Mixed messages in wake of National’s defeat at Party Conference

Sam Sachdeva

Sam Sachdeva

Wellington, November 24, 2020

Time will decide if resentment or candour will win the day

         Former Prime Minister Sir John Key at the National Party Conference (RNZ Photo by Dam Cook)

As the National Party starts its painful and possibly protracted climb back to political relevance, leaders, past and president, hammered home the need for discipline and accountability – but not everyone in the hierarchy seems on board.

They say success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan – yet the National Party family was out in force at its first major event since a crushing election loss.

Healthy member-numbers

The AGM was overflowing with Party members, with former Deputy Leader Gerry Brownlee pressed into service helping to lay out additional chairs in the Te Papa function room.

There was even a healthy showing from former MPs still coming to terms with their sudden unemployment, although it is perhaps understandable they – and many others in the room – grasped the chance to tell the Party hierarchy where things went wrong, and how to fix them before 2023.

Despite the circumstances, there was still some levity: in a ‘meet the new MPs’ segment, former Air New Zealand Chief Executive and Botany MP Chris Luxon introduced himself as National’s Senior Whip Matt Doocey, who is similarly follicular-challenged.

Dire straits

But there was no denying the dire straits in which National has found itself, nor did Party Leader Judith Collins attempt to do so.

“While the country was focused on the Covid-19 challenge this year, I felt the National Party was far too focused on itself. ”We did not spend enough time talking about the things that matter to New Zealanders. The consequence of that can be seen in our election result and our reduced caucus,” she told the delegates attending the Conference.

The Party’s Caucus had to be more disciplined and united, while National also had to make the case for itself as “an inspiring alternative” to the Government – implicitly accepting it had not done as much this year.

“People will not vote for change without reason. We need to convince them to have high hopes for themselves, to believe a better New Zealand is possible, to expect more from their government,” Ms Collins said.

Big hill to climb

Victory in 2023 “might seem like a big hill to climb,” Ms Collins said, “but it is not beyond us” – although it is almost certainly beyond her leadership, with a clear sense the Papakura MP is a placeholder until a more inspiring candidate (such as Luxon) can make their case to take over.

Nonetheless, she delivered a clear and rational articulation of the necessary next steps for National – and if the crowd was disinclined to take her message on board, they undoubtedly did so when it was echoed by the ‘special guest speaker’ and National Party legend Sir John Key.

Ms Collins and Sir John did not enjoy a seamless relationship during the last National government, yet the former Prime Minister offered praise for her tireless campaigning and outstanding leadership before turning his eye to the path ahead.

With the greater freedoms associated with being a retired politician not in need of caucus support, Sir John did not pull his punches.

 

National Party Leader Judith Collins: “Inspiring alternative (RNZ Photo by Eva Corlett)

 

Sir John Key’s advice

The Covid-19 pandemic had made National’s task harder, he said, but there was a greater problem at play. “Some people who previously voted for National voted for Labour this time, or for ACT, because a combination of leadership changes and missteps, disunity, leaks and mixed messaging in National put them off us.

“I know that it is hard to stand up here and say that, I know that it sounds harsh, but it is true, and if we do not acknowledge that, if we do not take responsibility for it, then we will not learn from it,” he said.

Party members and MPs, dissatisfied with strategy could make their feelings known – but privately, rather than by fighting proxy wars through the media.

“Here is my very simple advice to those who like to leak to the media: if you cannot quit your leaking, here’s a clue – quit the Party.”

Getting back the lost votes

The former foreign exchange trader asked those in the room to fixate on one number: 413,800.

It was the number of voters who had switched from National to Labour at the election – roughly the population of Dunedin, Tauranga and Hamilton combined.

Every last one of them had to be won back, Sir Key said, before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her team managed to convert them to long-term Labour voters.

“Some people are going to tell you that eventually, all the public is going to get sick of Jacinda Ardern. Well, here is a clue – that’s a mistake. It is exactly what the Labour Party said about me for nearly a decade, nearly a decade. If we underestimate Jacinda and her advisers, we will be in opposition for a very long time – I can tell you this,” he said.

It was an invaluable and undeniable message – but perhaps he should have shared it with Goodfellow in advance.

The contrast with President

The President’s speech was a medley of exaggerated excuses and gratuitous grievances, his words curdling before they even left the stage.

The election campaign was set to be a high-minded battle of ideas, but with Covid-19 “descended into a race of celebrity leadership in trying times,” Mr Goodfellow claimed – a curious point of attack, given the ‘celebrity leader’ epithet was often thrown at Sir John during his Prime Ministership by some on the left, with no effect on his popularity.

“Reasoned debate on contentious issues almost became treasonous…it was suddenly a crime to ask legitimate questions for comment and daily broadcasts became televangelistic, like a gospel to the masses. Democracy, for a period of time, gave way to a time to a form of temporary tyranny. No-one should fear death threats or violence for voicing an opinion, no matter how much you disagree, but that was the reality in a Jacindamania world,” he said.

 
National Party President Peter Goodfellow: Re-elected (RNZ Photo by Rebekah Parsons-King)

Parallel Universe

Mr Goodfellow seemed to be describing a parallel universe to the one most New Zealanders experienced. Yes, we sacrificed many personal freedoms during lockdown – but it was a sacrifice an overwhelming majority of Kiwis were happy to make in the interests of public health and wellbeing, as numerous polls showed.

He railed against “the coordinated and overwhelming might of infectious clickbait journalism and heavily partisan powers of government being used against us”, before adding, almost as an afterthought: “To be fair, we were also up against ourselves.”

That is putting it mildly – and Mr Goodfellow also glossed over the role of his own board in its internal dysfunction through questionable selection processes.

Goodfellow hangs on

Ms Collins and Sir John were not exactly willing to go into bat for their Party President’s remarks. The latter sidestepped Goodfellow’s comments about celebrity leadership, while the former described the speech as “excellent” but did not want to get into specifics: “He can answer his own questions.”

The stony silence which greeted Mr Goodfellow’s speech might have seemed an ill omen for his hopes of holding onto the presidency in the board elections, following murmurs of discontent about the Party’s internal workings.

Yet he managed to retain his board spot – albeit with the lowest support of the three elected members, according to Politik and other outlets – and his reign as President will continue.

Sir John’s praise of Mr Goodfellow’s fundraising efforts may have helped, as may have geographical considerations: the other two members elected, Rachel Bird and former MP David Carter, both reside in the South Island, with Mr Goodfellow in Auckland.

His re-election did not come without caveats: in the press release announcing his reappointment, Mr Goodfellow mentioned “commitments that I will honour covering the campaign review, fundraising and delivering the change needed to win the 2023 campaign.”

Whether Mr Goodfellow’s resentment about the election outcome, or Sir John’s candour about National’s internal failings, carries the day within the wider Party may determine whether that talk of success in 2023 has any chance of coming to fruition.

Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor at Newsroom. He covers Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security Issues. The above article and picture have been reproduced under a Special Arrangement.

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