MPs: Pick them carefully, treat with care

The dysfunctionality highlighted by the ructions over National MPs Todd Barclay, Jami-Lee Ross, Hamish Walker and now Andrew Falloon should be a wake-up call about both the selection process and the brutal political system new MPs enter

The last eight weeks have probably been the most remarkable and tumultuous in the 84-year history of the National Party.

If anyone had suggested earlier this year that between May 20 and now the National Party would have had three leaders, three deputy leaders, two MPs stand down over disgraceful allegations, one stand down after continued speculation about a previous role involving Chinese spies, and two former senior Ministers walk away, all barely nine weeks before an election, they would have been dismissed as utterly deluded. Such chaos is not the way the National Party does politics, they would have been told.

Yet that is precisely what has happened. The neo-Thatcherite bravado of the party’s latest leader is for the time being camouflaging the fact that the party seems to be accelerating towards a substantial defeat in September’s election. 

In politics especially, hope always springs eternal and to have any hope of doing even modestly well in the election National has to keep believing and promoting the notion that they can still be in a position to lead the next government, even if for most people that prospect becomes more and more unlikely as each new drama unfolds.

Far more likely must be the prospect of more turbulence to come when the election dust has settled, and the party confronts the next three years in Opposition. That will be the time to learn a few of the hard lessons that should have been absorbed after 2017 but apparently were not, given National’s current situation.  

This grieving and sulking was to some extent masked for the party – and the public – by the Government’s failures in a number of its key policy areas .... And then Covid-19 came along, and blew conventional politics out of the water

Emerging from the last election as the largest party in Parliament, National had clearly not expected to be out of office once the post-election negotiations were completed. As a consequence, it has spent a large part of the current Parliamentary term in virtual mourning, believing that a combination of what it saw as public unease as the way the Government had been formed in 2017 and dissatisfaction with its subsequent performance would see a National-led government restored in 2020.

This grieving and sulking was to some extent masked for the party – and the public – by the Government’s failures in a number of its key policy areas, so much so that at the beginning of this year opinion polls were suggesting that the return of a National-led government was more likely than not. Looking back, it is easy to see how this misplaced optimism developed, and why, therefore, the party felt it was still on the right track, and that not much needed to be changed.

Bolstered by some strong new candidate selections which would bring about an infusion of new talent into the Caucus to replace those who were standing aside, National appeared to have good reason for its quiet confidence about its 2020 election prospects. The playbook that had served it so well over the years looked like proving its worth once again, so relieving any pressure for more substantial change in the way the party did politics.

And then Covid-19 came along, and blew conventional politics out of the water in New Zealand, as in every other similar country. Suddenly, we were in a global crisis, with massive and uncalculated risks to the lives of the general population. Governments the world over called on all their resources to develop their national responses, and frightened citizens quickly complied with the some of the most massive restrictions to their freedoms outside of wartime. 

And New Zealand, like Australia and others, saw a huge surge in support for incumbents borne out of a combination of fear of what might occur, and the necessity to have some certainty to hold onto.

Partisan politics quickly were dumped in the back seat. National’s march to victory was over. Like other Opposition parties elsewhere, it was uncertain how to react to this new situation. 

Politics as usual was clearly not the public expectation – people were too frightened for that. The then-National leader’s abrasive style was judged by the public and the party to be increasingly out of step with the public’s new mood of seeking reassurance and he was replaced by what looked like a kinder, more gentle leadership better in tune with the mood of the times.

Now, after the unfortunate events surrounding that leadership, National is having a third attempt to strike the right mood with a leader who is seeking to appear a mix of the two previous styles, and much more of a known quantity. Somehow, she needs to strike a balance between criticising the government when things go wrong and providing a still scared public with calm reassurance that all will be well in the medium to long term.

While changing the furniture is an almost inevitable part of what happens when a long-term party of government finds itself unexpectedly out of power, the timing with the arrival of Covid-19 could not have been more unfortunate for National. It reinforced a public perception that the party did not quite have things under control, in contrast to a Government whose publicity machine was working overtime to make its every action look smooth and organised, when clearly many were not. But, for a public craving certainty, it has been remarkably successful, so much so that the National Party’s overriding priority now has to be to survive the election in credible shape.

