Matthew Hooton: Message to National: Shut up and work


This is a letter to old friends. Having imprudently got myself involved in National’s leadership shenanigans last year, its supporters may doubt my judgment. But direct observation of last year’s fiasco means I can offer the odd nugget.

National may prefer its leader to be a tested political figure, with proven appeal to the median voter and broad support across the party, but there isn’t one of those in its ranks right now.

Centre-right parties have an unhelpful tendency to see any talented woman MP as the next Margaret Thatcher. It helps explain Jenny Shipley and Theresa May, and is what Judith Collins’ supporters dared dream when she was the last one standing after Todd Muller resigned.

The Collins I saw was not the cartoonish Crusher persona that she claims John Key imposed on her. While brave, she can be kinder, warmer and wittier than her enthusiasts or haters believe, and is more liberal and less doctrinaire.

On the downside, that means she has a much less stable ideological framework and policy roadmap than assumed. It makes her not quite true to brand.

Still, National MPs have surely been reminded this week that she is the best they have right now.

With his chortling word games with the press gallery, MPs saw again why Simon Bridges’ personal polling collapsed to levels never before seen by National’s pollsters for any senior political figure in the English-speaking world. He has done his Lazarus ambition no favours.

There is only one way that declaring support for a leader “at this time” translates from politicalese into English. Worse was Bridges’ response when asked about his alleged plotting with Christopher Luxon. “I can’t be expected to remember everything I say,” he guffawed.

If this formulation was intentional, it was vandalous. If accidental, it was incompetent. Either way, it distracted from Nicola Willis’ solid housing policy and Chris Bishop’s damning revelations about the Government’s Covid-testing regime for front-line workers.

Luxon is Collins’ presumptive successor but turning to the former Air New Zealand boss just six months after he entered Parliament would open National up to further ridicule, and risk another failed leadership.

If perceiving the next Thatcher in any adequate woman MP is risible, then seeing a Key in anyone with a business background is no better.

Key’s success in politics was not based on his business career but on his unmatched political talents.

By the time he became party leader, he had charmed his way into taking a safe National seat off the incumbent, avoided getting caught up in the leadership spill between Bill English and Don Brash, managed to be neither disloyal nor directly associated with Brash’s subsequent nationhood campaign, been promoted to finance spokesman and designed and successfully launched a radical tax-cut policy, survived under fire in dozens of tough interviews, beaten the formidable Michael Cullen on national TV in the 2005 finance spokesmen’sdebate, proven himself hugely adept on the floor of Parliament, become the darling of the party membership, press gallery and wider media, and healed the party’s divisions by forming a partnership with the more conservative and provincial English.

In contrast, Luxon has yet to ask a question on the floor of Parliament. He has never been subjected to a tough media interview. Compared with Key’s apprenticeship, his well-written maiden speech and well-funded social media campaign are nothing.

Even when it comes to their business careers, there is no comparing Key’s extraordinary success in global finance to Luxon running Unilever’s Canadian operations and an Air New Zealand with books and brand left in outstanding shape by Ralph Norris and Rob Fyfe.

Go back one leader earlier, and Luxon has nothing to compare to Brash’s experience under fire as National’s candidate in the vicious 1980 East Coast Bays byelection and in beating inflation in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is not to say Luxon can’t one day be an outstanding National Party leader and Prime Minister, but that will depend on him developing his own political brand and skills. And those will need to be as different from Key as Key was from Brash, or Jim Bolger from Robert Muldoon.

Prime Ministers don’t get elected because they remind voters of their predecessors.

In any case, the leadership is the least of National’s problems. The party is in much worse shape than in 1985 or 2003. Back then it had at least achieved outstanding intakes in 1981 and 1984, with more to follow in 1987. In 2002, three future leaders joined its team — Brash, Key and Collins — andmore talent was on its way in 2005.

At the same time,MPs had their heads down, thinking seriously about the sort of party National needed to become.

In the mid-1980s, would they continue with some form of Muldoonery or embrace the then-radical ideas of free markets and anti-nuclearism? In the mid-2000s, did they want to stick with Brash’s flinty economic and constitutional ideas, or take Key’s pragmatic path? These were fierce debates on issues about which it was worth having strong opinions, one way or the other.

No such debate is possible in today’s National because, with some exceptions, the MPs the party sends to Wellington lack the life experience, background knowledge, intellectual resources, personal inclination and social networks to even have them.

They have no idea what a post-Key National Party might look like, or even why that issue needs to be addressed. They are preoccupied with themselves and events in Parliament, oblivious that no one cares. They do not know how to think about a problem, spend the necessary months deeply engaging with those working on or affected by it, reviewingideas about how to tackle it, and then designing an effective and hopefully popular way to fix it.

Mostly, their policy gets bashed out a day or so before it is announced, or is just picked up from some Wellington industry group. They nevertheless remain very sure of their own cachet in society, especially in their local Koru Club.

They are correct that Jacinda Ardern’s Government is comically incompetent, but inexplicably think they are equipped to do better.

The party’s membership, board, president and MPs would be well advised to spend at least a little time considering these issues, instead of thinking Collins, Bridges, Luxon or anyone else represents some sort of substitute for just shutting up and doing some hard work.

– Matthew Hooton is a public relations consultant based in Auckland.

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