14/02/2018
Alex Eastwood-Williams
Opinion
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Crusher or Be Crushed: The National Party's Leadership Election

The resignation of Bill English as leader of the New Zealand National Party has triggered the first open leadership contest in the party since 2001, when English was elected for his first stint as party leader.

The resignation has also resulted in this writer being forced to temporarily suspend his semi-retirement from political commentary in order to write the following article at the behest of several friends asking me for my opinion despite the fact that:
a) I haven't read the news since the election (apart from RMNZ, obviously)
b) I'm no longer on social media or in regular contact with anyone in the political class and
c) I've barely been in New Zealand at all for the last six months. 

Nevertheless and without further ado here is my take on National's leadership race:

Part One: The State of the National Party

There is absolutely no denying that National's 2017 election result was a damn impressive one - in fact to my knowledge it's the best election result for any governing party in its third term in New Zealand history. Unfortunately for National, New Zealand has the MMP voting system and it's something that even after 22 years they still don't seem to fully understand. 

The simple fact is that when New Zealanders (rightly or wrongly) voted for MMP in 1993 and voted to keep it in 2011, they were voting for a more consensual and less majoritarian system of government.

Thankfully New Zealanders had the sense not to vote for the kind of extremely consensus-based system as is seen in the USA, in which two fundamentally opposed parties are constantly forced to compromise with each other, but the fact remains that New Zealanders sought to attempt to remove from political parties the ability to govern alone and unquestioned for three years, in the hope that this would prevent a repeat of the kinds of abuses of power that were witnessed in the 1980s and early 1990s. 

The fifth National government, to be fair, did seem to grasp this concept particularly in its first term. After all, it succeeded in forming a stable government comprising the psuedo-libertarian ACT Party, the Christian Democratic/Liberal/Not really sure what they stood for United Future Party and the then-left-leaning racebaiters the Maori Party. In many ways, National were victims of their own success, as they began to slowly absorb the other three parties.

This left them with two serious problems in 2017, and it's a problem that won't go away in 2020 and beyond: The first is that they no longer had any friends. United Future imploded, the Maori Party were rejected by their own people and the ACT Party's support and relevance are absolutely negligible. 

The second problem was that the one potential ally they did have was a party who they torpedoed in 2008 and who they'd just spent 9 years and an election campaign deliberately undermining: New Zealand First. 

Winston Peters is many things, but forgiving is not one of them. 

In 2017, National did all they could to prevent NZ First from holding the balance of power, presumably hoping to repeat the 2008 strategy that swept them to power. Not only this, but in the months and years leading up to the election, National demonstrated an utter unwillingness and inability to work with NZ First, even on areas where the two parties agreed. For example, barely a month after rejecting an NZ First bill to offer military training to at-risk youths, the party then announced almost the exact same policy as part of its election manifesto.

Another example: Following the Northland by-election, National refused to accept NZ First's support for their proposed RMA reforms, and instead chose to do a deal with the Maori Party which, far from removing red tape, instead added more red tape and a hint of racism to the Resource Management Act. When one considers such acts of bad faith by National, in hindsight it becomes entirely unsurprising that NZ First chose Labour over them. 

Luckily for National, NZ First are unlikely to survive the 2020 election without doing an Epsom-style deal with the Labour Party, and this is something the party has repeatedly rejected in the past. However, National still faces a serious challenge in terms of a lack of support partners - while Labour in 2020 will in all likelihood still have the Greens to rely on.

To make a long story short: If National are to ever govern again, they will need to win an outright majority. That's no mean feat, though it's not impossible - in 2014 they came within spitting distance of a majority. 

In order to pull such a miracle off, they'll need a hell of a leader and this brings me neatly to part two of this article - let's meet National's would-be saviours. 

Part Two: Meet the Candidates

At time of writing, Judith Collins, Amy Adams and Simon Bridges have all confirmed their candidacy as leadership contenders. Steven Joyce, Mark Mitchell and Jonathan Coleman have both refused to confirm or deny their candidacy.

Judith Collins

Pros: 

  • Excellent foil to Jacinda Ardern
  • Could potentially work with NZ First if required
  • Reasonably well respected by public and Caucus colleages

Cons:

  • Still has Oravida hanging over her
  • Unlikely to extend National's appeal beyond the base
  • Can sometimes come across as too hard/too callous

I have always had a lot of time for Judith Collins, and I consider her simultaneously National's best choice and their most likely choice. There's no doubt that she would make an excellent opposition leader, with her temperament being almost the exact opposite of Jacinda Ardern's, marking a nice contrast between the two parties and the two leaders. 

While I highly doubt she could lead National to an outright victory in 2020, in the highly unlikely event that NZ First are a factor in the next election Judith Collins would have the strongest chance of securing their support or forming the kind of government NZ First would want to part of. (Of course this is entirely hypothetical - it would require me to write a whole different article on the state of NZ First, but let's suffice to say my prognosis for them over the next three years isn't good.) 

Collins' personality and reputation is also a double-edged sword: While her relative hardness has earned her a lot of respect, despite most Kiwis liking to think we're a country of laconic, tough, macho pioneers, the reality is that this country is as touchy-feely as they come and Jacinda has the emotional stuff in spades. 

Most importantly though, Judith Collins would cauterise National's wounds and stop the bleeding of support to other parties - she's unlikely to win, but she'll definitely keep the party's support above the 45% mark. 

