Matthew Hooton: National in need of surgery


National MPs managed to behave themselves for a whole day on Tuesday, so that’s a start.

They had been spooked by how two days of slagging one another off to friendly journalists was playing out, risking Saturday’s catastrophe becoming an existential crisis for their 84-year-old institution.

Consequently, Steven Joyce’s call on NewstalkZB for introspection was heeded, with MPs asking themselves “what could I have done differently?” rather than focusing on the flaws of their colleagues.

This is progress because National’s discovery that it is almost completely disconnected from contemporary New Zealand — and its main urban centres in particular — cannot be resolved by even the most enthusiastic bloodletting.

Historically, National believed its broader church and greater internal democracy gave it a competitive advantage over a Labour Party controlled by union block-votes and an overbearing head office.

A rethink occurred following some poor candidate selections in 1990, the move to MMP, and Bill English and Michelle Boag’s 2002 disaster.

Personified best by past MPs Gilbert Myles and Hamish MacIntyre, it was argued that purely democratic candidate selections made it too easy for unsuitable people to win over local National Party committees, gain selection and cause problems as renegade MPs.

Similarly, Boag’s success in channelling party members’ anger to propel herself into the party presidency to brutally clear out the “dead wood” was a risk not to be repeated.

Joyce’s 2002 review and subsequent constitutional conference were designed, among other things, to fix these perceived problems.

It was felt National should accept that mass-membership political parties were relics. The old representative ruling council was abolished and replaced with an allegedly more professional board. No longer could the annual conference demand change by electing a disruptive president like Boag.

Instead, to ensure stability and continuity, the board would appoint the party president behind closed doors and only half the board would be up for election at each annual conference. Challengers wanting to stand for the board would first need to be approved as suitable by the board itself.

Locally, the board and regional officers would have far greater power in choosing candidates, as demonstrated most recently in Auckland Central. This focus on stability was all fine when the party was flying high under John Key.

The downside is that the changes have worsened the problem that motivated them. With party membership downgraded to little more than providing North Korean-style applause at annual conferences, it is no surprise National is now even further from being a true mass-membership party.

Supporters of the post-2002 rules say this makes them even more important. Were party democracy restored, they worry the risk of a Boag emerging is even greater than when she won thepresidency in 2001.

But might this not be a good thing? Boag has made many infamous mistakes, but no one can deny her role in promoting talented new candidates as president, including three party leaders: Don Brash, John Key and Judith Collins.

After a catastrophe, shouldn’t a Boag-style shake-up at least be possible? The very prospect would surely improve membership and participation, and keep incumbents on their toes.

The establishment also worries that restoring party democracy might allow a mere handful of locals to choose a rogue National candidate in a safe Labour seat. But so what?

It hardly matters if, say, the tiny Manurewa National Party selects an unsuitable person to be their candidate since they are not going to win the seat anyway. In any case, the post-2002 rules have not prevented clearly unsuitable candidates like Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon from being selected not in deep-red seats but in true-blue electorates like Clutha-Southland and Rangitata. In comparison, Myles and MacIntyre were mere irritants.

The current set-up has advantaged those connected with the party’s parliamentary establishment and Wellington bureaucracy over genuinely community-oriented people.

With head office control and regional chairs appointing “top up” delegates from outside the electorate, a young former staffer can fly in from Wellington and beat the community leader who has spent 20 years building up a successful local business and chairing the high school board of trustees.

The upshot is that the best way for an ambitious young person to become a National MP is no longer getting to know and earning the respect of their local community, but to leave town and get a job for a current MP. That MP is then incentivised to help the young staffer become an MP to build up their own power base in caucus.

Inevitably, this means National has become progressively more inward-looking and detached from real people in New Zealand communities. Lacking true connection, MPs then construct crude caricatures of voters, especially outside their own electorates.
Everyone in Grey Lynn drinks soy lattes and rejects full-cream milk. All West Auckland tradies are homophobic boofheads emotionally attached to traditional diesel vehicles. All voters are transactional and can be won over by promises of handouts or tax cuts.

Relying only on aggregated polling data or — worse — their own prejudices, National MPs are increasingly unaware that the woke Grey Lynn liberal may also be worried about the competitiveness of the tax system or that the West Auckland plumber may be concerned about a lack of available counsellors for their LBGTI teenager’s chronic smartphone-induced anxiety disorder.

Headline policy risks being directed towards the caricatures — often decades out of date — rather than towards the real communities of New Zealand in 2020. It goes without saying that National MPs have no remaining interest in reading widely and thinking deeply about how society, the economy and conservative and free-market ideas may be evolving, in order to consider how a National Party of 2023 might be different from the one of 2017.

But first things first. National MPs have at least got through a caucus meeting without undue drama. Idiotic talk of another leadership change this year has evaporated. The president has not been forced to abandon ship in the midst of crisis. It is time for deep breaths. Very substantial and careful restorative surgery is needed, not just some quick Botox.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant whose clients have included the National and Act parties. These views are his own.

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