Chris Trotter ponders what the political future may hold for National's Shane Reti beyond the October 17 election

Chris Trotter ponders what the political future may hold for National's Shane Reti beyond the October 17 election
Shane Reti.

By Chris Trotter*

How well would Labour be faring in the polls if Dr Shane Reti was Leader of the Opposition? Over the past 10 days Reti has shown himself to be a thoughtful and generous parliamentarian. Rare enough, one might suppose, but he has also demonstrated a comprehensive and refreshingly non-partisan understanding of the Covid-19 crisis. The actual Opposition leader, Judith Collins, desperate to re-present her party as electorally credible (after a fortnight of frankly incredible performances) has reached out for Reti’s competence as a drowning person might reach out for a lifebelt. That, in itself, speaks volumes about the man. Significantly, for the future of the National Party, the impression is growing that, after the election, he will have a lot more to say.

The need to present itself as a party with a future is fast becoming acute for National. Very few people believe Collins and her deputy, Gerry Brownlee, have the slightest chance of paring back the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party’s decisive electoral advantage. This expectation of a serious – and quite possibly catastrophic – defeat on 17 October raises a number of uncomfortable questions about where, and who, National would go to from there.

A few months ago, all the chatter was about Christopher Luxon, the former CEO of Air New Zealand and currently the National Party candidate for Botany. But, that was before the sudden elevation and embarrassing meltdown of Todd Muller. He, too, was a man who traded upon his experience in the upper echelons of big business. Having made it all the way to the top of the greasy poll in the National Party, however, he found himself singularly ill-equipped to handle the unrelenting pressures of “the worst job in politics”. Bitten so badly by Muller, the National Party caucus is likely to have become quite shy about betting the farm on another businessman.

If the anticipated defeat on 17 October is as bad as many National MPs are currently fearing, then the party is likely to be equally shy of leaders who opt to go hard and go scary. Muller’s sudden resignation, surrounded as it was by multiple and serious scandals, panicked the National caucus into reaching for the battle-axe which has hung, provocatively, above the party’s fireplace for years. “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman”, Collins’s far-right supporters never tired of predicting and promising. Once in the caucus’s hands, however, the battle-axe felt suspiciously light: less tempered steel, more papier mâché.

To the public, also, it soon became apparent that Judith Collins and “Judith Collins” were two quite distinct propositions. The real person is quick-witted, ruthless, and, at times, almost recklessly ambitious. But, “Judith Collins”, the papier mâché battle-axe, is a cartoon character. She’s the minister photographed firing a fake pistol. The politician who speaks in tough-gal clichés about “crushing” her opponents and having “zero tolerance” for the Covid-19 virus. As if the ridiculous “Crusher Collins” action-figure could ever be received by the electorate as an acceptable substitute for genuine political leadership.

The length of time it has taken for Collins to grasp the unpopularity of her cartoon doppelganger is disappointing. Indeed, had there been no resumption in the community transmission of Covid-19, she may never have grasped it. Certainly, her own, and her deputy’s, initial responses to the virus’s resurgence were drawn straight from the far-right’s play-book/comic-book. It was only when National’s internal polling revealed how badly “Crusher’s” peripatetic eyebrows and Gerry “I’m only asking questions” Brownlee’s conspiratorial sonatas were playing in the electorate, that the party leaders began casting about furiously for a more credible style of communication.

Cometh the hour, cometh the medical man from Whangarei. Reti’s measured and generous performance on RNZ’s Morning Report of Friday, 14 August threw into sharp relief the ever-so-slightly manic and relentlessly critical approach of Collins and Brownlee. What Reti had made clear to National’s strategists was that the multiple failures at the country’s borders were more than enough to inflict damage on the Government. Excessive amplification and distortion from the Opposition was simply not required. On the contrary, what the GP’s well-informed and unemotional commentary revealed was the enormous political power of reasoned and reasonable criticism.

