National Party leader Judith Collins.
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Analysis by Bryce Edwards.

Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.

Today’s New Zealand Herald cartoon shows a titanic-style National Party sinking beneath the waters while the captain orders “Full steam ahead!”. Cartoonist Daron Parton nicely sums up the general media perception about the state of the party after its annual conference at the weekend. While the party leadership are keen to convince the public they are confidently rebuilding, the general consensus is National is beset by division and problems. To see this cartoon and other recent ones about the party, see my collection: Cartoons of National in 2021.

Negative reports of National disunity

There was very little positive media coverage to come out of National’s annual conference in the weekend – quite the opposite in fact. Some of the most negative assessments have been published today, and they all emphasise National’s disunity problems.

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass argues the conference failed to bring about any great sense of unity or coherence, which meant that the more negative issues shone through – see: Peter Goodfellow kept his job – now it’s up to National MPs to do theirs.

He also reports that the National caucus themselves have mixed feelings on the success of the weekend, with some being “upbeat” and others “sombre”. Significant discontent with leader Judith Collins still exists apparently – especially over a lack of direction and coherence under her leadership.

The Herald’s Simon Wilson also attended the conference and thought Collins performed well, but didn’t always look entirely comfortable. For example, while chairing a conference session on technology: “She sat there hardly saying a word, looking as if she’d be quite happy if her seat suddenly pitched her through a trapdoor in the floor. A pool of waiting sharks would be preferable to this lot, was the look on her face” – see: Judith Collins wants to be a tech warrior but for what? (paywalled).

Wilson has some sympathy for Collins, saying she has a tough gig: “She models loyalty to others in the hope of getting some back, and she soldiers on. But she knows and so does everyone else that she will not be the next National prime minister. They don’t expect to win the next election and so her rivals are sitting it out.”

Chris Trotter laments the obvious descent the National Party is in, although he doesn’t believe that disunity is the problem so much as the lack of political dynamism and confidence on display at the conference: “What we saw over the weekend was a party which no longer knows how to play the game of electoral politics. Neither its leaders, nor its members, any longer have a clue what’s required of them. They no longer know who they are, what they believe in, or how to reacquire a competitive electoral edge” – see: Frail and confused: National succumbs to political alzheimer’s.

Writing on the Newsroom website, political editor Jo Moir says today “there is nothing ‘together’ about the National Party right now. Yet, somewhat ironically, ‘we’re better together’ is the message leader Judith Collins was selling at the National Party annual conference at the weekend” – see: Collins tests the faith of National’s broad church (paywalled).

Here’s her conclusion: “So, whether it be former, outgoing, or sitting MPs, the common denominator in National seems to be disunity. Even former Prime Minister Sir John Key couldn’t quite bring himself to play the unity card. He featured in a lengthy interview for the Herald on Sunday, as a reminder to National loyalists of the good old days, just hours before Collins’ big speech to 700 party delegates.”

For an overall analysis of the conference, it’s worth reading RNZ political editor Jane Patterson’s column from yesterday: National Party’s annual conference: Something old, something blue – but little new. She reports that the party leader didn’t exactly excite her own delegates in the weekend: “She works hard, is a canny politician and can crack a good joke – including at her own expense – but there was a decided lack of true warmth for her at the conference.”

National Party activist and conservative commentator Liam Hehir’s column for the Guardian concludes that Collins performed well at the conference but has a disunity problem – see: Resolutions but no revolution as National ends its annual conference as divided as ever. Hehir says: “She delivered the goods. If only she could also count on her colleagues giving a passable impression of collegiality.”

There was further evidence of party division when news broke at the start of the conference that Collins’ predecessor, Todd Muller, will no longer participate in caucus meetings or hold any portfolios for the party – something that normally happens when MPs are expelled but remain in Parliament – see RNZ’s Todd Muller ditches National’s caucus meetings.

Re-election of Peter Goodfellow as Party President

The main issue of contention at the conference was the decision to keep current party president, Peter Goodfellow on. Prior to the weekend, signs were shaping up for his replacement by former Cabinet minister David Carter – see my roundup: National’s internal discontent and mood for change.

