The Guardian Australia
New Zealand National MPs should stop their intrigues – changing the leadership won’t help right now
Followers of baseball in the US have a saying: winning fixes everything. A team can suffer player scandals and be beset by dysfunctional management. If they’re hitting enough home runs, however, things don’t tend to fall apart.
The corollary of this would be that losing breaks everything. And while it’s a bit trite to compare sports to politics, New Zealand’s opposition National party resembles nothing if not a losing baseball team. Thumped in last year’s general election, conceding a rare absolute parliamentary majority to Jacinda Ardern’s Labour , nothing seems to have gone right for the party that was once called the natural party of government in New Zealand.
Labour has not been a flawless government. While it got the big call on coronavirus right, locking down the country before the virus spread and supporting businesses with an effective wage subsidy, more recent problems have taken the shine off things. The country has been plagued by a string of quarantine failures and a vaccine rollout that has proven glacial.
On most other fronts the government has overpromised and underdelivered. Housing is more unaffordable and scarcer than it has ever been. Mental health services are in worse disarray than they were before Labour took office. There has been little to no progress on child poverty, despite this supposedly being Ardern’s signature issue.
And yet for all these issues, the National party continues to languish in public polling. Its leader, Judith Collins, trails badly in surveys of the nation’s preferred prime minister. Support for the libertarian ACT party continues to surge but even if you added its support to National’s, their combined effort would trail Labour significantly.
This ongoing failure creates further problems. Journalists in and around parliament have been reporting on whisperings of a leadership coup for several weeks now. Most of the talk involves speculation about some combination of Simon Bridges, who was leader a year ago before being deposed in a coup, and Christopher Luxon, a former airline CEO who has just entered parliament.
It is not obvious, however, that changing the leadership is really going to help right now. Counting Collins, Bridges and the brief reign of Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller, there have been three leaders of the opposition in the last twelve months. None of them have been able to lay a glove on Ardern.
Back when it was in the wilderness, Labour went through five leaders. As with the current opposition, the party then had no shortage of material to work with. None of Ardern’s predecessors could make a dent in what then seemed like National’s unbreakable hold on the electorate. Finally, the party alighted on Ardern, which gave the it the boost it needed to cross the line.
There are two differences between Labour’s circumstances then and National’s plight now, however. First, when Ardern assumed the leadership, just months from a general election, National had already been in power the best part of a decade – the natural lifespan of a New Zealand government. Secondly, Ardern was already a political celebrity who had graced the covers of glossy magazines and was never involved herself in anything remotely controversial.
It wasn’t trial and error that pulled Labour out of the doldrums but a combination of circumstances and opportunity.
Before the rise of Ardern, Labour was marked by internal division. MPs leaked against leaders. Factions were organised. Candidates said and did embarrassing things. The party’s damning autopsy report in the 2014 election, which was not even meant to be released to caucus, made its way to the media even before it was in the hands of the leader.
All of that stopped under Ardern. This wasn’t because of any organisational reform or clean-out of old hands. None of those things happened. But under Ardern, Labour did feel it might win again.
The same applies to National in reverse. At the moment, nobody in the party feels the party can beat Ardern. So, blame and recriminations flow freely. Old grudges and rivalries come to the fore. What’s the point of being disciplined and holding your tongue when you’re so far behind that it won’t make a difference anyway?
A lot of people have pointed to National’s internal dissension as a cause of its low levels of support. There’s probably some degree to which bad publicity reinforces the party’s bad publicity. As with Labour during its opposition years it may be more helpful to see these problems as symptoms, rather than causes, of the party’s unpopularity.
So, what can National do? It can’t just conjure its own Ardern out of thin air. It would be foolish to try. It’s just not something within the party’s control.
In the shorter-term, National may just have to accept that it won’t be rewarded by voters even when it does do quality opposition work.
Over the years, New Zealand voters have shown a marked propensity to give governments the benefit of the doubt. They do not punish government failure where there is no reasonable expectation that the other side could be assumed to do better. National benefited from this during its many years in power and now must endure the same.
Ardern will not be the prime minister for ever. She could be embroiled in a major scandal that does cause New Zealanders to lose faith in her. They might just get sick of her and desirous of change through the effluxion of time. It could be that, like Sir John Key, she intuits this and gets out while she is ahead.
If past patterns hold, the result of this will be considerably more goodwill from voters to National’s leader, provided he or she is acceptable, and a greater willingness to give the party a second look. As the possibility of holding office increases, the party’s internal problems will appear to diminish and may even appear to have been solved. On the other side of the ledger, the dormant factionalism of the Labour party will begin to re-emerge.
At some point, it is likely that we will be writing columns questioning whether the Labour party will ever win an election again and speculating on whether National has somehow unlocked the secret of holding on to a permanent majority. And while it is always possible that some kind of lasting realignment does occur, the last thirty years of New Zealand political history counsels against betting on it.
For National MPs, the temptation may be to try to fix the party’s problems with constant intrigue, but this is futile. If a natural leader who would obviously do better than the incumbent emerges then MPs could think about a change at the right time. Until then, however, the only thing they can do is work hard to fulfil their constitutional duties as opposition MPs and bide their time.
None of that provides a lot of instant gratification for National’s remaining supporters. That calls for real leadership on the part of the party’s MPs. The opportunity to start winning will come in time – provided National can hold its nerve long enough.
Liam Hehir is a conservative political commentator in New Zealand. He is a member of the opposition National party.