Reti’s next demonstration, delivered, this time, from the floor of the House of Representatives, was of the equally potent effect of political magnanimity. Nothing Collins or Brownlee have so far said will have stung Labour quite so painfully as Reti’s kindness:

“Sometimes, in situations like this, with huge complexity and many balls in the air, one of them gets dropped. When that happens, this Opposition will help pick up that ball and put it back in its correct place. There will be a time to understand how the ball was dropped, but first we will help put it back, and then we’ll figure out how not to drop it again.”

The speed with which Collins proceeded to clutch “Dr Shane” (as she so patronisingly called him) to her bosom was all the proof political observers needed of Reti’s exceptional political cut-through. Though they must have done so with teeth-grinding reluctance, the National Party leadership was ready, by the end of last week, to send him forth to carry the Opposition’s message on both television networks’ weekend current affairs shows. His grace under considerable media pressure was impressive. To Q+A’s Jack Tame he even vouchsafed a winning smile.

On display from Reti over the past 10 days has been the difference between attributed and demonstrated leadership ability. When Captain Muller was invited to show the qualities that so many of his boosters and supporters insisted he possessed, he came up woefully short. Lieutenant Reti, on the other hand, took the hill he was sent to capture in record time and with minimal casualties. Small wonder, then, that Collins has awarded him a battlefield promotion. As the election battle rages on, we should expect to find “Doctor Shane” in the thick of it.

Reti’s efforts notwithstanding, however, the likelihood of National sustaining a decisive defeat remains high. Collins will have to take responsibility for such a loss in the time-honoured way – by falling on her sword. In the absence of Reti, Collins’ supporters may have attempted to argue that she should be given more time: that, in an election overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, no one could have done any better. Arguably, had Reti not been there to demonstrate that someone could have done a lot better, Collins’ colleagues may even have bought the argument. But, Reti was there, and so the big question confronting National’s caucus in the days following 17 October (assuming the good doctor holds his Whangarei seat) will be: “What should we do with him?”


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.

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75 Comments

Well he should be deputy of National. He would be as beneficial as Brownlee is disastrous. That should have been foreseen, it sticks out like greyhound’s kidneys. A new professional and articulate persona as opposed to ..............? (fill in the space)

He may not have enough mongrel in him for National's liking though. Gerry's got plenty.

agree he is too nice in question time , and some of his ideas have merit some dont but the government would be folish to not weigh them all up,
i understand why they test on day three as you may catch on the way here, but why are we not requiring a test to get on the plane, why infect other people on a long plane trip that some are taking to come back?

I'm not too keen on the preflight test tbh, say you test negative and are allowed on.. does that mean you're fast tracked through MQI facilities? If not then why bother? As you point out, it's still possible to contract the virus on board so a negative test seems a bit redundant.

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More than 30% of Pakistani civilian pilots have fake licenses. Corruption is rampant in a number of countries we are accepting 'returning NZrs' from. Medical certificates from country of initial boarding will quickly become just another saleable commodity.

People fake passports too, that doesn't mean we should tear ours up and abandon them as a means of customs and border control. People will game literally any system you can imagine, so why even bother getting out of bed?

Yep, but passports are issued by sovereign states so at least some process whereas med certs by two a penny corrupt quacks. Everyone will have 'caught it en route'.

Listening to Reti on Q&A there are a limited number of INZ accredited labs in countries we're currently receiving most of our inbounds from so they could be cross checked and electronically verified. Unfortunately I think it would be so time consuming and logistically cumbersome it would turn out to be impractical.

Agree. But forcing them to use an accredited lab would of itself have a screening effect in that it'd catch some infections and also act as a deterrent to those who knew they were symptomatic but were planning on not declaring.

Maybe, but then they wouldn't board.

And the problem with that is ? Long queue of people waiting to quickly grab their spot.

