Sunday, 20 Jun 2021

Matthew Hooton: National’s woes go right to the top

OPINION:

It’s still best to assume that, one day, there’ll be another National Government.

It’s not impossible for major parties to completely dissolve. In 1993, Canada’s 50-year-old Progressive Conservatives collapsed from 169 seats to just two. The partywas wound up in 2003.

Nevertheless, MMP should save National, as it did Labour in the mid-1990s and 2010s.

The question party members keep asking is how far along its recovery is it compared with Labour from 2008 to 2017.

Maybe Simon Bridges was National’s Phil Goff — an echo from the previous regime. That makes Todd Muller the equivalent of David Shearer — an unfortunate experiment. Judith Collins would be David Cunliffe. Might an Andrew Little be needed to hold the fort? Could Christopher Luxon, Nicola Willis or Chris Bishop then step forward as National’s Jacinda Ardern?

In fact, the comparisons fail. National is on a trajectory all of its own, in a world of chaos and pain that not even Labour endured through the 2010s. Even at Labour’s maximal ordeal, it remained within a few points of National, counting both sides’ allies. Its organisational structure remained basically competent and intact.

In contrast, since Ardern’s Covid triumph in October, Labour-Green has averaged 57 per cent support, over 20 points ahead of National-Act on 36.

Today’s National is in worse shape than even Helen Clark’s Labour in 1995 or Bill English’s National in 2003. Nothing it says counts for anything, and so no one has any reason to listen. It should be National doing the listening, but that would require self-reflection.

For those who won’t accept the legitimacy of the 2017 election, the villain remains Winston Peters, who apparently tricked English and Steven Joyce into thinking he would back them, but reneged.

Others blame Covid for being good for incumbents, whether Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, or Ardern.

The few remaining Bridges loyalists still insist he was doing just fine — a mere victim of a conspiracy involving Nikki Kaye, Amy Adams, Shane Reti, Andrew Bayly, Bishop, Willis, Muller, Collins and me.

Team Bridges might better ask themselves how, if everything was so rosy, such a conspiracy could succeed, especially with a candidate about whom I would say they turned out to be right.

They might also reflect that, before Muller’s coup, National’s internal polling was apparently so disastrous it couldn’t be shared with anyone but Bridges and his strategist Todd McClay. The public polls had the centre-right trailing Ardern’s Government by an unprecedented 34 points — worse than National’s 27-point torment on election night.

There are no remaining Muller loyalists. National enjoyed an immediate nine-point poll boost when he became leader but that soon slipped away when his front bench, senior staff and consultants couldn’t reach the unanimity he demanded on everything from high-level strategy to daily talking points. In my opinion that indecisiveness soon became obvious to voters.

Collins’ flaws were known for longer and her critics are enjoying her difficulties over Nick Smith’s resignation this week. But none of them could have done better picking up the pieces.

On election night, Collins won the same vote share she had inherited, despite Paul Goldsmith’s disastrous fiscal plan and the malicious leaking of a private email, written by National’s Maungakiekie MP Denise Lee, just as votes were being cast. Getting rid of Collins now would make everything worse.

If National wants to identify when its cause became hopeless, it might reflect on those four disastrous weeks in July.

First, it had to secure the resignation of three-term MP Jian Yang following briefings from the New Zealand intelligence agencies. National had been aware of questions about Yang’s links to the Chinese Communist Party, government and spy agencies for years.

Second, Hamish Walker, then MP for the ultra-safe National seat of Clutha-Southland, was caught receiving private medical information from former party president Michelle Boag and leaking it to the media. He resigned his candidacy.

Third was Muller’s breakdown and resignation. The party establishment had picked him as a future leader when he was still at university, and worked for decades to get him into Parliament.

Fourth was another MP holding a seat for life, Rangitata’s Andrew Falloon, being forced by Collins to resign from Parliament after unwanted pornographic material was sent to young women from his phone.

Fifth, a Parliamentary Services investigation had to be launched into Smith, National’s longest-serving MP, after allegations he had been behaving in roughly the same way he had been allowed to by successive leaders for 30 years. This week, the draft report into his behaviour was enough to force his resignation.

Sixth, party strategists were receiving allegations raising serious concerns about the professional and personal integrity of one of National’s new star candidates, Jake Bezzant. Auckland party boss Andrew Hunt asked Bezzant about the claims. Party President Peter Goodfellow said the allegations were “thoroughly investigated”. Yet it seems no effortswere made to speak to those who knew Bezzant’s background best.

Bezzant remained highly active in the party — until this week when he resigned after his ex-partner alleged he used explicit photographs without her consent to pretend to be her during cybersex with other males.

Seventh, delegates supporting the party establishment’s preferred candidate for Auckland Central tried to smear a promising challenger by distributing photos of her wearing gym gear. The management of the selection process was widely regarded as a fiasco. Lacking quite the loyalty and integrity of the rest of the campaign team, I jumped ship on August 1.

Many people must shoulder some blame for where National is today. John Key might have served out his third term as Prime Minister. English and Joyce might have negotiated differently with NZ First in 2017. English might have tried harder to hold on as leader.

Joyce might have hung around as an elder statesman. Bridges might not have empowered Jami-Lee Ross and handled Covid more sensitively. Muller’s supporters, including me, should have done better due diligence. Collins might have stuck to her key messages during the campaign.

But the common theme through National’s troubles is poor candidate vetting and selection, and a lack of seriousness when allegations emerge, whether of spying, sexual harassment, bullying, fake CVs, poor business practice or just plain old not being up for the job. That speaks to governance, identified as a serious problem in National’s still secret post-election review.

Goodfellow has been party president since 2009. He has taken a close interest in all key candidate selections and all long-term strategic decisions, and would be responsible for them even had he not. After 12 years, whatever shape the party is in now is his legacy.

In my opinion it is time for him to take responsibility and go, and for the party membership to elect a new board of competent people willing to deal with the current crisis — if they can find any.

National will achieve no long-term operational success until its members demand accountability from those they elect to run the party’s affairs.

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

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