A recent prominent National politician had the so-called Serenity Prayer penned by American Philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference” displayed on a plaque on his office wall.
It always struck me that the quotation was as much a statement of this person’s approach to politics, as it was a reference to religious faith.
Whatever its significance, though, it certainly has relevance to the National Party of today. In its quest to return to power next year, it faces many obstacles, some clearly of its own making, and some quite beyond its control.
Its problem seems to be making the distinction between the two, let alone focusing on the factors it can influence, and ignoring the rest.
Leaning towards New Zealand First
National is simply spending too much time chasing parked cars, and not enough time spelling out where it might be different from and consequently better than the current government.
A recent good example was the incredible comment from Leader Simon Bridges that he was open to working with New Zealand First after the next election if the circumstances made that an option. All that has done has been to confirm New Zealand First’s status as a potential kingmaker once more for either the left or the right side of politics.
In so doing, it has restored a relevance to New Zealand First that was increasingly lacking, as well as giving disgruntled National voters somewhere to park their vote, in the hope it might ultimately be of help in getting National back into government.
It might well be just enough to get New Zealand First over the line again at the next election.
But it is all pie in the sky lunacy. Even if New Zealand First scrapes back into Parliament at the next election, it is not going to work with National, no matter how desperate the blandishments that might be thrown in its path.
No option for Winston Peters
Mr Peters is this country’s ultimate “utu” politician. His driving motivation of the last 30 years has been to make National pay and continue to pay for the way it has treated him in that time – from his expulsion from the first Bolger Cabinet and then the Caucus in the early 1990s, then his sacking as Treasurer by Jenny Shipley, and finally John Key ruling him out as a governing option in 2008 and 2011.
Having now achieved office with Labour, there is absolutely no incentive for his returning to his National roots. Utu, after all, knows no time limit.
If all that is not enough to bring National to its senses, the a dose of the realities of history should. New Zealand First’s electoral success is normally in direct proportion to the influence voters sense it might have after the election. Hence, the strong showings in 1996 and to a lesser extent in 2017 when it seemed inevitable it would be difficult, if not impossible, to form a government without New Zealand First; and, the far weaker showings in 1999 after the failure of the first coalition, and 2008 when John Key bluntly ruled out any deal with New Zealand First.
Courting New Zealand First, the way Mr Bridges now seems to want to do, plays right into New Zealand First’s hands, making them centre stage once again. And that will not end well for National, either in or out of office.
Time for better strategy
It is time for National to return to the John Key strategy and rule out New Zealand First altogether. While on the face of it this is a high risk strategy for National, it does have some upsides.
First, it is a clear message to even the most obtuse National voter that a vote for New Zealand First is no more than a vote to re-elect the current government.
Second, because such a declaration immediately would deprive New Zealand First of its ability to play both sides off against each other, it would diminish its relevance, and therefore also increase the possibility of New Zealand First being tossed out of Parliament altogether, (with a significant proportion of its votes transferring back to National?).
Third, it would allow National to focus on its story and the message it wants to promote to voters, without having to worry about how that may sit with New Zealand First.
National cannot change New Zealand First’s historic antipathy to National. That is not within its ken but ruling out working with them is certainly something National can change to.
All Mr Bridges needs now is the courage and the wit to see the difference.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He established UnitedFuture Party in 2000 and wound it up in 2017 upon retirement from Parliament. He lives in Wellington.