a leadership decision will be delayed until Tuesday, Reti said “thoughtful decision-making” is needed. That puts it mildly. Before a new leader is elected – hopefully by acclamation – a settlement is needed.

In particular, long-term leadership prospects Bridges and Christopher Luxon need to reach a genuine understanding, first with one another and then with the party’s leading liberals, hardest-working policymakers, and most effective media performers, Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford. The surely implausible leadership contender Mark Mitchell needs also to be accommodated, on the understanding his prime-ministerial fantasies are over. Reti must be happy, as must Louise Upston, Paul Goldsmith and Gerry Brownlee.

Whichever of Luxon or Bridges becomes leader, the other must be finance spokesperson, and the deputy must be a liberal. If Luxon is leader, the best deputy is Bishop or Stanford, avoiding two Aucklanders being at the top of the ticket. If Bridges is leader, Stanford is the logical choice, ensuring at least one Aucklander among the top two.

Former leaders Collins and Muller should be given an opportunity to think through their next moves, including whether Muller wants to reconsider his decision to retire in 2023. Both have appeal among some parts of National’s coalition and the party is hardly brimming with excess talent.

A big new policy or sense of direction will be needed from the new leader before Waitangi Day. That too needs to be part of the settlement before a new leader is chosen. It will need to sufficiently surprise to reset National’s brand.

Is this all possible over three days? Perhaps not. In which case National MPs should remember the advice coming from those two polar opposites, McCully and Reti: Slow things down and commit to thoughtful decision-making. Otherwise they’re toast.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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