Simon Wilson: Nationals battle of the blokes

OPINION:

When Christopher Luxon won selection as the National Party’s new candidate for Botany on November 4, 2019, the party itself was on show. In all sorts of ways.

Judith Collins was there at Pakuranga Golf Club that night, excitedly rubbing shoulders with Luxon. Party leader Simon Bridges talked him up as one of the “new calibre” of the candidates they were selecting.

Luxon had been the CEO of Air New Zealand and would, said Bridges, be joined on the party list for the 2020 election by a whole line-up of impressively credentialed new candidates.

Hmm. Since then, the party and its candidates have been characterised by rank opportunism, sleaze and a panicky predilection for rushing hither and yon: in search of a credible leader, a coherent Covid response, a constituency to call their own, a core strength, a reason to be.

They’re not all like that. But since Luxon’s selection National has done an excellent job of persuading voters that it is unfit to govern. I’m not saying it’s his fault, he’s the new boy. But when they let him in the paddock he did rather startle the horses.

Luxon was both measured and aspirational that night, an assured public speaker who moved easily from glad-handing the party old-timers to mixing it with the media. He’s not a tall man but he seemed to tower over the other candidates.

He spoke of the “crisis” facing the country, by which, in those halcyon days, he meant merely that there was a Labour-led Government. He invited everyone to call him Chris.

That hasn’t stuck, but it doesn’t matter. Chris Luxon exudes something that has always eluded Bridges, Judith Collins and Bill English too: the sense that he is comfortable being the boss.

It was an instructive evening. Christian conservative candidates announced that their religious beliefs were core party views, although Luxon, an evangelical Christian, did not do this. And outside on the street, the disgraced Jami-Lee Ross, still the sitting MP, had attached placards to the fences promoting his own candidacy as an independent.

Ross, remember, had been accused of bullying and predatory sexual behaviour, and had then strapped dynamite to his own chest, in the form of allegations of fund-raising corruption, and tried to blow Bridges up with him.

Didn’t work. Whatever else you want to say about Bridges, you have to admit that after Ross, then Todd Muller and now Judith Collins, things do go very badly for people who try to take him down.

It’s also worth remembering that Ross was enabled by Bridges. As party leader, Bridges either did not notice or did not mind what Ross is like.

Which goes back to the question of party character. I wrote in July last year that bullying is not an unfortunate by-product of political life: often, it’s the desired option. Not always, but far too often, National has selected bullies as MPs, promoted them and allowed them to run amok.

If a political party can be said to have character, it’s clear that this one still has work to do. Presumably, one of the first steps will be to find a new president.

The most telling thing about National right now is that it would have replaced Collins months ago, if it could have. The Covid response has been mixed, support for the Government is slipping and a decent Opposition should have been able to climb into all that.

But Collins kept her job because National couldn’t agree who to choose. Luxon himself clearly didn’t want it yet – he’s such a newbie, it’s only eight months since he made his maiden speech in Parliament. And despite the constant clamour around both Luxon and Bridges, neither of them, nor anyone else, has managed to make an impression in the polls.

If Luxon was going to be the people’s choice, as David Lange, John Key and Jacinda Ardern all were before their elevation, he would be that already.

The caucus will put on a show of unity when it anoints its new leader today . But who are they kidding? Collins appeared as the new leader in July 2020 surrounded by the same caucus, in a demonstration of the same “unity”.

How will they make it real this time? What’s a modern conservative party supposed to be in 2021?

National faces so many challenges. From the Christian right in its midst. From the rise of Act, and the manifest failures of neoliberalism, and the dearth of quality in its ranks. It remains profoundly challenged by Ardern’s popularity and yet seems incapable of learning any lessons from it.

Such as, when you’ve been electorally discredited you have to start again.

That’s hard to do if you bring back a former leader. Also hard to do if all you’ve got is a fresh face in front of some stale ideas. Such as, that businessmen make good politicians – there’s almost no evidence for it. And that moral conservatism is the new order of the day. That’s tone deaf.

Another Jacinda lesson: Stop finding excuses not to promote women. Provided they do not seem to have a large knife hidden about their person, as JuCo did, New Zealanders are quite keen on women leaders.

And yet, incredibly, National reduced its leadership contest to a showdown between a couple of blokes whose world view – what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s important – is almost identical.

Even bigger challenges await. National can no longer claim without blushing to be the party of managerial responsibility. Internal ructions and its erratic response to the pandemic proved that.

Every time Key and Steven Joyce share their views with us, which is often, they remind us that the party is no longer theirs. The party that persuaded voters it was safe, competent and got things done is no more.

The Key doctrine itself has become irrelevant. Talk up confidence, talk down crisis and let business do its thing? That world has gone. Pandemics and the climate crisis are here to stay and the widening gap between wealth and poverty poses real threats – now daily in our news – to social cohesion. Governments must manage all these things extremely actively.

A conservative party today has to help its constituencies understand this. Many farmers are angry and some of them face real hardship. Many businesspeople have been ruined by the pandemic. But there’s no going back to the way things were, and that’s not the “fault” of Ardern or her Government.

Scandals aside, there will be no better mark of when National is fit to govern again than its climate policies.

Currently, it sneers at almost everything. The ban on oil and gas exploration, even though it’s limited to new offshore ventures. Feebates to help people buy electric vehicles and discourage large gas-guzzlers. Plans for rapid transit. The mildest proposals to include agriculture in emissions trading plans.

There’s a long list and it even includes sending Climate Change Minister James Shaw to the Glasgow summit earlier this month. For a party that says it cares about climate change and understands the value of multilateralism, that belonged to the loony fringe of politics. But National went there anyway.

Now, whoever the leader is, it has to find the way back.

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