Friday, 19 June 2009

New National Party not a patch on the old.

Chief Conductor of the "Years of Lightning": George Chapman (above) working closely with Rob Muldoon, fashioned the National Party into a formidable (and, for a while, unbeatable) political machine.

WHAT has the Mt Albert by-election taught us about the 2009 National Party?

Well, for a start, it has taught us that the National Party of today isn’t a patch on the National Party of yesterday.

It is simply inconceivable that the "years of lightning" (1974-84) National Party, presided over by the redoubtable Sir George Chapman, could have overseen the political travesty that was Melissa Lee’s candidacy.

For a start, the Chapman-led National Party of the 1970s, boasted a nominal membership of 250,000 New Zealanders – a considerably larger pool of political talent than the 25,000-strong party of today.

Initially, they would have been looking for a local candidate – someone who’d spent the best part of their life in the electorate and was well-known to its citizens. A local GP, perhaps, or the headmaster of a local school, with a friendly, familiar face and reassuringly moderate views. A candidate broadly acceptable to Mt Albert’s tories, and even, properly presented, to some habitually Labour-voting liberals.

In the absence of this ideal candidate, however, they would probably have opted for a young up-and-comer from the regional party organisation. Someone like the ambitious young accountant chosen to fly National’s flag in Mt Albert during the General Election of 1954.

The then 33-year-old Robert David Muldoon had grown up in the electorate, attended Mt Albert Grammar School, and his maternal grandmother, Jerusha, had been a celebrated local socialist. He won a very creditable 35.7 percent of the votes cast.

With National riding as high in public esteem as it is at present, however, the old-school campaigners would have looked at the 43.8 percent of the vote won by F. Ryan, National’s candidate in the General Election of 1975 (when Labour was equally unpopular) and established that result as the benchmark for 2009.

An organisation as independent of its parliamentarians, and as internally vigorous as the National Party was in the mid- to late-70s, would have had little difficulty in locating a candidate ready, willing and able to take the fight to the beaten and demoralised socialists.

Active party organisations, especially those in which policies are still robustly debated on the conference floor, are constantly testing the strategic thinking, organisational skill and rhetorical ability of their most ambitious rank-and-filers. The leaders of such parties cannot help but notice those with the charisma to muster a following and, most importantly, the force of intellect and persuasive power to sway an audience.

The president of such a party would no more have dreamed of absenting herself from National’s campaign headquarters on election night, than she would of flying to the moon. Getting candidates elected is what political parties are for – it’s what they do!

The fact that National’s current president, Mrs Judith Kirk, allowed herself to be told, by Dr Jonathan Coleman (an MP!) that her presence in Mt Albert on the evening of the by-election would not be required, speaks volumes about the state of the party organisation.

Clearly, the National Party has become entirely subordinate to its Leader and his Parliamentary Caucus. John Key and his inner circle were permitted to pick Ms Lee and appoint her campaign manager. No matter that Mr Key and his cronies are relatively new to the complex demands of electoral politics. No matter that very few (if any) of them appear to understand that the only rational criterion for selecting an electorate candidate is political skill. Not a pretty face; not the ability to read an autocue; not even a proven talent for making pots of dosh; but the ability to practice politics.

But, from the moment she opened her mouth on TVNZ’s Q&A programme, it was painfully clear that Ms Lee was profoundly politically disabled. Shoulder-tapped by Mr Key, and given a winning Party List position at his insistence, she quickly became an example of the dangers and weaknesses of our MMP electoral system.

So long as she was required to do nothing more than adorn her party’s propaganda, National was safe from Ms Lee. The moment she was allowed anywhere near the hustings, she became a disaster on two legs.

It was her opponent, David Shearer, who practiced politics in Mt Albert. He was very lucky, however, to be up against the National Party of today.

Sir George Chapman would have taught him a thing or two.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 19 June 2009.


graeme said...

George Chapman (above) working closely with Rob Muldoon, fashioned the National Party into a formidable (and, for a while, unbeatable) political machine.

Unbeatable? Muldoon's National party got pipped in the vote race by the Labour Party just three years after being elected...

Chris Trotter said...

Not where it counted. Not in the marginal seats where, under the old first-past-the-post electoral system, the political war was lost and won.

Jordan Carter said...

Graeme - fallacy of comparator. The whole point of that National Party is that it focused on where it counted.

Chris - good piece.

Anonymous said...

I thought that John Key was conspicous in his absence, there was hardly any support on the campaign trail for Lee, whe was just left to it. That's what I don't understand, and why wasn't the PM and Bill English there to support her on the night, win or lose? Go figure.

SeaJay said...

Very good piece Christopher,
Melissa Lee, woah, what was that about?

Anonymous said...

You are absolutely right Chris. The mistakes made across the Board are evidence of a party making it up as they go along. Ditto their policies and legislation.

I suppose they would claim they are learning by their mistakes - but senior roles and high list placings are not the right places to be learning!

Graeme Edgeler said...

Chris/Jordan - of course.

My point wasn't that the post was wrong, it was the first past the post isn't very good. Also that Muldoon wasn't as popular at his height as people seem to think.

