Previewing 2018: National

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2018 will be a tricky year for National, with the Labour-led government still benefitting from a new car smell, and being able to formally launch a raft of signature policies, especially over the first half of the year. So what's in store for the blue team in 2018?

National kicked off the 2018 political year early, with Transport spokesperson Judith Collins launching a series of petitions designed to put the government under pressure to regarding a raft of roading projects that had been proposed under National. This was followed by Nikki Kaye launching another petition calling on the government to resource schools so that primary and intermediate aged school children had access to be taught a second language.

Politically they're both useful strategies. Many of the roading projects being fought for via the petitions enjoy significant support at the electorate level, and Nikki Kaye's second language petition stems from a policy idea National launched in election 2017 that was very warmly received. I suspect much of National's approach in 2018 will look similar to what we've seen over the past couple of weeks.

That means that on the one hand National will look to a piece of Key/English era policy that's under threat and use a potential threat to it as a way to attack the new government, but at the same time they'll promote a new, innovative policy in a different area. It's a strategy that will allow National to both stand up to protect their own record in government, as well as move their policy platform forward for 2020.

Remember too that petitions aren't just about promoting a policy or pressuring the government on a given issue, they're also an important tool to bolster email lists and inform voter ID databases. Expect a steady stream of these throughout 2018.

The big question that will hover over National throughout 2018 is whether Bill English will stay or go. English indicated after the election that he intended to stay on to contest 2020 as leader, and the reality is that should he want to, and National's poll numbers continue to hold up, there's every chance he could do that. Bill English is immensely well respected and liked within the National Party, and unless National's polling drops below 40%, it's unlikely there will be any moves to challenge him.

In the event that English decides to leave, or the poll numbers drop off, I'd expect any leadership transition to take place in the second half of the year, possibly around June to August. In part, this is because the new government should, off the back of a busy first half of the year, hit its best poll numbers as a result of the Budget, meaning that post-Budget could be when Bill English decides to call stumps on what's been a long and dedicated career of public service.

Likewise, from that point forward, the strengths that English would trade on versus the government - the experience of him and his team - will deliver diminishing returns as more water goes under the government's bridge as their team builds on their own experience and irons out any teething problems.

Much of National's ability to reinvent themselves going into 2020 may well rest on what English does. If English does decide to leave, along with the leadership contest, it will likely trigger a few other departures too. List MPs like David Carter, Chris Finlayson, and Nicky Wagner may well announce their departures soon after, while a slew of electorate MPs such as Gerry Brownlee, Anne Tolley, Ian McKelvie, and Nick Smith, will likely wait until late 2019 or early 2020 to announce they won't be standing again. I'd be genuinely surprised if any of the National electorate MPs leave mid-term and trigger a by-election, unless they happen to stand for a local body role in 2019.

All of this leaves the question - if not Bill English as leader, then who? In my mind there's a handful of contenders who I'll list in no particular order:

  • Paula Bennett: Currently Deputy Leader, and former Deputy Prime Minister, Bennett is generally well liked throughout the party. Much like John Key, she not only has a compelling backstory, but she does tend to polarise opinion outside the party, with people either loving or hating her. Bennett's personal "westie" brand would offer an interesting contrast with the more inner city urban charisma of Jacinda Ardern.
  • Simon Bridges: National's Leader of the House, Bridges has long been talked about as a future leader of the party. Respected throughout the party, Bridges occupies a special place in National for having nearly snuffed out New Zealand First by beating Winston Peters in Tauranga in 2008. Bridges also has experience going one-on-one versus Ardern, having both been part of TVNZ's political "Young Guns" panel on Breakfast.
  • Nikki Kaye: The Auckland Central MP and former Education Minister has one thing that no other candidate has - she's beaten Jacinda Ardern not once, but twice in Auckland Central, a seat that demographically could be a strong Labour seat. Kaye has also won plaudits both for a formidable work ethic, as well as bringing a fresh and innovative approach to her portfolio areas. While Nikki Kaye has recently ruled out running to be leader if Bill English leaves, I don't think anyone should read too much into that denial.
  • Amy Adams: With her background and links to rural New Zealand, Adams offers an opportunity for National to go after New Zealand First in provincial New Zealand. On top of that, Adams also has a strong grasp of policy and a well respected record during her tenure as a Minister. Adams also kept her powder dry during the post-Key leadership contest.
  • Jonathan Coleman: Following John Key's resignation, the then Health Minister pitched himself as someone who could refresh National's approach. There's no reason to think that Coleman's ambition has diminished since going into opposition, and his hand may very well be strengthened in a post-English world.

Outside possibilities include Judith Collins, who challenged for the leadership in December 2016, as well as Steven Joyce who has refused to speculate on any ambition to be leader of the party.

Whatever happens with National's leadership, there is a need to use 2018 to make the switch from the traditional combative role of opposition to being an opposition that leads the conversation on policy issues. The usual attack-based approach to opposition didn't work for either Labour or National during their spells in the wilderness in the past two decades, and it was only largely when both parties moved away from that approach that they started to enjoy electorate success.

This will be a challenge for National, because as much as they need to make this switch going into 2020, it's also important that they're not seen to turn their backs too quickly on the Key/English era. A leadership change would make this easier, but it is still possible if English decides to stay on to contest the 2020 election.

National will still need to, as much as possible, hold the government to account, keep the feet of poorly performing or struggling government ministers to the fire, poke and prod at policy and personality tension points between Labour, New Zealand First, and the Greens, and ensure that they make their voices heard at Parliament. But now is the time to get their ducks in a row for 2020.