By Peter Dunne*
For most of the 10 months since the change of government, the National Party has had the best of times. Thrust unexpectedly into the role of Opposition, it has settled to its task, with few outward stumbles. It has managed a leadership transition without too much fuss, and has consistently remained top of the opinion polls. It has enjoyed harrying a constantly fumbling government and has dented the reputations of more than a few Ministers along the way. So far, so good, but the good times are coming to an end, and National is beginning to look exposed.
Typically, the first few months of a new government's term are months where the equally new Opposition can have some fun. Freed from responsibility, their former Ministers will still be more in touch with their old portfolios than their successors, still coming to grips with the demands of their new roles, and the overall challenge of being in government. But there comes a time when the momentum inevitably shifts in favour of the new government and its agenda, ushering in with it the perception of the Opposition as yesterday's people. For National, that time is now.
The fallout from the Leader of the Opposition's regional tour and one or two misjudgments by senior members are showing that National is starting to make heavy weather of its role, despite the government's chronic bumbling. That is relatively normal for this time of the electoral cycle (although governments are usually demonstrating more competence by now) and the challenge for National is not to get trapped into a political backwater. To the greatest extent it can, the party needs to be seeking to lead public debate, not just reacting to everything the government does.
So, for a start, it needs to stop barking at every parked car it sees, and focus instead on the issues that matter. A visionary and well-marketed speech from the leader, setting out a handful of key principles and the type of party and government he aspires to lead, followed by the development of some major policy themes to flow from those would be in order right now. Then, the party needs to reference all its actions against those, seeking where it can to shift the debate to its agenda and terms, so promoting the notion that National stands clearly for certain things, rather than just resolutely opposes everything.
This government seems to have realised far quicker that, like it or not, we are in a new political environment where the vitality of new ideas is what counts, even if the practical details still need time to catch up. There is a general mood against some of the more technocratic approaches to government of previous years, with voters looking for more signs of empathy and tolerance from governments, of whatever stripe, than has been the case until now. To prosper, National has to pick up on these themes, and become better at their exposition than Labour.
Dismissing this week's Justice Summit as just a "talkfest" before the discussions were even concluded shows National still has some way to go on this journey. While they may well be right on this particular issue, they are failing to recognise that the current prevailing public mood is more open to such consultative approaches than was the case previously.
And then there is the question of personnel. As the current government shows only too well, we now live in an era where political experience counts for little. Old hands are no longer seen as wise heads, steady guides on the tiller, or whatever, but impediments to progress to be moved on. Again, this phenomenon is not limited to New Zealand, but is an international trend, as, for example, Australia's constantly revolving Prime Ministerships show. Basically, politicians now get one chance and, once that is over, there is seldom any coming back. As he looks at his team, National's leader needs to reflect on that, both in terms of his former Ministers and longer term inhabitants of the back bench. Some early signs of fresh blood coming to the fore to replace the placeholders needs to become more obvious.
Finally, there is the question of future alliances. This is much more difficult because National does not control this space, and, in any case, the options are limited. However, any moves to its right in this regard will cause National more harm than good. For the time being, the days of the hard right - social and economic - are over, and National needs to realise that. The path to the future is not to try returning to the past.
The next few months will tell the strength of National's story. As they become more removed from the day to day reality of government, they will have more opportunity to address, define and promote their agenda and brand. The extent to which they are prepared and able to do this will determine the extent to which they can be taken as serious contenders for the next election.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.