WHAT NEW ZEALAND WITNESSED over the weekend (6-8 August 2021) was the demise of the National Party. That parties are often divided and fractious after a significant election defeat is a fact of political life. Indeed, it would be worrying if passionate disputation was absent from a party’s post-election AGM. People would probably be more alarmed by a party that accepted it defeat by exuding a sort of Zen calm. Not that National was demonstrating anything like Zen acceptance from the Manukau Events Centre.
Proof of the party’s decline was not, however, to be found in either an excess of passion, or the lack of it, but in the sheer political ineptitude of the entire 700-strong gathering. What we saw over the weekend was a party which no longer knows how to play the game of electoral politics. Neither its leaders, nor its members, any longer have a clue what’s required of them. They no longer know who they are, what they believe in, or how to reacquire a competitive electoral edge. National has become frail and confused.
What else but a frail and confused party could possibly have acquiesced in the re-appointment of Peter Goodfellow as its president? This is a man who failed to perform on not just one, but many fronts. After leading the party to its second-worst defeat ever, and insisting on playing a decisive role in the selection of some truly appalling candidates, Goodfellow’s resignation wasn’t just expected – it was required. He needed to supply his party’s 2021 AGM with his own head on a platter – garnished with heartfelt apologies and seasoned with a passionate call for rejuvenation.
That Goodfellow didn’t understand that; that his fellow board members didn’t understand that; that the delegates who replaced the retiring board members didn’t understand that; is all the proof one could possibly need that National has succumbed to the political equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease.
Judith “Crusher” Collins ended-up piling failure upon failure. Either she wanted Goodfellow back, or she lacked the political chops to prevent his return. Whichever explanation is correct, National’s leader emerged from last weekend’s AGM looking stupid, weak, or (more accurately) like an uninspiring combination of the two. Her references to the certainty of sunrises notwithstanding, Collins did not give the appearance of a women who either wants, or expects, to lead her party into the 2023 election. That she may end up doing exactly that will merely confirm that there is no one in National’s parliamentary caucus who could do the job better – or wants to!
Can you imagine Rob Muldoon, Jim Bolger, Don Brash or John Key dutifully reciting this abject excuse for a political pitch to the disaffected and disappointed?
Over the next two years we will engage with experts and the public and you, our members, to develop solutions. We will listen and we will discuss. We will demonstrate we are the Party that can deliver on our promises, and has the ability to deliver solutions for the country’s big problems. Outlining a vision to the New Zealand public. And releasing policy in each of these and other areas as we go.
It is hard to know where to begin with this glutinous heap of political blancmange. Perhaps by re-emphasising that a political party seeks power to implement the policies advanced by its members, and the socio-economic forces those members represent. A viable political organisation contains within its ranks all the expertise it needs to knock the rough edges off the membership’s policy ideas. Moreover, why would any political party worthy of the name want to “engage” with the public? That is what it does every time an election is held! Only when the ballot boxes have been emptied, and the votes counted, does a political party discover whether or not its proffered “solutions” have been deemed equal to the public’s problems.
This is political Alzheimer’s with bells on. National has simply forgotten how to play “Democracy”. It also seems to have forgotten that the Opposition cannot deliver on its promises until it becomes the Government: that the delivery of solutions comes after the people have voted – not before. There is something both tragic and embarrassing in the spectacle of a once great party losing its wits.
National brought it on itself, of course, when the party decided that it could no longer be trusted to play the Democracy game successfully. After the debacle of the 2002 general election, when its Party Vote plummeted to a risible 21 percent, National allowed Steven Joyce to transform it into a sort of electoral holding company.
Instead of living, breathing, thinking citizens, National’s membership transformed themselves into a bunch of largely powerless political shareholders. Henceforth, they would not be turning up to an annual conference. [For readers under 35, annual conferences were where the members of political parties used to gather, in full view of the public, to argue about policy and elect themselves a President and a National Executive Committee.] No, what the Nats turned up to after 2002 was an AGM – where they dutifully rubber-stamped their “Board of Directors’” decisions and cheered-on the CEO. Safe enough when your CEO was a Don Brash or a John Key. Not so safe when your leader was a Simon Bridges, a Todd Muller or a “Crusher” Collins!
The medical experts say that the best defence against real Alzheimer’s is to keep one’s mind as active as possible. At 85-years-of-age, the National Party should be doing everything it can to stay sharp. Reading books, listening to invited speakers with exciting new ideas, writing and thrashing-out policy, debating the great issues of the day, vetting and choosing candidates, and making sure its office holders are up to snuff. Allowing all those jobs to be done by others (and done badly!) is not the way to stay sharp and remain a competitive player of the Democracy game. (At 105-years-of-age, Labour should probably be contemplating something similar!)
Though only a handful of the delegates attending last weekend’s AGM realised it, National was wandering dangerously close to the edge of a deep political hole. If it was to avoid a fatal fall, the party needed to wake itself up with a painful slap in the face. Having slapped itself, National should then have grabbed itself by the scruff of the neck and shaken itself until all the dead wood dropped off. Had it done that, then it just might have found the courage to reclaim its proper role as a living, breathing, thinking political party, in a living, breathing, thinking parliamentary democracy. But, that’s not what it did. Instead, frail and confused, it forgot what and where it was – and fell into the hole.
Which just leaves Act.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 August 2021.