Here are some reasons why pre-flight testing is a bad policy that won't actually work:

1. In some countries it may take longer than 3 days to receive your test result back, which means you could never fly to NZ.
2. A test is only a moment in time, you can immediately become infected after having a test taken.
3. Tests can have false negatives.
4. These are NZ citizens and permanent residents who have a right to return to NZ, and now you're preventing them from returning to the country.
5. Problems with fake or counterfeit test results, because that's quicker and cheaper than getting a real test (especially if real tests take 3+ days to be completed).
6. Travelling to NZ often takes 1-2 days at present due to reduced airline schedules, so the test results could easily be 5 days old by the time you arrived in NZ anyway.
7. We've already seen several cases of people leaving from NZ who appeared to become positive on arrival at their destination countries, so pre-flight screening would have allowed these people to leave and they still ended up positive on arrival anyway.
8. Managing the administration of all of this is another costly exercise, and when it fails and someone arrives in NZ with COVID-19 anyway, as they obviously will, what is the point? Everyone is still going to have to go through 14 days of isolation upon arrival because pre-flight testing is not a guarantee of anything.

The MoH already considered this model and rejected it, instead going with our tests on day 3 and day 12 instead. This isn't a case of "not having thought of it".

Nice try Lanthanide, but you could add that, on the other hand, the CoL's policy is to not bother trying to catch anyone with COVID-19 before they get on a plane.
National's approach would prevent some people infecting others during their journey to NZ and bringing it into the country.
The CoL's policy is not to care if it happens.

*May* prevent.

I would expect there are few people who start their journey to NZ while having symptoms. False negatives rate for the tests in the first days of infection can be as high as 50-60%, so we're talking about tests picking up people as positive before they have symptoms, up to 3 days before they travel.

None of the points listed show that it is "a bad policy that won't actually work".
What they say " it is never going to be enough in itself" - which is not something anyone claims .

Actually Lanthanides points show that it is indeed a policy that wouldn't work in practicality unless there was a self isolation procedure after testing but before boarding. There's also the issue of false negatives

Airlines are doing that, basically, it is their right to deny passage to anyone. It is, however, against this https://www.justice.govt.nz/justice-sector-policy/constitutional-issues-... for us to deny entry to anyone entitled to be here. I think it is best left that way.

He has the advantage in these troubled times too that airport security does not apply to him due to his special nature.

Good article CT.

I have wondered though, as a Maori, Northland Doctor why he chose to align with and join the National party?

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Because he wants to belong to a party that aims to improve outcomes for the poor, using evidence based policies, (not feelz based hopes'n'spin) instead of farming them for votes as Labour does using easy welfare.

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If he wanted to do that Foyle he'd have to start his own party. Neither of the big two have taken any notice whatsoever of Northland for decades.. that's why it's in the parlous state it is.

This is nice talk. If only it were more than talk.

There's something deeply unsettling about this comment.

Unsettling and revealing.

Be interesting to see if clarification is offered.

" if you do not vote for me you ain't black"

Hooks comment above. I too have seen very little from National that actively sought to improve the lot of the lower socio-economic layers in our society. Indeed Doctors are invariably part of a 'privileged' class in our society, and, in my experience, struggle to understand whit it is like to not have much money. Yet at the same time they are in an excellent spot to advocate for the under privileged, as another northland Doctor does so well.

To be frank, I don't think either of the main parties have been particularly successful in improving the lot of the people in this country, but National is worse than Labour.

Child poverty has worsened by 5% under this coalition after dropping by a third under National. Even though St Jacinda said it was her priority and they trumpeted more empty bumper sticker politics with their "well being" budget. As usual the left wing rhetoric and aspiration (in the absence of delivery of results) doesn't match reality, National, focused on delivery, did more to materially improve the lives of the poor than the floundering Coalition have.

Agree Foyle. Our Government's, of any colour, have actively avoided putting in place the regulation that would genuinely benefit the people who need it most. Instead they favour the wealthy property investors and the banks. Sad really. It needs to change.