However, Goodfellow survived with delegates electing new members to the National Party board who voted to keep him in place. This has amazed many commentators. In his column today Luke Malpass writes that the necessity of ditching him should have been obvious, given the poor performance of the party last year. He says: “The fact that he stood – and was elected again – points to a failure of succession planning and a lack of awareness about the need for generational change within the party. Any organisation – political or otherwise – that keeps the same leader in place for too long is at risk of stagnation and being overrun by those with newer ideas and innovative ways of doing things.”

Simon Wilson is also critical of the retention of Goodfellow, saying that he not only presided over terrible decisions, he isn’t even raising much money anymore: “despite his supposedly very special set of skills, as a fundraiser – party donations have declined. When he was asked about this, he said no biggie, donations always wax and wane. But it was election year last year. That’s when the waxing is supposed to happen.”

In her column, Jo Moir reports insider accounts that Collins herself changed her mind about ditching Goodfellow, allowing him to stay on. Moir says, “it’s understood a last-minute change of tune by Collins secured his win”, and although Collins was expected to direct her fellow board members to ditch him and elect Carter instead, “somewhere along the way that changed and by Sunday Goodfellow was re-elected.”

Chris Trotter says Collins’ failure to get rid of Goodfellow reflects terribly on her: “Either she wanted Goodfellow back, or she lacked the political chops to prevent his return. Whichever explanation is correct, National’s leader emerged from last weekend’s AGM looking stupid, weak, or an uninspiring combination of the two. Her references to the certainty of sunrises notwithstanding, Collins did not give the appearance of a women who either wants, or expects, to lead her party into the 2023 election.”

A different explanation for Goodfellow’s survival is given by Politik’s Richard Harman, who says the new members elected to the National Board, who ultimately decide the party president, were the result of a concerted campaign: “Goodfellow appears to owe his survival to a well-organised campaign headed by Epsom party member Sylvia Wood. She led a four-person ticket; herself, Stefan Sunde, Jannita Pilisi, and David Ryan to stand for four vacancies on the board. One electorate chair told Politik that they were the candidates ‘Sylvia wanted on the board’. All four were Goodfellow supporters; three were from his hometown, Auckland” – see: Behind Peter Goodfellow’s re-election (paywalled).

Harman also reports that “Most party insiders were convinced [Collins] would vote to replace Goodfellow. That supposition was further stoked when there were reports that her Papakura electorate was canvassing board candidates to find out whether they supported Goodfellow.”

Party pollster David Farrar has also commented on Goodfellow’s win, saying it was a product of Auckland factionalism – see: National board elections.

Farrar suggests that because Goodfellow is an Aucklander his Auckland support base mobilised to get key allies elected to the all-important board: “the key takeaway in terms of the board elections was that three of the four elected were from Auckland, which is where the conference was hosted. Hosting the conference is an advantage as your delegates can attend without travel or accommodation costs so local electorates will all have full delegations. And this was probably also an influence in the vote for President… If the conference had been in Dunedin, there may have been a different outcome.”

Rival David Carter didn’t take losing well, which led him to make some truly damaging statements about the party – see, for example, Thomas Coughlan’s David Carter has ‘no confidence’ in Peter Goodfellow to fix National’s fortunes. Amongst many scathing statements, Carter said: “The review we did after the election raised two significant points: the governance of the party from board was dysfunctional, and second, we did not have enough money in our coffers to campaign… I don’t think either of those things will change while Mr Goodfellow is president.”

However, National’s conference delegates weren’t entirely in favour of the status quo, and voted for some important changes to the governance of the party, which were said to have “sent a strong message” about the need for change – see Henry Cooke: National Party members vote to rein in board and seat-hopping MPs.

National’s new policymaking process

The lack of any policy announcements at the weekend was a disappointment to many observers. Instead, Collins announced in her speech that a new process of public engagement would be put into place in order to develop policy for the next election. This is essentially an extension of National’s new “Demand the Debate” campaign, with a focus on the following areas: Growing the technology sector, lifting incomes, building houses, getting Kiwis home from overseas safely, education, health, and crime.

