Peter Dunne says as National becomes more removed from the day-to-day reality of Government it has to address, define and promote its agenda and brand in order to be in serious contention at the next election

Peter Dunne says as National becomes more removed from the day-to-day reality of Government it has to address, define and promote its agenda and brand in order to be in serious contention at the next election
National Leader Simon Bridges: Illustration by Jacky Carpenter.

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.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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Yesterday's People? More like Village People.

The thought of some of them wearing leather is a little too scary to contemplate!

Thanks for giving me nightmares for the next week - I cannot un-see that image.


National also needs to work on credibility. NZers will remember that they once before campaigned on addressing housing affordability, then spent their nine years in power denying any crisis exists.

John Key:

As it is, we see some major issues with the fundamentals of our economy that could prevent New Zealand from making the most of our future...

...We also want to ensure that every young New Zealander who works hard and is disciplined about saving can expect to own their own home and thereby have a real stake in the economic future of this country.

...It wasn’t so long ago, in the 1990s, in fact, that New Zealand had a high level of home ownership compared to other countries. Not so anymore. We now have what has been described as the second worst housing affordability problem in the world.

Home ownership declined by 5% between the 2001 and 2006 census to just 62.7%. To put that into context, home ownership for the preceding five years had been stable at 67.4%.

...he share of homes owned by people aged 20 to 40 dropped significantly between 2001 and 2006. Young people – the people we most want to prevent joining the great Kiwi brain-drain – are really struggling to get onto the property ladder.

...on current trends, the crisis will only deepen. Home ownership rates are predicted to plummet to 60% within the next decade. And one of the biggest factors influencing home-ownership rates over the next 10 years will be the difficulty young buyers will have getting into their first home.

... we need government leadership that is prepared to focus on the fundamental issues driving the crisis. National is ready to provide that leadership.

Sadly, in 2007, thousands of young New Zealanders have resigned themselves to never owning their own home. Since 2001, saving a deposit for a house has become increasingly difficult for too many of them.

In 1999 it took just 42% of their average take-home pay to service their mortgage. It now takes around 81%. That’s after they’ve somehow managed to save up a 20% deposit in the first place. That is a crippling increase.

...too many Kiwi families can’t see a way to get themselves onto the first rung of the property ladder. They don’t even aspire to owning their own home anymore.

National has a plan for doing this and we will be resolute in our commitment to the goal of ensuring more young Kiwis can aspire to buy their own home.

How will National convince New Zealanders (beyond the ones who will always vote for them regardless of policy) that they will not simply campaign on what average Kiwis need, then about-turn on this once in power?


I think it's incredibly sad that everyones solution to upwards mobility is the property ladder. Not the career ladder. Not the business ladder. But house-flipping.

Can you really sustain a healthy society on that premise?


As it turns out, no.

But if you're at the top, you can make sweet tax-free millions on your Parnell property by perpetuating the crisis. Even better, people working for wages will pay the taxes to fund the social services that attract foreign buyers to give you your gain.

All you need to do is about-face on your campaign trail talk.

Society and those on whose behalf you once campaigned are now worse off, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. At the end of the day it is what it is and I'm pretty comfortable with that.


And before you have even finished your term, call it quits and accept the congratulatory seat with the biggest mortgage merchant in the country.

"Many thanks for your 8 and a half years of hard work and dedication Sir John.... mmmm mmm yes" - David Hisco - October 2017.

He played us like a Stradivarius.

Kate.....I think the word you were looking for was "Fiddle"

It worked out for Iceland. They had new economics, and they sold the fishing rights for their waters to Russians. It was all genius stuff until it collapsed.

Can you really sustain a healthy society on that premise?

Answer: No. We all know how the ladders work

Career ladder
Where you start at the bottom and stay there. or

Where you start at the bottom, gain meaningless job title changes with token pay increases, until after 5-10 years of broken promises you leave to try starting from the bottom at a different place. or

Where you start at the bottom, look like you are going places, then get made redundant and find yourself back at the bottom.