The Labour parties of NZ and Australia are founded along the lines of the British Labour party, which used to represent the interests of the British worker. In recent times these parties have all been hijacked by a left leaning intelligentsia that regards the worker with contempt, as cannon fodder to be trotted out at elections then put back under their rocks. These parties no longer deserve to be called " Labour "; they do not exist to serve the interests of workers. Their primary focus is "issues" - the environment, climate change, the treatment of minorities all receive far more attention than does the wellbeing of the workers. When traditional Democrat voters in rust belt states were asked why they switched allegiance in 2016's presidential election, many of them answered that Trump seemed interested in them , whereas the Clinton campaign seemed only interested in " blacks and gays "

Do you think it could be because Maori, as a race, don't all think the same, have the same values, beliefs or aspiration? You know, like other "normal white" races where people have different belief systems and political views. It could be that eh??

I'm sure your intensions were good Murray, but this is the sort of lazy stereotype that is so endemic in NZ and no better example than the recent COvid rumours.

Not stereotyping at all Te. In fact I suggest it is you who is being lazy in your thinking. In trying to understand ones political alignment, I'm trying to identify ways to find common ground, bridge differences and achieve outcomes that benefit all in this society.

I am utterly sick and tired of the unstated implication in a lot of political rhetoric that Maori are an inferior group in society. i don't for a moment believe that, indeed i think the exact opposite. But there are quite a few interest groups who make a lot of mileage on poor Maori statistics, and who I suggest would not especially gain if Maori and other low socioeconomic groups stats improved a lot. Thus i feel the media message becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that needs to change.

At face value, your comment reads as a lazy stereotype. I already stated that was very unlikely to be your intention and it's clear it wasn't. I see a lot of it and much of it actually isn't intentional, rather it's generally heuristic and that is why most NZers don't see it.

Reti is an outlier.

Because he chose not to stay on the plantation?

Yes, true evil is when individuals don't conform to the cliched carbon-copy beliefs that the left dictate they should have. Celebrating diversity is their mantra after all!

Watched Dr Reti speak on both Newshub Nation and Q&A.. very impressive. Calm, collected, articulate and reasonable. It's a pity National don't have more of his calibre to draw on . Mind you, there doesn't seem to be too many of his calibre in any of the parties tbh. Also agree with CT about Collins calling him "Dr Shane".. very patronising

Yes, he was definitely calm and collected - the sort of person you immediately have respect for.

I heard Judith call out to Paul Goldsmith, "C'mon Goldie" in one TV segment. I thought gee, the editors didn't do her any favours there.

Haha.. yeah, sounded like she was calling the pet Lab

Perhaps he should be the next leader of National, replacing Judith? I would be in favour of "calm, collected, articulate and reasonable" as a change at the top.

I thought National had admitted defeat when they put Judith and Gerry in charge (they are just hoping to keep their base intact to keep as much of their list in parliament as possible). They have made no effort to seriously contest this election since Muller decided he was not up to managing the dirty politics. I would think it would be better to preserve all their quality candidates not associated with the Key era till the next election.

My impression of the mood of the electorate last election was we were starting to be skeptical of the National lead government and looking for a reason to kick them out. It was Key and English who made it work. Putting the second tier candidates from the era must be a joke to half the electorate. All they selling is more housing market pump and a few roads.

Trotter is aware the electorate is becoming restive about the border shambles and that the immaculate one misleading us is generating public disquiet so is attempting to create a Reti 'kinder fairer world' Jacinda style profile in an attempt to undermine the traction crusher is getting. Trotter placing Dr Reti in a 'cometh the hour' mode as a soon to be challenger to Collins is absurd. He is a new kid on the block, is only receiving attention because we have a health crisis and is yet to earn his elementary stripes as a credible politician.

There's such a thing as a credible politician??

Good point. I still like to think so but as my kids point out I'm becoming increasingly senile.

