This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
In government, a political party is so busy it rarely has time to have a political ideology (neoliberals and communists excepted). Most policy is driven by necessity, instinct (which, I suppose, is a kind of ideology) and responses to vested interests.
An opposition has the luxury of time to think – it is not always used. We saw turmoil during Labour’s years in opposition in 2008-2017, as they swayed back and forward. National is exhibiting the same now.
So where in the political spectrum does the current National Party stand? I start with the right-to-left (or more precisely extreme-right-to-centre-right) economic spectrum and include the social dimension later.
John Key repeatedly distanced his party from the extreme right, treating Don Brash almost cruelly in order to maintain the distance. He was not of the centre-right either. His allegiance was (mainly) to the Auckland Business Community (which abandoned neoliberalism about twenty years ago in favour of a more active government support). His style was mañana: never do anything today which can be left to tomorrow.
This posed quite a problem for the incoming Labour government, compounded by it being the least prepared new government in my memory. (They were expecting another three years in opposition.) National’s solution to the economic difficulties had been to squeeze the public sector financially, so it was unprepared for the more forward-looking challenges that the Ardern-Peters Government placed on them (not that the politicians have been always clear on what those challenges were).
My impression is that National under Bill English was inching to the centre-right, although he was not in power long enough to be sure. My guess is that, aside from his personal predilections, English smelt the shift going on in the electorate.
Simon Bridges continued the inching when he became Leader of the Opposition. Perhaps not surprisingly, given he is a Westie – his father was a Baptist minister – as was his deputy, Paula Bennett. I don't know whether their Maori descent was that relevant.
I found his presentational whine unsettling, but his message was that National would do the same as Labour but do it better. He cited the performance of the Key-English Government although he would not have the big economic three of Key, English and Steven Joyce. I was not particularly looking forward to more mañana. Sure, it is the quiet life today, but problems pile up for the future.
After a while though, his leadership seemed to be moving back to the middle of the right. I am not sure why. Perhaps he wanted to differentiate himself from the Labour-led Government, perhaps that is where the politics of his caucus lay; almost certainly there were funding incentives from the right which is both wealthy and aggressively vocal.
Bridges and Bennett were dumped in a panic as their party’s support fell during the Covid Crisis. (Deal with a national crisis half-decently and the public will support the leadership, as the resurrection of Scott Morrison across the ditch shows.) National’s caucus were not willing to wait to find out whether the outcome would be as disastrous on election day.
Todd Muller seemed to be moving the party back towards the centre-right. What would have happened if he had stayed we can only speculate, but his pronouncements up to the time of his retirement suggest he was presenting a pale-blue version of the Labour-led Government’s approach.
So we get to Judith Collins, about whom it is difficult to be dispassionate. One recalls Robert Muldoon; he was proudly a counterpuncher. Writing to Cameron Slater (Whale Oil) about some National Party infighting, Collins added ‘personally I would be out for total destruction, but then I’ve learned to give is better than to receive’.
On the non-economic dimension, Collins is a personal liberal wanting to free up individuals’ choices. However, once they transgress the law she is uncompromisingly ‘law and order’. It is not an unusual combination on the right which gives little credit for social conditions generating criminal behaviour. (In contrast, British Labour PM Tony Blair, was ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.)
Where Collins stands on economic issues is more difficult to ascertain. She has never held a major economic portfolio (hers clustered around her law background) but appears to be a poster-girl for neoliberals. In her 2020 budget speech she expressed concern for small business, which was standard party policy. The only substantive economic comment in her 2002 maiden speech was about small business.
Clearly social policy is not high on her agenda. Her maiden speech finished with ‘there is a form of poverty in this country, but it has little to do with poverty in a monetary sense. The poverty of which I speak is a poverty of responsibility, a poverty of courage, a poverty of truth, a poverty of love, and a poverty of faith. ... I stand for the dignity of the individual. I believe in God, and I believe that every human being is created with free will to do either good or evil.’
My guess is that, like Key, she aligns with the Auckland Business Community, although perhaps on his right side.
Instructively, the National caucus chose Gerry Brownlee ahead of Paul Goldsmith as her running mate. Were they nervous of Goldsmith’s alignment with neoliberals, especially Don Brash, whose biography he wrote? Can we rule out the Brash strategy, which was to win power (Brash almost did) on a social-conservative program and then impose neoliberal policies? To be clear, I would not accuse Collins of a racism strategy given her partner is part-Samoan (as is Bill English’s).
Collins’ ‘Think Big’ $31 billion infrastructure plan is not particularly hers. It was probably first developed under Bridges and was being refined under Muller. Collins would have grabbed it to make a splash early in her tenure.
National’s fundamental tenet is low taxes which means squeezing the public sector. It was so adamant about this that when the Canterbury Earthquakes provided the perfect opportunity to raise taxes, it failed to impose a special earthquake levy. Not only did the earthquake recovery suffer, but so did the public sector, to the detriment of its service to the public. The current government is still trying to recover the mess.
Interestingly, Muller added that National would not cut benefits. Did he plan for them to cut general government spending and reduce benefit accessibility as the Key-English Government did? Presumably National are not going to run the huge fiscal deficit that their infrastructure plan foreshadows? The answer may be mañana.
Addendum: This column was drafted before the events involving Andrew Falloon and Iain Lees-Galloway. It has not been rewritten.. However, I must add this. The column tries hard to be fair towards Judith Collins; after all it is really about wider issues than her. But the way she dealt with the Lees-Galloway allegations was inappropriate. She was right to pass her knowledge on to Jacinda Ardern, as the prime minister had done to her over Falloon. She was wrong to announce she had done so (on morning radio) before the Prime Minister had publicly dealt with the information. In contrast Ardern waited until Collins had made her Falloon announcement before explaining her involvement. Collins’ timing has the hallmarks of a Whale Oil counterpuncher. It does not promise a clean election.
Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.