This was best covered by Tim Murphy, who explains: “The conference initiative would see each of the seven areas taken out for debate with four groups – first experts, then key sectors, then National Party members and finally the public” – see: Collins and the seven deadly debates. And Murphy says the process has merit: “National can at least argue that it is doing the policy leg-work now, in advance of a possible return to government rather than mimicking Labour’s first-term approach of setting up numerous working groups and task forces while in power.”

However, Murphy also draws attention to what is “missing” from the list of important topics for National: “climate change, the border, the environment, rural issues, the Treaty of Waitangi and race relations do not appear to be among them.” Furthermore, “No explicit debates were foreshadowed on tax, or welfare, which usually feature high on a National manifesto. The promised debate on lifting incomes would usually address such issues, but Collins did not point to them as focal points.”

For another interesting take on this issue, see Toby Manhire’s Judith Collins doubles down on ‘demand the debate’ – but with a different emphasis. He raises the question of whether this process is merely a rebranding of Simon Bridges’ similar “Have Your Say” campaign in 2018 which resulted in ten discussion documents. And he warns that although such policy engagement and discussion might be useful, “people are soon going to want some detail on what the alternative looks like. To start demanding the policy.”

Manhire also reports on Collins’ keynote conference speech, saying it “was confident, assured” and, in terms of content, “there was a marked shift away from the dog whistles and culture war weirdness of recent months, a return to emphasis on modern National Party values.” He also praises the two panel discussions led by MPs on Covid and mental health (“brimming with warmth, passion and empathy”).

In terms of National’s intended policy development involving outside experts and public engagement, Chris Trotter is highly critical. He says these functions are the job of party members, and such policy debates should have been occurring in the weekend: “It is hard to know where to begin with this glutinous heap of political blancmange. Perhaps by re-emphasising that a political party seeks power to implement the policies advanced by its members, and the socio-economic forces those members represent. A viable political organisation contains within its ranks all the expertise it needs to knock the rough edges of the membership’s policy ideas. Moreover, why would any political party worthy of the name want to “engage” with the public? That is what it does every time an election is held!”

Debates over conversion therapy

The big policy issue dividing the party in the weekend was the caucus decision last week to vote against the first reading of the Government’s legislation to ban conversation therapy. National supports the principles of the bill, but has strong concerns about some of the details of how the law would work, especially in terms of the possible prosecution of parents.

Writing about this today in her column, Jo Moir is highly critical of the decision to vote against the bill: “there’s a long-standing practice in Parliament that if a party agrees with the basic principle of a bill, it’s best to support it at first reading and try and make changes during the select committee process. If those changes aren’t made, or consensus can’t be reached, then parties rightly pull their support for legislation at a second or third reading.”

Moir argues that the liberal wing of the party has been crushed by the decision to oppose the bill outright, and this has simply exacerbated caucus divisions: “National has always been seen as a broad church, but with the caucus having shrunk to just 33 MPs the liberal wing is very much in the minority, and was thoroughly whipped in all senses of the word by the conservatives. A fairer solution would have been to treat it as a conscience vote and give its liberal MPs including Chris Bishop, Nicola Willis and Erica Stanford the opportunity to support it.”

This all meant that the conference became a forum for discontented liberal party members to push back on this issue. Richard Harman writes about that division, and the decision to oppose the bill: “The Young Nats launched during a closed session on Saturday what one delegate told Politik was an all-out attack on the caucus for not allowing the bill to go to a Select Committee where it could have been amended. But privately, some of the conservative members of the caucus were dismissing this idea, saying what they did sent a very clear signal to a specific electorate. That electorate is conservative evangelical Christians.”

Finally, more bad news has arrived for Judith Collins’ leadership, with a Newshub poll showing 50 per cent of voters, and 48 per cent of National voters, think she should be replaced – see Tova O’Brien’s Newshub-Reid Research Poll shows nearly half of National voters think Judith Collins should be replaced as leader.

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