Glorious uncertainty makes politics interesting

Peter Dunne

Wellington, March 3, 2018

Much of the commentary since the election of Simon Bridges as leader of the National Party has been utterly mindless.

After all, it is at least two and a half years in all probability until the next election and a great deal can happen before then.

By way of comparison, would anyone have seriously imagined just six months ago that Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges would be the leaders of their respective parties by now, and that both would be beholden to Winston Peters for the exercise of power?

It is that glorious uncertainty which makes contemporary politics so interesting, and why the election of Mr Bridges should be viewed as more than just another passing event.

But, already the script has been written, at least by some.

In essence, it boils down to Labour being unassailable for the next election because of the popularity of the Prime Minister, and Mr Bridges being just the next in the hapless list of National Party leaders she will dispose of before then.

Challenging leadership

Now, if Mr Bridges acts like Opposition leaders since about 2008 all of this may well come to pass. But that assumes that he and the wider National Party have learnt no lessons from Labour’s time in Opposition and will simply repeat the same mistakes.

It may well be the case.

After all, National in Opposition from 1999 to 2008 went through three leaders before the emergence of John Key, and Labour from 2008 to 2017 went through four before the arrival of Jacinda Ardern. It is just what happens when parties go into Opposition after long periods in Government.

Historic lessons

However, the current notion that an Opposition leader should get only one shot at being Prime Minister has not always been the case and need not be so again.

Indeed, had that formula applied, some of our more formidable Prime Ministers may never have made the grade. Holyoake lost in 1957 but then came back to win four straight elections – the best performance ever – and Kirk lost two elections before his landslide win in 1972.

More recently, Jim Bolger lost badly in 1987, but won the next three elections.

So, the first lesson for the National Party today is to take a long view about its new leadership. By all means, it should do its utmost to win the 2020 election, however unlikely that may appear at this stage.

But, at the same time, and on the assumption Mr Bridges performs well over the next couple of years, there will be no reason to drop him if he does not win in 2020.

Voters constantly send a message that they like predictability and stability.

Credibility and reliability

Sticking with a good leader, if not yet a successful one, sends a pretty clear signal about reliability and continuity, whereas changing leaders every couple of years or so confirms a sense of instability and lack of fitness to govern in voters’ minds, something both National and Labour should be well aware of from recent experiences.

Mr Bridges is young enough to lead National to a loss in 2020 and two following wins, yet still be under 50.

National is struggling to get to grips with the reality of emerging as the largest party at the last election but ending up powerless because it lacked friends.

Mr Bridges recognised this immediately with his none too subtle olive branch to the Greens but given the Greens’ apparent tunnel vision when it comes to the prospect of working with National, he will need to do much more than this.

A rapprochement with New Zealand First any time soon seems unlikely, and may not matter in the longer term anyway.

Moreover, the notion that by driving both the Government’s partners below the 5% threshold at the next election, National might thereby be in a position to govern without partners is so fanciful to suggest that even after more than 20 years of MMP National has not yet understood its very essence.

Party-hopping bill not good

And when the Government’s anti-democratic party hopping legislation is passed, it will become extremely difficult for National to set up a partner party based around one or two of its sitting MPs peeling off, so its dilemma in terms of future government formation becomes even more acute. The absence of the Maori Party the demise of UnitedFuture, and the increasingly erratic ACT simply add to the problem.

That set of circumstances and Mr Bridges’ own political positioning – socially conservative and from working class origins – does open up a possible solution. There has long been a view that one void in the New Zealand political spectrum has been an effective representative vehicle for the liberal, urban middle class.

For a time, both UnitedFuture and ACT sought to fill that vacuum, but, for various and differing reasons, never quite made it. Yet the void still exists, so presents National with an opportunity. It should seek to work with like-minded people to establish such a party to provide it, more often than not, with the long-term partner it now so desperately needs.

Probability in 2020

Of course, National must be determined to win in 2020, but so too will Labour which will start as clear favourite. But with its partners suffering at the moment the fate of all small parties in government, Labour may be more vulnerable than it otherwise should be.

This does not mean National might be able to sleepwalk to victory – absolutely very far from it – but that with the proverbial little bit of luck, coupled with a long-term perspective and a lot of sensible organisation, it could prove to be extremely competitive.

A challenge Mr Bridges is no doubt acutely aware of, and one he will relish.

Peter Dunne is a former Minister in the Labour and National Governments and Leader of the UnitedFuture Party which was recently disbanded. He lives in Christchurch.

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