While the challenges imposed by Covid-19 and the Government’s response were making it hard enough for National to achieve any cut-through with the public, other more deep-seated issues have emerged which the party needs to confront and resolve to rebuild its viability.

In a diverse political culture no political party can ever have absolute control over the conduct of its MPs and candidates at all times, despite its best endeavours. There will always be personal crises to be resolved, or bruised egos to be massaged.

But recent events in the National Party go a little deeper than that.

The dysfunctionality that the episodes surrounding Todd Barclay, Jami-Lee Ross, Hamish Walker and now Andrew Falloon has highlighted raise many questions, including about the process by which they were selected in the first place.

In 2017, Judith Collins ushers former Southland MP Todd Barclay, who entered Parliament aged 24, into the National caucus room to avoid reporters asking about his secret recordings of staff members. File photo: Lynn Grieveson

There has been debate for a long time about the way in which Labour and National select their Parliamentary candidates. National’s process relies heavily on delegates chosen by the local electorate membership selecting the candidate of their choice, with minimum overt central party involvement. The party has consistently proudly highlighted the dominance of the local electorates in the candidate selection process, as evidence of the party’s democracy and decentralisation.

Labour’s process, on the other hand, is through a panel comprising roughly equal numbers of local and central party representatives.

Both have had their share of criticism over the years.

National’s system has been criticised as too open to local hijack – the selection of a favoured local son or daughter, or someone who has been able to seize control of the local delegates to ensure selection, regardless of external factors. The criticism of Labour’s approach has been the opposite – that locally unwanted candidates favoured by the party hierarchy can be foisted on unwilling electorates. There is merit in both arguments.

The present system is too brutal – malperforming MPs are chopped off like diseased limbs, but only once their failings become obvious.

But, as recent events show, a total reliance on local selection has some massive risks, and means that the process may not always be as dispassionate as it should be when it comes to selecting the best person to represent a party in Parliament. So, a selection system that allows for more external involvement might be to better to ensure that all aspects of a candidate’s suitability, rather than just solely local appeal might be best. While Labour’s system has produced some howlers over the years, on balance it has probably been the better option, more often than not.

Former National chief whip Jami-Lee Ross, who was the youngest MP in the House when he entered Parliament in 2011, wipes away a tear while talking to reporters about his allegations of breaches of the Electoral Act by then-National leader Simon Bridges. File photo: Lynn Grieveson

Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, the Ross, Walker and now Falloon cases have been wake-up calls for the political system generally. Selection processes are one thing, and perhaps the easiest to resolve. Far bigger are questions about the support available to new MPs especially as they take on what are the most dramatic of lifestyle-changing roles, and how the parties themselves monitor the performance and wellbeing of their MPs.

The present system is too brutal – malperforming MPs are chopped off like diseased limbs, but only once their failings become obvious.

Protecting a party’s reputation and the leadership appear to rank more highly than assuring the wellbeing of its MPs, especially its most junior ones. That attitude – the party is more important than the individual, which affects all parties – has to change.

No matter how egregious or inappropriate an MP’s behaviour, political parties have an ethical responsibility, akin to that of a good employer (even though MPs are technically not employees) to safeguard the wellbeing of those for whom they are responsible.

Yes, MPs should face up to their responsibilities and take personal accountability for their individual actions. But it is too late to act once the crisis has occurred. Prevention is always better than cure. And that is where all the political parties must accept a greater responsibility than has been the case to date.  Over the last decade, every party in Parliament has had occasion to deal with serious misconduct issues by one or other of its MPs.

Politics will, by its nature, always be a hard, bruising game. Competing for the right and privilege to govern the country is a high-stakes competition, as it should be. But the hell-bent nature of that contest should not excuse parties, the way it appears to do now, from ensuring that the candidates they put forward are up to the job, emotionally, morally and ethically, as well as professionally.

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