Will the Nats’ new broom be enough?

The Dominion Post - - Front Page - Luke Mal­pass Po­lit­i­cal edi­tor

The gen­eral elec­tion is now less than four months away. The ques­tion for new Na­tional Party leader Todd Muller and his deputy Nikki Kaye is now: is it long enough?

Weeks of whis­pers and ru­mi­na­tions came to a head yes­ter­day when Muller de­feated Si­mon Bridges and took over the right-of-cen­tre party, promis­ing a new more op­ti­mistic vi­sion for New Zealand, and the eco­nomic heft to make it a re­al­ity.

Muller has said that he wants to draw a con­trast be­tween Na­tional’s pool of deep ex­ec­u­tive tal­ent and the Gov­ern­ment’s Cab­i­net, which he says has two top per­form­ers with 17 empty seats be­hind it.

Al­ready this new top Na­tional team fea­tures a ru­ral so­cial con­ser­va­tive busi­ness­man and an ur­ban lib­eral woman from Auck­land – a con­trast to Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robert­son who both worked in for­mer prime min­is­ter He­len Clark’s of­fice and spent al­most all of their work­ing lives in tax­payer-funded jobs.

That said, it should be noted that both Muller and Kaye are also for­mer po­lit­i­cal staffers.

Lead­ers of po­lit­i­cal par­ties must come with a supreme be­lief in their own abil­ity to win. Yet any ob­jec­tive ob­server at this point would see this as a ‘‘save the fur­ni­ture’’ move by the Na­tional Party to shore up as much of its base as pos­si­ble and save some MP’s jobs while also at­tempt­ing to win back some swing vot­ers.

In the two pub­lished polls this week – the New­shub/Reid Re­search Poll and the One News/Col­mar Brun­ton Poll – the worst news for Na­tional has not been its own dis­mal vote of 30 and 29 per cent re­spec­tively. It has to be Labour’s sky-high vote at 56 per cent and 59 per cent.

All ob­servers and se­nior party fig­ures from ev­ery party ex­pects those num­bers to fall for Labour. But they are so high that even a 10-point fall all but guar­an­tees an Ardern-led gov­ern­ment, per­haps even in the ma­jor­ity.

Muller and Kaye’s pitch to Ki­wis will be that they are se­ri­ous eco­nomic man­agers in a time of cri­sis. They will sell Na­tional as party of de­cency that truly rep­re­sents mod­ern New Zealand and un­der­stands as­pi­ra­tion in a way that Labour, which is full of party ap­pa­ratchiks and ex-union­ists sim­ply can not.

Yet against the po­lit­i­cal ma­chine that is Jacinda Ardern, and a min­is­ter of fi­nance who has ca­pa­bly nursed most of mid­dle New Zealand through the

Covid cri­sis to date, sell­ing this mes­sage will be dif­fi­cult.

Add to that the fact the se­ri­ous down­turn which is ob­vi­ously on the way may well not re­ally hit hard un­til a month af­ter the elec­tion when mort­gage hol­i­days start to end and the re­al­ity of hard years ahead set in.

Si­mon Bridges had be­come a li­a­bil­ity for Na­tional. Many Na­tional MPs tell stories of how much cor­re­spon­dence they re­ceived from Na­tional vot­ers who sim­ply loathed the for­mer leader.

Yet it is telling that while the em­pha­sis of the new Muller regime will be dif­fer­ent, the con­tent so far looks the same. The change was ex­pe­di­ent, not prin­ci­pled.

There is un­doubted strength in a ru­ral/ur­ban and lib­eral/ con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship team. But it is as yet untested. Kaye, a pol­icy wonk, has proved a re­silient lo­cal mem­ber who wrested the seat of Cen­tral Auck­land from Labour in 2008 and has held onto it since.

But both her and Muller are untested when it comes to the rigours of Na­tional cam­paign­ing and the ex­tra scru­tiny that comes with it. A new face, a new em­pha­sis and play­ing to Na­tional’s bedrock brand strength of strong eco­nomic man­age­ment is how the Nats will plan to dis­rupt Labour.

But up against an ex­tremely pop­u­lar prime min­is­ter who has gov­erned im­pres­sively through the Christchur­ch shoot­ings, White Is­land erup­tion and through a na­tional state of emer­gency, will be a very tough ask.

Si­mon Bridges

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