A bit of irony at play. Three years ago Labour recalibrated themselves with a new leader, a virtual novice. But the electorate embraced the change. It presented a vehicle to oust the National government that had become complacent and perceived as being remote from the people. Of course even after that a Labour still needed NZF to form a government, But here we have a column describing acclamation of a tyro political identity, in a similar vein, albeit a lesser scale. Does that not reveal that the electorate is more than partial to politicians who display fresh images, direction and professionalism.

The electorate is partial to whoever promises them the most outrageous and unrealistic policy with the promise that everyone else will pay for it.

FG. It can be partial to a fresh face as per your example but the context for the anointing of she whose name must only be spoken of with deep reverence was quite different to today. What I was banging on about is Trotter conjuring up Reti as threat to Collins, which as an astute political commentator he knows is bunkum until well after the election and even then the nats will be cautious about change if crusher makes a reasonable showing.

Aye agreed, age old commentator still cannot resist the left hand doing the twist.

You'll pay for that. No point in watching out, you'll not see it coming.

What traction is Collins getting? The MSM have already decided they don't like here. She is promising a shittier version of National's last 3 years. She needs to actually make the case that National are better economic stewards, merely asserting it is probably not going to cut it. Without Key and English, the remaining MP from the Key era don't seem significantly more up to the job than the equivalent from Labour.

The problem is lack of diversity in media - NZ media is populated by mostly youngish left-wing urban females. So the MSM as a mob always gun for politicians that are outside their 'tribe' including leaders of opposition, most stridently against those on the right. English, Key, Goff, Shearer, Cunlife, Little, Bridges, Muller, Collins all got hammered. Whereas Ardern and young female MP's that are suitably left wing (greens) get an easy ride (aside from a very few radio hosts reflective of their older demographics).

Yes, MSM bias to their in-group is obvious and impactful in the election process but tell that to Seymour. It's not so much their bias towards certain candidates but their lack of any reasonable analysis on what might be outcomes to policy might be that really hurts the process. Virtue signalling gets rewarded and it is left to the reader to determine what actual outcomes of the policy are. I think this is mostly due to sheer incompetence of not being knowledgeable on the policy subject.
National bleeding 4% to ACT proves that their problems are deeper than the MSM coverage though. I think they need a full clean out of all the remaining ministers of the Key era but that takes longer than 3 years. The need to realize that dirty politics alone is not going to win the electorate over and they need to refresh their core ideology.

I agree. I think part of what Chris is trying to point out here is that someone like Reti, who can talk calmly and respectfully and even give credit to his political opponents, is more of a political asset in the present moment than an old-school adversarial politician like Collins. It's taken a while, but I think J Ardern's success has opened some eyes to how the public actually see politics; as a pointless game played by petty individuals who think a 'witty' put-down in the House is some kind of victory. If you can *avoid* that image by being calm and generous and reasonable, the voters might actually reward you.

Yes NZ saw that with David Lange over Robert Muldoon. Absorbed, diffused and then the exquisite riposte. Out with old, in with the new. The election told the story.Ironically National had in Jim McLay a similar ability. Often wonder how that party might have then evolved if he had been able to stay on instead of being repeatedly undermined by a vindictive Muldoon.

Opposition get no media coverage unless they are 'slamming' incumbents. Media is only interested in the to-ing and fro-ing of politics if there is an aggressive headline they can slap on it. The only parts of question time that make it into print, or pull eye-balls are the verbal stoushes and that has always been the nature of the beast in modern politics - because very few (outside of tragics like ourselves) care. So opposition are forced to be aggressive by need to build name recognition. To complain about it is like being a rugby lover who doesn't like all the tackling.

I agree it's a media problem too, that they're not too interested unless there's 'slamming' etc. But, even though they think that's what the public want, it doesn't always work that way. Hopefully they catch on.

