By Peter Dunne*
There can be few more spectacular political own goals than that just scored against the National Party by first-term Clutha-Southland MP, Hamish Walker this week. The consequences for Walker personally, and his eminence grise, Michelle Boag, have been grim and dire, but the incident is potentially catastrophic for the National Party, just over 10 weeks away from the general election.
Not only will things drag on for a while, as the Heron inquiry, and a possible investigation by the Privacy Commissioner unfold, there is also the possibility of separate legal action arising from these investigations. Then, there is the prospect of a hurried and intense candidate selection process as for the second time in three years the National Party looks to find a suitable candidate to take over what has always been one of its safest electorates. None of this is likely to be good news for the National Party.
It all makes the Jami-Lee Ross saga of last year look like a distant storm in a teacup. That matter is now before the High Court and the National Party will be relieved that a trial date has been set for September next year, so sparing it from any further embarrassing revelations on that score before the election. Winston Peters may be even be breathing a sigh of relief too that any detrimental finding by the Serious Fraud Office in its inquiry into the New Zealand First Foundation may not now look as bad.
National leader Todd Muller seems to have been blindsided by the whole Walker affair, although some are trying to draw links between Boag and Muller, given the assistance she apparently provided during his campaign for the National Party leadership. However, he seems determined to try and make the best of what is an almost impossibly bad situation.
His initial response to Walker’s admission was considered by some to be too bland – a mere expression of disappointment – although we now know that was as much a consequence of the legal actions already being undertaken by lawyers acting on Walker’s behalf. But the decisiveness of his subsequent actions – stripping Walker of all his Caucus responsibilities and asking the Party’s governing board to expel him altogether from the Party – will have taken his critics by surprise. Walker’s recognition that his political career was over and that he should best stand down was no less swift.
Muller has always insisted that his mild demeanour should not be mistaken for a lack of political steel or the ruthlessness need to be an effective political leader. But it is one thing to say these things about one’s self and then have them believed by a normally sceptical public, but something else altogether to be able to demonstrate them. Unwelcome and annoying as the incident undoubtedly is for Muller, its circumstances have allowed him to show the decisiveness and ruthlessness he has said he possesses.
Walker’s rapid journey to oblivion will have been met with approval by his angry Caucus colleagues, perhaps fearing that their own prospects of holding their own seats at the election, let alone being able to form a government, will be rapidly disappearing with him. At the same time, they will have also taken on board the message that Muller is not to be trifled with, and that he will not tolerate disloyal or dishonourable actions by his MPs.
Beyond the National Party, Muller’s handling of the Walker case provides a stark contrast to the way in which the Prime Minister has dealt with cases involving her own Ministers. Admittedly, her cases have been more about sheer Ministerial incompetence – Curran, Twyford, Lees-Galloway and Clark, for example – than actions that have been disreputable. Nevertheless, the general pattern that has emerged over the last three years has been of a Prime Minister disinclined to act decisively when cases of Ministerial incompetence and poor performance occur. The recent example of the prolonged retention of David Clark bordered on the painfully embarrassing, until he finally recognised that he was a liability and resigned.
Muller will be hoping that the public will react favourably to the way he has dealt with Walker, compared to the more drawn-out and indeterminate processes applying to government Ministers. But any kudos he gains will be small, as the consequences of the Walker affair for the National Party are just too overwhelming.
Recent opinion polls have shown high levels of trust and confidence in the government’s Covid-19-related actions. While there is an acknowledgement that not everything has been anywhere near as perfect or smooth as Ministers like to suggest, the government was winning support for “doing its best” in unprecedented circumstances. National’s hope was that public frustration with the bungles, such as the recent border control failures, would grow to the extent that concern about competence came to outweigh trust in the government’s “doing its best”.
The Walker incident has blown that hope out of the water. Now, any future concerns National raises about the competence of government actions, based on information it has obtained through official and other legitimate sources, will be easily dismissed as dirty and desperate politics. Any trust in National as the party best to rely on to lead New Zealand through the difficult few years of recovery ahead has been seriously damaged.
No wonder Todd Muller is angry. He has every reason to be. After all, it is not every day one of your most junior MPs turns your party into the best reason yet for re-electing your opponents to office.
*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.