Verdict: National's choice is clear: It's Crusher or be crushed in 2020. 

Simon Bridges

Pros: 

  • Relatively youthful image
  • Comes across okay in the media

Cons:

  • Has a reputation for incompetence
  • Very little to offer

Simon Bridges isn't a bad politician by any stretch, and ironically if he was less experienced he'd probably be a stronger contender. Unfortunately for him, he's been a pretty senior Minister throughout much of the Key/English government and he wasn't that good - he had a habit of being in the news for all the wrong reasons, or being the face to either deny or apologise for various government cock-ups. 

I don't think most New Zealanders would feel comfortable with him as Prime Minister after having seen him perform so poorly as a Minister and frankly, Jacinda Ardern would make mincemeat of him if they went head to head. 

Verdict: Simon Bridges is a bridge too far.

Amy Adams

Pros

  • Very competent as a Minister, highly intelligent
  • Well respected across the political spectrum\
  • Would make a great compromise candidate if National's leadership contest gets too bitter

Cons

  • Hardly likely to capture the public's imagination
  • Quiet achiever - much better suited to the Deputy leadership
  • Does anyone outside of the beltway know who she is?

If there's one lesson that the 2017 election has taught me, it's that the New Zealand public care more for emotional arguments than intellectual ones, hence how Jacinda got the job. 

This is could be Amy Adams' biggest downfall: She's highly intelligent, well respected and hardworking - qualities not dissimilar to those possessed by Bill English. Unfortunately that's not what New Zealanders look for in a leader - they look for big personalities and emotional arguments, such as John Key, Jacinda Ardern and to a lesser extent Winston Peters.

If things get too bitter and heated throughout National's leadership, then she's probably the best person to calm things down, but an election winner she ain't - and she'd be much more suited to the deputy role, perhaps as the Bill English to Judith Collins' John Key. 

Verdict: She should run for Deputy, not leader. 

Steven Joyce

Pros:

  • Knows the political game inside and out
  • Would provide the strong leadership National needs
  • He's been Minister of everything else, so why not shoot for the top job?

Cons:

  • He would absolutely tear National apart if he won. There are a lot of people who don't like him.
  • Comes across in the media as a bit of an arrogant prick. 
  • IS a bit of an arrogant prick. 

Maybe it's the fact they're both short, bald National Party politicians but Steven Joyce kind of reminds of Rob Muldoon - except unlike Muldoon, he lacks the sense of empathy and care for the ordinary bloke. 

He's very witty and a fierce debater, and would definitely give the economically naive Jacinda Ardern a run for her money. Unfortunately, he's liable to alienate as many people as he'd win over and that includes in his own party. 

As National's campaign chair since 2005, Joyce has no doubt stood on a lot of toes and made a lot of enemies - with one rumour I'm aware of suggesting that there is serious factional infighting between those in National loyal to Judith Collins and those loyal to Steven Joyce. 

The other negative for Steven Joyce is that, if National are to make a clean break with the Key-English era, he's hardly the man to do it: He was, for all intents and purposes, the puppet master of the last two Prime Ministers. 

While there's almost no chance that he could win an election, the entertainment value of having him as leader would be phenomenal. 

Verdict: I'm going to call him my "wild card" option. 

Mark Mitchell

Pros:

  • Genuinely, a nice guy
  • Impressive CV - former military policeman who served in Iraq

Cons:

  • No one who isn't a card-carrying member of the National Party has ever heard of him
  • Not even remotely experienced enough to be leader

I have a tonne of respect for Mark Mitchell. I have a tonne of respect for anyone who risks their life for our country in a combat zone. 

It's why I feel bad saying that, unfortunately, he's not even remotely leadership material. He is a nice guy, but he's not particularly charismatic, he doesn't come across as having a clear vision for the future, and I can't honestly see him as someone who would withstand the pressures from within his own party, let alone the pressures of the media and opposing political parties.

Verdict: National are really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. 

Jonathan Coleman

Pros:

  • I'll, ugh..... I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Cons:

  • Nicknamed "Doctor Who" because... no one knows who he is. And apparently he's a doctor. 
  • Those who do know who he is aren't impressed by him: He is solely responsible for a serious mental health crisis in this country

Politicians are a strange breed. Most, no matter how obscure, look in the mirror and see what they think is the country's next Prime Minister.

This is the second time Jonathan Coleman has been rumoured to be making a run for the leadership and the question on my mind is... why? 

This guy was hardly a stand-out performer in the last government - in fact, he was responsible for its biggest Achilles heel - that is, the mental health crisis. And unlike other politicians - Collins, Bridges, for example - who have the charisma to bounce back from any previous misdemeanours, Coleman... really doesn't.

His biggest hope is that no one will remember him, or notice him, or indeed that he can bore the public long enough to get away with any past misdeeds. 

Verdict: Whatever Dr. Coleman has prescribed himself with, he needs to cut the dosage.

Conclusion:

It's it not been obvious by the title of the article, and the content, or if perhaps you've suffered a major head injury at some point between the beginning of this article and now: Judith Collins is by far National's best bet as leader.

National have a hard road ahead - unless they can somehow find another support partner, or convince NZ First to ditch Jacinda, their only chance of governing again will be to win an elusive outright majority under MMP. 

As for me, it's back to enjoying post-political life. Until next time, thanks for reading.