The media were very pro John Key for 9 years- look at all the support he got from Nz public figures and the ABs. The big issue for National is how marketable their last 3 leaders Bridges, Muller and Judith have been versus Jacinda. I agree a Reti-Luxon pairing would be great for the National party or even better hand over to the next generation with a Bishop- Willis pairing

tim52. In case you haven't noticed it there are fewer happy smiling media faces in the Ardern worship briefings these days as her previously much touted 'leadership' is exposed as decidedly average and she is personally caught out being less than fulsome with the truth over front line testing. Daily cases of community transmission are occurring, public resistance to lockdown is mounting. She is out of ammo and her senior troops have proved unreliable. If there are mass outbreaks Collins may not need to prove nationals ability to govern.

David Seymour would do very well as National Leader. Recruit him, Judith.

"Dr Shane" is not patronizing. It is brand building, melding the authority of the Dr title with the relatability of the first name, using last name is off-puttingly formal. Politicians and people trying to build fan bases do not want to be called by their last names.
Others using Doctor title in public eye always try to get first name in there. Dr Megan Woods, not Dr Woods, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, not Dr Bloomfield, Dr Phil, Dr Siouxie Wiles, Dr Brian Cox.

If that's the case Foyle then why doesn't Collins call him Dr Shane Reti?? We don't hear too many of your examples being called by just their first names. If it's brand building it's failing, other than branding Collins as patronising or unwilling to use Dr Reti's last name because she won't or can't pronounce it properly

In the GP practice we are registered in, if you ph for an appointment you are asked, do you want to see Dr Tom, Dr Mary, Dr Harry etc. Perhaps Dr Shane, prefers to be called that???

He may do, who knows? All I know is that to me it sounds patronising. In my GP practice the Drs are called by their last name if there is a Dr in front or their first name if there isn't. So it would be Dr Reti or Shane. Usually it's just their first name tbh. However this is parliament not the local Dr's practice.
Maybe I'm just "old fashioned"

Crikey.
You couldn't accuse the actual Minister of Health of having a 'comprehensive and refreshingly non-partisan understanding of the Covid-19 crisis'.

I could imagine a cartoon with Judith pushing Gerry of the stage and pulling on a bewildered Dr Reti.

Add in the panic on the faces of those sitting below the stage.

Please draw one.

So, Chris Trotter doesn't like Judith Collins, it seems. How surprising.

So his opinion is shared by a majority of the country. Shock horror!

Judith Collins will remain consumed by the absolute belief that her raison d'etre is to be PM of NZ. Her desperation is explained by the fact this will be her last chance. This is hardly a recommendation for her at this time.

Her recent book release suggests to me she was looking to retire from parliament this election and head for the revolving doors, but got tempted by one last chance at power.

The little Doctor that could....
What we will never know is that had National been Govt at the initial outbreak would they have shutdown the country as it was indeed shutdown.

Would they have deferred to the "advice" of the Manufacturers Assn, Business Assn and Board of Air New Zealand rather than so strongly to that of the epidemiologists?
Every National cabinet Minister hopes to join the Board of Air NZ post politics, so who of them would have wanted to be on the revenue death squad of 2020?

Exactly. They wouldn't have banned travel from China when Jacinda did - they were screaming about how it was an overreaction at the time.

We didn't get our first car until Feb 28th as a result. If we'd had it sooner, as we can now see from this latest cluster, it would have been a far larger epidemic when we came to shut down, and likely we would have been like the rest of the world, managing infections under permanent lockdown.

Fair comment. The government actually could have gone earlier but all the indicators are a National government would have acted later, much too late and dangerously so. The enquiry will though reveal more and in particular the poor state of preparation for a pandemic and the cumbersome and confusing response(s) of the MOH. Article in Herald this morning with Radius Care boss confirming rest homes isolated by their own decision and in fact, against the MOH advices.

Yup , watching him on the Sunday programmes( i watch The Nation on Sunday ) , my immediate thought was , this guy should be their deputy P.M. But then , I am not a National voter , and if I were, would be atypical .