Business ladder
Start a business, work 120 hours a week like a slave, never take time off, and then watch as a large multinational destroys the industry? or

Start a business, get lucky enjoy the work - make some money, only to realise all the people on the career ladder path can no longer afford your services, so you go bust? or

Start a business, make a killing, sell up and go on numerous boards causing problems for all, until you get found out to be a fraud/conman/incompetent fool who got there out of good fortune/timing/old money rather than any innate business aptitude or ability.

Property ladder
Realise you can't afford a house so join the rental ladder right at the start, or

Buy your first place, wait with baited breath as house prices tear through the roof and celebrate when your $100k dump is worth $500k, then hit reality as you realise that $200k dream house is now worth $1mil and the ladder is actually just a crock, and the only way you will ever live in something that nice is to rent it. or

Buy a house, pay an exorbitant mortgage, never have enough money/time/experience to maintain it, upgrade to the next one, and repeat the same, until eventually crippling repayments and debt make you sell and join the rental ladder.

Rental ladder
Single flatting in dump with numerous others
Couple flatting in dump with numerous others
Steady Couple flatting in average place with another couple
Committed Couple flatting in nice place by themselves
Married Couple flatting in really nice place by themselves
Family flatting in a dump
Family flatting in an average place
empty nesters in a dump
alone in a cell aged care facility, that the Govt pays for.

I think you're rung about that


Got to live somewhere mate, even the trolls need a Troll Bridge - Simon NO Bridges does NOT stand a chance~!!

Simon Bridges = Idiot.
Paula Bennett = Bigger Idiot.
Amy Adams = Rich, out of touch, benefiting from property - doesn't understand economics properly.
Gerry Brownlee = A pettifogging failure that can't use a smart phone.
Judith Collins = A spreader of blatant Fake News, isn't fit to govern.
Nick Smith = 9 Years of consistent failure, rumored to drink paint thinner.
Chris Bishop = A well known turncoat, in it for the free sandwiches.
Nick Wagner = As respected as the weed infested, heap of a Cathedral in her once held electorate.

I could go on and on - the FACT the vast majority of Kiwi's think National's leadership (Bridges and Bennett) aren't fit to lead speaks volumes - National, WHAT A BUNCH OF LOSERS~!! The media have their work cut out for them trying to get this miserable lot back in power LMFAO - 'give it the old college try boys' ~!!

How could you forget our shadow minister of stats?
Dr Jian Yang = Subtle critic of Communist Party of China, smart fund raiser.

Don't you mean spy trainer?

Shadow Leader?

Brilliant and agree with your comments. National are a bunch of arrogant out of touch with reality party. No one will save us from the Taxinda's "tax the shit out of three economy" and the other idiotic ideas of the CoL (like reduce prison population).

The Chinese are not showing their power level just yet. The census results will show just how large a voting bloc they are. And Labour are still not shutting the door. Cindy actually wants to open it wider for poor refugees economic migrants who can afford to pay $20k for a boat ride.

Because working in NZ is crapp. My parents made more on houses than they ever did working and I did the same. Poorly paid jobs with management who were idiots in this country.

I think if there is to be a change in 2020, it will because the current government is voted out, as opposed to National being voted in

When have we ever had a Govt voted in?

Probably Lange.? But I do share your sentiment along with that of one W C Fields, so we are in fairly good company one would think.

The US Presidential system is a bit better for that - in that an incumbent has a limited term. You then get a chance to have a contest of will/ideas to my mind, as opposed to simply an opposite main party.

We had a bit of that this last time round with Bill v Jacinda being newcomers both... Jacinda of course have the advantage though in terms of being seen as the change agent.

True - I think all that happens is a majority get so annoyed with the current government and vote in the opposition in the hope something better will come of it - fat chance. I'd say shoot the lot but that is waste of good ammunition . It's the cynic in me.

