National Party Leadership

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.