It should come as no surprise that National is lost at the moment.
Under Simon Bridges’ leadership just over a year ago, public polling had the party sitting in the mid to high 40s. Despite Jacinda Ardern’s personal popularity, she was looking at the possibility of being a one-term prime minister, with Labour’s coalition partners facing wipe out from Parliament at the election.
All the National Party needed to do was put its head down and push forward with the development of its election policy, continue to successfully identify the numerous failings of the government, and stay disciplined. Simply put, it needed to appear to the public as a viable government-in-waiting.
Then Covid hit and the rest, as they say, is history.
The events leading up to the election have been well traversed and there is little point in going over them again. Equally, it’s no secret that National hasn’t exactly flourished in its second term in opposition.
With the exception of Chris Bishop who has done an exceptional job in his Covid-19 Response portfolio, Nicola Willis as housing spokesperson, and Simeon Brown in his various portfolios, the party itself has failed to shift public perception despite some disastrous headlines for Labour.
In the last few weeks alone, Labour has faced criticism over Trevor Mallard, the delaying of a routine mental health report, vaccine targets, the delayed trans-Tasman bubble, its much-anticipated announcement on housing, and light rail, to name a few.
The reality is that, for those who may not be traditional Labour voters, it is the more comfortable option right now. The government did an outstanding job during the pandemic last year and while the success of the vaccine rollout is (so far) questionable at best, the decision to achieve elimination status has meant that we can afford to wait a little bit longer – for now.
The long-standing joke around Labour’s total inability to deliver on its promises (KiwiBuild, light rail, fees free, child poverty, homelessness, transparency – the list goes on) has little effect when there seems to be no credible alternative.
There will be ongoing commentary about the leadership of National for the foreseeable future as we have come to expect when a major party is in opposition. However, regardless of whether there is any truth to the various headlines, they do significant damage to the party and stability of the current leadership team.
In saying that, one hopes lessons have been learned from last year in regard to a panic-driven coup.
While some will focus and ponder leadership changes, others are more interested on the future of the party as a whole, and how the party can be better, do better, and be prepared for its time in government.
It’s not as easy to identify the ideology that shapes the National Party as it is for Labour, ACT and the Greens. It is a broad church with both conservative and liberal members and everything in between. In this respect, it is arguably more appropriate to point to a shared set of values that guide the party, such as self-responsibility, equal opportunity, and individual freedom.
Those values won’t change; they are the foundation of the party. What isn’t clear right now, however, is the party’s vision for the country and for New Zealanders.
Without a vision, you can’t make a plan.
And without a plan, you don’t deserve to be in government. A vision without a plan looks like Labour in 2017 after they won the election: bold ideas that sounded good but couldn’t be delivered.
Having policy and actually knowing how it can be achieves two things. First and most pressing, it would show the public that National was once again a credible alternative. Secondly, it would actually be able to reap the rewards (once elected) of seeing the results of major policy much earlier in its term. This would avoid a lot of the pain that Labour has inflicted upon itself by not preparing while in opposition.
This “blueprint” for New Zealand needs to be one that can withstand a leadership change. Policy shouldn’t be decided on a whim based on who is leader at the time because it should have caucus (and membership) approval. This is how you become a strong team again.
If National wants a shot at government again, it needs to start planning now. The last three and a half years have shown us that trajectories can change course quickly. National must prove to the country that it is ready to govern.
Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a former small business owner and Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.