Totally agree Foxglove

With the joke 5% threshold there are no choices. It feels like going into the Ilam Bakery at 4:30pm after Gerry Brownlee has been through.
The only options have been sitting around for hours. On the left you see a family size Shepard's pie, vegan pie, and horse steak pie. On the right you see a hoisin pork bun and a tiny yellow sausage roll.

Thank you (not) for reminding me just how full of shite John key was. You have ruined my day

The commenters here aim to please .


National need to get rid of the MPs that are sabotaging their chances of ever returning. Of course that would mean they would need to find new MPs that are not worthless or so toxic that they drag down the entire party.

Of course there is the discussion of their policies, of which they have none. This is their most significant failure.

Bridges needs to promise not to alter the pension system, after all that has been the winning stratagem of the last four elections!

Yeah, the winning bit grinds yer teeth, aye. 46% voter support; every one of them pensioners blinded by self interest. Who knew we had so many of the old fossils.

Still the most popular party despite a usually destabilising leadership change, while the coalitions survival hangs on the leader of a marginal party who has to be ushered off the stage by a foreign politician to avoid him being further embarrassed.

What remains to be seen is the reaction to the tax grab that Dr Cullen is concocting. You have to consider that Clark and Cullen are very likely the puppeteers with all the grimacing and sour frustrations of their undeserved 2009 election loss now being able to be vented. Clark seems to be fast tracking her media profile upwards, almost some sort of agony aunt. This government is now looking not so fresh.

Personally I hope whatever they’re concoctiing is extreme enough to dash Taxindas chance of re-election. National don’t need to convince many swing voters that this lot are just going to make them poorer.

If they're ignorant enough to think, at this juncture, that 'poorer' is something to do with money, then they ought to start up a dinosaur party.

You have upset a pensioner. Speaking on behalf of my cohort sadly some of us are self-interested but long life does mean we are not blind. We have seen it all before so we are realistic. It is the young who wear blinkers of youth. Any pensioner who voted national at the last election was no longer in possession of all their mental faculties.

At a TOP party public meeting in Northcote most were white haired and generally we were won over by the economics but not so keen on the Maori partnership.

Dear Interest,
Aunty Helen. Yes, I remember her. They tell me she's back. May God defend New Zealand.
PS: Was in Helengrad earlier this month. Nice food houses. Shame about the government.

The plotters thicken. It's now looking more and more like Soimon Bridges' expenses info was linked by someone within the National Party, despite Soimon's suggesting the leak came from "a Government that has been trying to distract".

...a major development in the saga over who leaked Mr Bridges' expenses and raises huge questions about the stability of his leadership and disquiet among National MPs.


The text, which RNZ has not seen, detailed a number of conversations and pieces of information from National caucus meetings over a period of weeks in an attempt to prove the author was a National MP.

In the message, the author said they had leaked the expenses because they disagreed with Mr Bridges' leadership style, describing him as "arrogant", and wanted him to be held to account for his spending of taxpayers' money.

Are National determined to throw themselves off Bridges?

Bridges made the wrong call in the first place given these expenses would be in the public domain in time anyway. The expenditure itself was really a non-issue from a political perspective as most of the public would have felt that the Opposition leader getting out and about in NZ communities to be a good thing.

But now we have an unprecedented situation where Parliamentary conventions regarding privacy are being thrown out the window;

There will be differing views within the caucus about becoming the subject of a "forensic" investigation, effectively at the behest of their leader.

Some will welcome the search for what had all the hallmarks of a political hatchet job, others will be offended and concerned about the invasion of privacy, given all MPs were ordered to sign a waiver so all of their communications could be accessed by the inquiry team.

A big call in the context of parliamentary privilege and the highly sensitive information held by MPs, including constituency work, but who would dare be the MP who refused?

Hypocrisy at its finest. Simon makes a big deal about a "leak" of information that was destined to be in the pubic domain in due course, only a few months after he silenced Winston for making a big deal about private details being leaked.