The absolute last thing the National Party should be considering right now is another change in leadership – its third in less than a year were it to happen in the next few months.
National has far more pressing tasks at hand. To have any prospect of challenging a still rampant Labour – even though the signs are emerging of a slow fade of its gloss – National needs to first work out what it actually stands for. Is it a traditional liberal/conservative party as it was in its recent successful heyday, or is morphing into something else? A hard-line law and order party of religious and moral conservatives? Or just a paler version of the modern Labour Party?
At the moment, National is showing at different times and to different audiences contradictory signs of trying to be all of these things, leaving its message looking confused, constrained, and half-baked. Even on Covid19 where the increasing cracks in the government’s response are becoming obvious, National’s response has been inconsistent, varying between timid caution, for fear of upsetting middle New Zealand too much, and downright imitation. The nett result is that it has left the field wide open to ACT to be the government’s staunchest and most focused critic, climbing slowly but surely in the polls at National’s continuing expense as a result.
Then there are the matters identified in the party’s recent still secret internal review that need attention. While much of the detail remains out of the public arena, the question of candidate selection and management has been highlighted. This has been given prominence by some very unfortunate candidate selections for the 2017 election where some candidates who were clearly not up to the task of being MPs were selected, elected and then embarrassingly exposed as seriously flawed.
The problem is not just limited to 2017 though – there have been other dubious selections over the years of either similarly inappropriate candidates, or candidates hiding their true agendas until they became Members of Parliament. National desperately needs to develop a selection system that finds and weeds out these people for itself before they are found out to the Party’s detriment on the wider stage. Its currently electorate-based selection system has many advantages but has become too open to local highjack.
Following that is the question of the policy approach going forward. The scope of the government’s fiscal response to Covid19 has left National with very few expansive options. The country’s debt profile for at least the next decade means there is little scope for lavish new spending programmes beyond those already in place. And the scale of Labour’s splashing the cash in the wake of Covid19 appears to have rekindled the public appetite for spending to the extent that certainly the next election, if not the one beyond as well, will not be the time to be preaching too much fiscal responsibility, let alone book-balancing austerity.
Within these constraints, National’s immediate challenge is to fashion a credible Covid19 recovery model which focuses on a sustainable approach to social and economic development. This needs to be built around enhancing employment and educational opportunities for all, especially our young people, whatever their ethnic, cultural, geographic or socio-economic backgrounds.
Only when National has begun to address these issues and demonstrate some progress developing clear and workable policies will it be timely to address the question of the party’s leadership. Hopefully, from its point of view, this will be done with its traditional deftness, rather than the ham-fistedness that did so much damage to its credibility last year. A refocused and sharpened party will dictate the type of leadership required, not the other way round.
The leader of the National Party must be someone who lives and breathes National’s vision and objectives, not just someone who feels “comfortable” with them. The leader needs to be enthusiastic, forward-looking, active and appealing, not a place holder whose best attribute is that they are respected by Caucus. That will not be enough to win over an increasingly demanding public.
Even then, the challenge is a daunting one. Gone are the days when Opposition leaders are given one or two elections to find their feet. Today, the performance demand is instant – lose an election and the skids are under you. (It is worth noting in passing that on this basis prominent New Zealand Prime Ministers like Norman Kirk and Helen Clark would never have made it – they both lost at least one election as leader before becoming Prime Minister.)
So that means anyone challenging for the National Party leadership will need to pick their moment very carefully. There is no point becoming Party leader just to lead it to another inglorious defeat in 2023. And at this stage that looks the most likely outcome of the next election, whoever the leader of the National Party may be. Given the events of 2020 the last thing the National Party needs right now is the advent of another kamikaze leader.