Judith Collins

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.

Calls for generational change out of step with aging electorate

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When I hear the latest buzzword "generational change" being bandied about to describe politicians, it makes me cringe. There's almost a element of ageism about the term. It's as if somehow people who don't represent generational change (a term largely based on age rather than anything more meaningful such as values or policies) are less valuable to society, or have less to contribute to our political discourse.

The reality is that New Zealand, like most other Western democracies, has an aging population, a fact which gets amplified through voting patterns. In the 2017 election some 51% of voters were over 50-years-old. The median age of the voting public also greyed - increasing from 47 in 2014 to 48 in 2017.

In fact, the share of the voting public in the age bracket that seems to be most associated with generational change - MPs aged between 35 and 44 shrunk at the last election. While there was an increase in the share of votes coming from those aged 18 - 34, it was offset by growth at the older end of the spectrum.

Factoring into this too is that the median age of New Zealand's population is rapidly increasing, sitting at 37 in 2016. It's likely to likely to hit 40 by the early 2030s, and could accelerate further due to a falling fertility rate.

Throw in analysis around how each of the parties performed for the party vote in each age bracket (remember that this is a fairly broad analysis, so is indicative rather than gospel), and the whole idea of generational change for generational change's sake is a tad nonsensical. There's a very large pool of voters (and I mean people who go and actually participate in elections by casting votes) who aren't representative of generational change at all.

Ignoring or discounting the importance of those voters who emphasising or overstating an apparent need for generational change is done at your own peril.

How do you think Winston Peters has managed to claw out an ongoing niche for himself over the years? I'm not suggesting that National should go down the route of emulating Winston Peters. But they have to be mindful of not turning their back on older voters. If those voters perceive National doesn't care about them anymore, there's really only one place for them to go, and that's to Winston, and that doesn't help National's cause at all.

There are generational policy challenges ahead. Issues like climate change and the housing crisis require long-term thinking. Yet the age of a party's leader and a claim to represent generational change in leadership in itself does not qualify one to be any better equipped to deal with those challenges than their gender, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, or their accent.

What matters more is whether their values match enough of the electorate, whether their policies can deliver outcomes that benefit enough voters and, not least of all, whether their personal style engenders confidence that they understand people's concerns and a sense of trust that they will address them.

Age, and by extension generational change, in itself does not provide politicians with a monopoly on these things. The world is far more complicated than that.

Ultimately, leaders are meant to lead for all New Zealanders, not just lead  for one generation over another.

There are old conservatives, there are young conservatives. There are old liberals, there are young liberals. Judge a leader's suitability on their values, their policies, their personality and style, but not their age and whether it symbolises generational change.

Libertas Digital's National Leadership MP Endorsement Tracker

To help everyone keep track of everything that's going on with National's leadership race, I thought I'd throw together a tracker so we can see who's running and which MPs are backing them. At this stage I've included both Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce in the race, even though neither have made a declaration about whether they're in or out at the time of writing. I figured it'd be easier to include them now and remove them later than the other way around.

I've listed them in order of announcing, with Mark Mitchell and Steven Joyce alphabetically by first names. There's 28 blue bars as they need 29 to win, but obviously their own vote is the finishing line. I'll endeavour to keep this up-to-date based on publicly available endorsements, of which I'm only aware of four in favour of Amy Adams.

If they don't run it'll mean I don't have to have all those words awkwardly on the left like that. The fun of optimising graphics to display in link snippets on social media platforms!

LIVE: National Party Leadership Race

20 February, 8am: Steven Joyce announced he's in the leadership race on RNZ's Morning Report.

19 February, 2.40pm: Mark Mitchell has now announced that he's running for leader. Says he's had strong support, was approached three weeks ago to consider standing in the event of Bill English resigning.

19 February, 12.55pm: It's been a bit quiet over the weekend. But Mark Mitchell is poised to make an announcement at 2.30pm in Orewa. Still no word from Steven Joyce. We've put together a MP Endorsement Tracker to keep up with any public endorsements from MPs for a specific candidate. We appreciate there's a lot of speculation about how many votes each candidate might have behind the scenes, but we're no really able to count those.

15 February, 3.40pm: Jonathan Coleman has ruled himself out of the leadership race.

14 February, 3.35pm: Amy Adams has announced she's running for leader. She was joined at the announcement with Nikki Kaye, Maggie Barry, Chris Bishop, and Tim Macindoe, the first show of support from any MPs for a leadership candidate

14 February, 11am: Simon Bridges has announced he's running for leader.

14 February, 10:30am: Correction: RNZ only say that Mark Mitchell had confirmed he's considering making a bid, but only after he's visited his daughter in Australia. I misread their tweet!

14 February, 9.45am: Newstalk ZB has Steven Joyce saying he's considering options on running for the leadership.


Over the coming days I'll try to put together a quick graphic as and when news breaks about who's in and who's out of the National Party's leadership contest. I'll endeavour to update it as and when announcements are made, though I'm still recovering from a nasty illness and injury so will be entirely dependent on whether I'm able to get out of bed.

The above is based on publicly reported statements that I've seen on Twitter. Where an MP hasn't yet made any statement (e.g. Amy Adams hasn't said anything at all on the race) I've opted to not include them in any of the boxes.

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.