How to be a successful opposition leader and party

Being leader of the opposition is, as the cliché goes, the most difficult job in politics. 

And while Clark, Key, and Ardern successfully graduated from the role to become prime minister, many others have failed to make the cut.  

Between 2008 to 2017, Labour had four leaders before settling on Jacinda Ardern, who led the party to victory at the election. 

In just four short years, National has also had four leaders (if you include former Prime Minister Bill English). Some argue that the writing is on the wall for Judith Collins.  

Being leader of the opposition combines almost no power but significant responsibility.  Despite this, there is usually a surplus of volunteers for the role, primarily because they expect to become the prime minister at the next election. In that regard, they must be able to represent a viable alternative for disillusioned voters or those unsatisfied with the current government. 

But there is a more important role the leader of the opposition must play. And that is holding the government of the day to account for its shortcomings. Regardless of the public’s perception of him personally, this is something at which Simon Bridges was very good, and to the benefit of the National Party itself. 

There is a reason National polled highly with some consistency when Bridges was leader, despite his own approval ratings (and before Covid-19 hit when the dynamic shifted). The constant scrutiny of the coalition government succeeded in making it look dysfunctional, chaotic and utterly unprepared to run a country. As a result of this, the opposition looked like a government-in-waiting, accompanied by an air of stability and authority which it is unfortunately lacking now. 

The problem for National is that, as every day goes by following the 2020 election, it would seem that more and more people actually see David Seymour as the real leader of the opposition. By default, there may be a misperception of ACT as the main opposition party. 

What seems to be missing from National is having a strategy and sticking to it. 

It might be that 99% of the time, the opposition is focused and on track. But that’s boring for the media who want drama and clickbait headlines. This means that anything outside the bounds of being a mundane opposition is amplified. One flippant comment or social media post can and will attract attention that is disproportionate or unfair, but aids in the narrative of an unfocused party.  

As a result, good work or ideas can get overlooked. Just last week, Erica Stanford’s proposals on immigration were overshadowed by the suggestion of a referendum on the use of the word “Aotearoa”.  

With strategy must come discipline and a sense of purpose from within the caucus. You cannot be perceived as a credible alternative to the government if your party is a mess. No one wants a disunited caucus in charge of the country – even when the current Labour Government can’t deliver on any of its promises, and it is pushing through an unpopular agenda. 

Todd Muller was applauded when he said he wouldn’t oppose for opposition’s sake – although this is something he soon realised was easier said than done. But there is value in acknowledging the times a government gets it right, particularly when public sentiment is strongly supportive. The opposition needs to be able to read the room – and if it can’t, perhaps should consider not saying anything at all. 

Commentary following the National Party conference last weekend correctly pointed out that no policy was released. But not even a year has lapsed since the last election, and we are more than two years out from the next. It is not necessary to have fully developed policies at this stage in the parliamentary cycle, particularly given how volatile things are at the moment both domestically and globally. 

The reality is that the opposition has no power and is not a decision maker. People care more about the decisions of the government and how they will be personally affected. This is where the opposition comes in – to point how the government is making your life worse, not better. It should seek to influence you away from the government and therefore towards another party – ideally, their own. 

However, it is important for the opposition to offer a narrative of the sort of government it would be, with a sense of direction and priorities. Bread and butter issues, like law and order and the economy, should be no-brainers for National right now. 

Instead, the narrative is that National seems more focused on issues like the word Aotearoa and paintings of Winston Churchill. But that’s not how you win back middle New Zealand. And until National starts acting like a credible alternative, the negative headlines will keep coming. 

So it’s not enough to be on message 99% of the time. Nothing less than 100% will do.  


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.

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