I do wonder how the media would act in a first past the post election now. Would they be taking their nation-wide polls and declaring false leaders, or would they be reminding everyone of how complex the system was and the number of votes people got didn't might have little bearing on their number of seats?

Chris Diack said...

You are laying it on a bit like treacle or over egging the pudding (must be lunchtime)

It wasn’t that Chapman’s National Party was so well organised it was also that Labour was so weakly organised. And much of the Parliamentary Labour rump left after 75 were not that hot.

I have never much believed this “independence from the MP’s” line regarding National – there was no evidence it stood up to a rampaging Muldoon. Nats are hierarchical it’s in their DNA.

What is true is that there is a centralisation of power around Leaders in our politics. This has something to do with the electoral system, the professionalisation of politics and the fact that Leaders personally command significant public resources. Popular leaders can get their way even more so.

One could equally say the Phil Goff’s role is basically selecting David Shearer (a local only by dent of renting out a Kingsland house he owns) also shows the utterly weakened organisational state of a centralised Labour Party. The fact that there were only 200 souls at the selection meeting which suggests when one takes out the across the city spectators around 100 or less locals. I suspect that National still has more members in Mt Albert than Labour.

As to the methodology to choosing a candidate in a By Election it really depends on whose seat it is and the demographic and voting trends and whether one really wants to take it. It has little to do with the process you outlined in the days of the horse and buggy.

National’s big mistake was to hype up it’s chances in a relatively safe Labour seat (more so with the addition of Pt Chev) when it should have been putting distance between the Government and the By Election – low keying it as a necessary process to replace a former Labour PM with another Labour MP. Had they done that and campaigned accordingly the turnout would be even lower.

WAKE UP said...

Even so, if one was to re-publish that piece with Labour party names substituted in the appropriate places, it would read exactly the same, and reach the same conclusions.

Unknown said...

I witnessed a great deal of what happened during the byelection including the selection, the early campaigning, the subsequent campaigning and election day.

I disagree with Chris (I always seem to) on a number of matters.

The selection meeting was reasonably well attended although not as well as I thought it would be. It was a very fine day and only the hardened activists would give up a Sunday to select a candidate.

National did hype up its chances because the contest should have been a close one. Current polling suggests that National are further ahead than it was on election night. The party vote in Mt Albert was not convincingly in Labour's favour. There were two brand new candidates. Presuming that voters would tend to favour the candidate of the party that they supported Labour was in deep trouble. If there were two equally rated candidates then the campaign should have been interesting. And the Greens nominating Russell Norman presented National with an exceptional chance to create history.

National was right to hype its chances. If it won the byelection then the next general election would have been a forgone conclusion.

Its candidate was poor.

Its campaign was worse. On election day it struggled to cover polling booths with scrutineers. Labour in comparison ran the best electorate campaign I have seen. Doors were knocked on up to three times.

National's leadership's indifference at the loss has made it even worse. Key and Kirk not fronting on election night and not being there for Lee is appalling.

Its organisation in Mount Albert and South Auckland will have been decimated by recent events. Governments do tend to lose elections but one seat at a time.

National ought to be very afraid. Labour has got itself off the canvas and is now ready to turn this government into the first ever one term National government.

Chris Trotter said...

I assume that's Chris Diack, Mickey? ;-)

Peter said...

Chris is quite right. Most highly placed Nat MP's would be hard placed to remember any of the Party's founding principles, let alone use them as a template for action. Amongst the grass-roots the Party is regarded in varying degrees as a joke, with cynical scepticism or with contempt The amazing thing is that people will turn out & still vote for them. The tweedle-dum, tweedle-dee thing is more correct now than ever before.Little serious point of difference between Nats & Labour.(Thanks for informing me who Nats President is, I was wondering today, actually). I wouldn't be game to set out into local country districts to collect for National now, but still people vote that way. Old habits.............. or is it apathy.

Unknown said...

Yes Chris Trotter I agree with you most of the time!!

Anonymous said...

I was an electorate delegate to the National Party's annual conference in Christchurch in 1979. But I severed all ties with the party after Muldoon's idiocy from 1982 onwards. There was the King Canute part about legislating interest rates. That was the final straw.
But the big thing then was the National Party's ability to win marginal seats. Their win in Taupo in 1981 was brilliant. As electorates with large numbers of Gay Liberation members pumped their Labour mates in with gigantic majorities, the Nats, understanding provincial New Zealand, gathered up the marginal provincial seats. But I sometimes wonder; if Hewson had missed that final penalty at Eden Park in September 1981, would the Nats have got Taupo?
Steve from Morrinsville

Lindsey said...

You are right about the lack of National Party organisation n the day. In the Booth I was scrutineering in for Labour, two of the four Nat scrutineers were Koreans, one of whom did not even have a National rosette. They were all writing page and line numbers, but these were collected every 2/3 hours where Labour was colecting every 15 minutes at the peak time. The Nat woman scrutineer next to me was vegetarian but no-one cared enough to make sure she got appropriate food at lunchtime. Just not good enough on the ground.

Unknown said...


I agree with you. Labour won more votes than National in 1978 and 1981 but lost the election. One word for it is "gerrymander". Also the springbok tour and think big cynically targeted the provincial marginal seats and stopped National losing them.

The experience is one reason why I think that MMP is so important.