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Can National get it together under Collins?

National’s road to government still looks near impossible, but it is theoretically possible that Judith Collins could be the next Prime Minister  - if she can can turn her caucus into an effective, unified team, says Peter Dunne

Todd Muller’s sudden resignation as Leader of the National Party has rewritten the rules of leadership. Never before has a party leader quit office so early in his term, and never before has a party leader leaving office been so open about the fact that health had played a major part in the decision to stand down.

In that regard, Muller has made a significant contribution to blunting the excessively stoic political culture that has dominated New Zealand politics for too long.

Muller’s resignation sends a clear message that it is now “ok” and not a sign of weakness for political leaders to be prepared to acknowledge that their personal health and wellbeing was important, and was not going to be allowed to suffer as a consequence of the job they are doing.

While he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to be so affected, he is the first to make such a stand. Others, previously, would have been far more inclined to the heroic, stiff upper lip, approach, often with disastrous consequences for those around them. In that regard, Muller’s decision has set a new standard for others to emulate. 

However, for the National Party facing a general election in just over nine weeks, the timing could not have been worse.

Already, in the fallout from the Boag/Walker issue there were mounting questions about how stable the National Party was, and its general reliability as a credible alternative to the current Labour-led coalition. Aside from the many unexplained questions arising from the Boag/Walker collaboration, darker questions were also being asked about the role of the National Party when it comes to so-called “dirty politics”. The modest gains in public support the party had been making under Muller’s leadership looked likely to be reversed as these revelations and questions continued.

All the while, the Labour Party has sailed on blissfully, with not even the Serious Fraud Office’s announcement that it is investigating some of its 2017 election donations as possible electoral fraud cases seeming to dent its now relentless momentum.  

For National, therefore, even before Muller’s resignation the game was turning more towards ensuring it survived the election with strong numbers in the House, rather than seeking to lead the next government.

In this context, the repeated comments from some commentators about parties “winning’ the election is as inaccurate as it is infuriating.

Under MMP, parties do not – at least until now – “win” elections in the way they used to. Rather, parties succeed by being able to put together viable coalitions. Nor was Labour “elected to office” in 2017 – it actually won far fewer votes and seats than National – but came to office because it was better able to put together a coalition than National. 

This is relevant to National in its current state. If it can hold all or most of the seats it currently holds, and if ACT wins 4 or 5 seats as the polls currently suggest is possible, then it is theoretically possible, if still highly unlikely given current circumstances, that National could lead the next government.

A more likely scenario is that the party minimises its losses to the extent it is a competitive player for the 2023 election.

As I have noted in previous columns, New Zealand has had only two one-term governments since 1890, so the chances of National forming a government after this year’s election have always been very low.

In a similar vein, after a long period of dominant leadership, normally in government, parties often go through a time of upheaval once the dominant leader moves on, and the party leaves office.

Helen Clark’s resignation as Labour leader in 2008, after nine years as Prime Minister, and fifteen as party leader, exposed a leadership vacuum which took a further nine years and four leaders to pass before the party finally settled on Jacinda Ardern in 2017.

... it is arguable that current processes do not always ensure the best use of leadership talent available to parties.    

Similarly, since Sir John Key stood down as leader of the National Party in 2016 after eight years as Prime Minister and ten as party leader, National is now, less than four years later, on its fourth post-Key leader.   

All of which is an interesting commentary about poor succession planning. That having been said, however, the competitive nature of politics and the fact party leaders are elected by either the Caucus (in National’s case) or a combined Caucus and wider party process in Labour’s and the Green’s cases, make it difficult for the succession to be rational, and for the best candidate to always win.

Nevertheless, it is arguable that current processes do not always ensure the best use of leadership talent available to parties.    

While many things have changed in politics in New Zealand and elsewhere in the wake of Covid-19, one constant has remained. Politics is still a long game. Success is not awarded but earned over a period of time.

National needs to be focusing on that longer game right now. With some impressive candidate selections this year it was placing itself well in that regard and cannot allow itself to be diverted by the short-term consequences of Muller’s resignation.

Collins' challenge is to set out to the media and the public a clear plan, showing how National would oversee the economic and social recovery post Covid-19. Her message needs to be simple, stark and definitive. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Two big challenges now face Judith Collins as the new leader of the National Party. First, she must be able to show the public she can wield the party into an effective, unified team.

The Muller leadership, which started out so well, was quickly plagued by too many leaks and acts of disunity culminating to look as though it was on top of things. That immediately raised questions about how things would work, should the party somehow end up in government.

Collins will also be able to take on the Prime Minister in a way that no other National Party leader has yet been able to.

Voters like to think a party leader, who could be Prime Minister, can, at the very least, control their own caucus. People will expect Collins to have no problems in that regard, but now she has to deliver on that expectation.

Her second challenge is to set out a clear plan, showing how National would oversee the economic and social recovery post Covid-19, and why it should be embraced as more compelling, affordable and achievable than that already set out by the Government.

Her message needs to be simple, stark and definitive – something she can promote as her own and which National and all its candidates can play to, rather than just flail aimlessly against. 

Collins will also be able to take on the Prime Minister in a way that no other National Party leader has yet been able to.

She has already signalled a much more direct approach, taking the Prime Minister head-on in a way that has not happened to date.

At the same time, she will need to be careful not to overplay her hand in this regard. While she should hold the Prime Minister to account directly as she sees fit, she cannot afford to appear hectoring, bullying or patronising as she does so.

National’s road to government still looks near impossible, but Collins’ election will help staunch the bleeding the wounds of recent weeks have caused. In the circumstances, that is probably the best that can now be hoped for.  
    
 

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