Will the Nats’ new broom be enough?
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.