Unity was meant to be the message of the National Party conference in South Auckland – and for the first day and a half it was.
Leader Judith Collins and Party President Peter Goodfellow told members the party’s disputatious MPs had learned their lesson.
“Your caucus has listened to you. You have told us that you want unity, respect and professionalism,” Collins said.
But by the afternoon on the second day, things had begun to unravel.
The party’s youth wing, the Young Nats took a stand against the caucus’s decision to vote against a ban on gay conversion therapy.
The next morning former speaker David Carter launched a broadside against Goodfellow, resigning his position on the board saying the party would never win without change at the top.
Instead of addressing the conference as victorious president, Carter left Auckland, landing in Christchurch hours after he lost the vote.
And just as Collins was making her final remarks to the party, the final blow landed.
Leaked messages from one of the party’s most high-profile MPs, Chris Bishop, emerged online, showing that he too wasn’t happy with the party’s position on conversion therapy.
So much for unity.
Opposition party conferences two years out from an election will never be barnstorming affairs. To be fair to National, the Labour party in opposition has had its fair share of chaotic conferences too. At this point in the last electoral cycle, Labour endured a conference at which it was strongly suggested David Cunliffe was about to roll then leader David Shearer.
This was nothing like that.
Aside from unity, Collins also pleaded for focus, but she couldn’t even keep to this focus herself.
She launched no new policy at the conference, instead launching a strategy to focus on seven key policy areas.
More than one member later brought up the irony that Collins was at once making an appeal to “focus” while also dividing the national attention among seven policy areas.
They suggested three might have been better.
As usual, much of the chaos appeared to be self-inflicted. It is not clear why National finds the conversion therapy legislation so egregious that they would not at least get it to select committee and vote it down afterwards.
That way they could at least claim to be acting in good faith to fix a bill the party officially supports in principle.
The spat with the Young Nats might have been diffused earlier too.
Instead, caucus whipped the vote to appear unified. The move backfired and the Young Nats were able to whip up a significant portion of the membership and caucus to make a powerful and public stand against the party’s direction. Again, so much for unity.
Former Prime Minister John Key on the sidelines of the conference gave some support to the youth wing.
“There’s been a long history of the Young Nats having a voice that’s sometimes been different from the caucus – to be blunt, I think it’s something to be encouraged because it’s what keeps the party fresh,” Key said.
Behind the chaos, some things actually went quite well. A mental health panel led by MP Matt Doocey moved the crowd.
Doocey has successfully repositioned the party into the vanguard of the mental health debate, a place it wouldn’t have dreamt of being four years ago.
Bishop was also out in front, floating vaccine targets and a points system to make sure that scarce MIQ spots go to the people that need them.
Collins herself was relatively absent, aside from her set piece speech on the final day.
It was a contrast to Simon Bridges who used to work the room during coffee breaks when he was leader, posing for selfies with people like Key. Collins stayed away from the main coffee area on her breaks.
When the time came for her own panel discussion – on technology and space policy- she barely spoke a word, leaving the discussion to MPs Melissa Lee and Joseph Mooney.
The conference had been billed as a referendum on Goodfellow and his leadership, one he obviously won.
In his parting remarks, Carter warned Goodfellow he had not learned the lessons of the National’s disastrous 2020, which was for a lighter touch board and better fundraising.
Speaking after the conference, Goodfellow was fairly unrepentant in the face of that criticism.
He defended his fundraising record, despite the party’s own reporting showing his appeal last year raised 8 per cent less than in 2019.
As for a lighter touch board, Goodfellow said it would still be physically present at some candidate selections.
Carter’s resignation also opens up a space on the board – the question over who fills it will be another opportunity for Goodfellow to test and perhaps consolidate his control over the party.
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