Final thoughts on National's leadership contest

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Before midday on Tuesday we should know who the new Leader and Deputy Leader of the National Party are. Within a week or so we'll also have seen the resulting Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. 

The five leadership candidates would all bring their own set of strengths and weaknesses to the role. Given I've worked with most of them in the past, I'm not going to traverse these, but there has been some good (and some not so good) analysis out there, so feel free to google away.

What seems readily apparent is that each of the candidates would, to varying degrees, look to change the direction and strategy of the National Party heading into 2020. I'm firmly of the belief that this is a good thing. National can't spend the next two and a half years fighting the 2017 election campaign over and over again.

Labour made that mistake in 2011 and then fought a quasi-civil war for the next six years as it tried to move on from the Helen Clark era, contorting itself into a host of contradictory policy positions along the way. It's a legacy that still plagues them today, as demonstrated by their newfound enthusiasm for the CPTPP despite it essentially being the same deal as the TPP they so vehemently opposed.

The pace of that transition is important too. If National moves too quickly away from the Key/English era they run the risk of leaving behind the very supporters who delivered National such a large share of the party vote. Move too slowly and National will find itself responding to initiatives the Labour-led Government is proposing, rather than leading the conversation on New Zealand's direction and solution to our issues themselves.

That last part is crucial. National knows better than anyone about how fruitless it is to go after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern directly. It watched as Labour smacked its collective head fruitlessly against the edifice of John Key's enduring popularity for eight years, and they know that a similar approach against Ardern won't deliver results.

As to whether National needs to create or foster its own support parties for 2020, I've decided that it's presumptive to assume that new parties won't appear on their own.

Looking back over New Zealand's electoral history, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone who predicted, only a handful of months into the first term of a new government, the formation of any of the minor parties that have existed. In 1984 nobody would have picked that Jim Anderton would head off and create his own political party, likewise for Winston Peters when National took the Government benches in 1990, or the emergence of the Māori Party from Labour.

Notably, with the exception of the Greens breaking off from the Alliance between 1997 and 1999, minor parties generally get created from MPs occupying the government benches. Meaning that if a new minor party is likely to appear, it's more likely to be from Labour, the Greens, or NZ First, than it is from National.

Time and time again minor parties have been created by events unforeseen by political journalists or commentators at the start of a term. There's still every possibility that a new minor party could emerge organically, whether propelled into existence by a policy issue or a personality clash.

National needn't risk its own voter base, or open itself up to claims that it's falling apart, by trying to foster or split up to create its own minor party partner. A far more useful strategy is to pressure the parties of Government so they can deliver that potential partner party for them.