Peter Dunne says the National Party has to confront some unpleasant realities

Peter Dunne says the National Party has to confront some unpleasant realities

By Peter Dunne*

By any measure the National Party has been the most successful New Zealand political party of recent times. After all, it has won 16 of the last 25 elections, governing for 47 years since first winning office in 1949, almost twice as long as the Labour Party has been in office in that time.

However, as it contemplates its future in the wake of its enormous defeat in this year’s election, it will not be nearly enough for National to just look to past glories as guiding its way to a return to power at some point in the future. That was its immediate mistake during the last Parliament. For too long then, it acted like the bride jilted at the altar over what happened in 2017, assuming somewhat arrogantly that time would correct what it saw as a massive miscarriage of electoral justice. By the time it woke up to the new reality, Covid-19 had inflicted itself upon us, and the rest is history.

Now, finally, National has to confront some unpleasant realities. The comprehensive nature of its defeat goes beyond the impact of Covid-19, and it would be repeating the error of 2017-2020 if it were to assume its defeat was all due to the pandemic and conclude that it now merely has to bide its time and wait for the electoral pendulum to swing and restore it to office. It is a far more deep-seated issue than that, and National’s future depends on its coming to grips with that.

Indeed, what is remarkable about National’s historic successes is the rather flimsy philosophical basis on which the party was established. It is more a tribute to good organisation, extraordinary pragmatism, and some remarkable personalities over a long period of time, rather than coherent core philosophy and principle that National has survived and been so successful.

National was formed in 1936 as a coming together of the old Reform and United parties, and was a marriage of convenience at the time, rather than a philosophical union. What drew them together was more their joint opposition to the Labour Party which had been elected to government in the 1935 landslide, than any common ground on policy.

Reform had been established in the early 20th century, primarily as the conservative response to Seddon’s Liberals, and United, which grew out of the Liberals, was focused on attracting moderates on both the left and right of the political spectrum, who were concerned at the time about the rise of what they saw as the socialist Labour Party. After the 1931 election, Reform and United came together to form an awkward coalition government, primarily to keep Labour out.  They failed manifestly to respond to the challenges of the Great Depression and were unceremoniously defeated in 1935. After that defeat, with just 19 seats between them in Parliament, both parties realised neither would ever defeat Labour by themselves, hence their coming together in 1936 as the National Party we know today.

However, in today’s environment, just being the anti-Labour Party will not be enough anymore. As the rise of ACT to National’s right has shown, voters are looking for something more specific, so National’s challenge, as it begins its review of its election drubbing, will be to spell out both a coherent philosophy and set of values about what the party actually stands for and then to develop and promote policies that give effect to those. Just being the anti-Labour party at a time when Labour’s stocks are at their highest in 80 years will not do it.

Rather, National needs to be looking to the lessons successful modern conservative parties elsewhere provide. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany, which has been in office since 1982 on a platform of liberal conservatism, is an obvious example. So too would be Britain’s Conservative Party under David Cameron (not its present leadership!). Cameron enunciated both social and economic liberalism, seeking to demonstrate sound economic policies, balanced by modern, liberal social policies.

National needs to realise, as Merkel and Cameron did, that modern conservative parties succeed when their policies, personalities and tone are in step with the aspirations of the mainstream of voters. This was the path National looked to be on under Sir John Key, but it seems to have wandered from that in recent years, leaving it looking directionless at present.

Labour’s election success demonstrated that it clearly and better understood where to pitch its message to maximise its political support. But with the newly re-elected government looking likely to become more incremental in its approach than the radical transformer it promised to be in 2017, there will be an increasing opportunity over the next few years for National to develop and spell out a coherent, modern liberal conservative alternative programme. If it fails to do so, it will not only remain out of office for a long time but find more and more of its ground on the right of the spectrum being eaten up by ACT.

Progressive elements seem few and far between in the National Caucus elected last weekend. The current Caucus has been left looking less like the face of contemporary New Zealand than any National Party Caucus in recent years, further compounding National’s problems. Yet without change and renewal it means the party that has dominated the New Zealand political landscape for most of the last 80 years will be set for a long and chilly time in the wilderness.


*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.

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46 Comments

Is anyone else here watching 'Borgen' on Netflix?

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No. But it is hard to go past National for entertainment.

They've been a classic case of an obsolete mantra, and when cornered they retreated further into the past. Brownlee and Smith being unable to go, is symptomatic of the problem, as is their default Leader.

Think National regarded themselves as the natural government, bit like the UK Tories, and just assumed the electorate agreed. It is interesting PD refers to personalities but Labour too has swept to power under such leadership. Kirk, Lange and Clark in her own way and now Adern who on personality virtually on its own, whipped power out from National’s feet. Often though time for a change is more the catalyst. When Key arrive Labour were looking rather dour and sour and it appeared that he had modernised National away from the old hat politics, but if he had it didn’t last long. National in its last term had become complacent,conceited,careless and through MMP they lost power. National then had a very large number of MPs to form a hard and effective opposition, but they didn’t. Instead they fought internal battles and provided MPs of dubious credentials who became embarrassments. National needs to look very hard at its selection criteria for candidates.

kerre mcivors opinion peace yesterday summons up gerry and nick's attitude to not moving aside to allow young fresh blood to come forth
I was talking to Chloe Swarbrick yesterday, and she said that if the day comes that she takes the job for granted, where she feels blasé about it, she will want to get out.
I think some of the National Party people need to do that to themselves – have a long, hard rule at the reasons why they are there.
That born to rule mandate that many of them feel they have just doesn’t exist anymore. If they haven't got the passion and they haven't got the fire and they have forgotten why they are there, then this is probably a good time to stay out or get out, and really rejuvenate the National Party.

Ah but the baubles of 'power'!

Series 3. Didn't she lose, after a valiant attempt at regaining power? It's years since I watched it, but the same holds true for today's local lot. Yesterdays policies should remain in yesterday...

The issue I see from National is that, through many years governing, they grew complacent. They didn't accept their defeat by labour. They see it as labour got lucky with Winston Peters. So instead of reevaluating what they haven't done enough, they just keep following the old way of doing things. No major policies changes, very little communication with its voters. They think they are the perfect party to grow our economy to a stage that they are over confident and ignored other major issues across New Zealand. If they don't realize this, there is no chance for them to win the coming elections.

Agreed. Interesting that the only major policy difference offered was income tax cuts to stimulate the economy. More or less implies that NZers really have had enough of neoliberalism and are looking for something new.

JC may have overplayed the confidence card on unknowns such as COVID-19 and economic recovery. A leader who implies 'nobody knows about this more than I do' in their responses is the last thing we want in tumultuous times like these.

I got really nervous with her insistence that a dedicated agency and pre-travel tests would make our borders airtight, ready for us to start bringing in tens of thousands of workers and students from overseas.
Also, during uncertain economic times, higher depreciation rates alone isn't going to bring business confidence back.
Cafe owners in Auckland expecting lower customer footfall won't buy another coffee machine or chiller just because they get to instantly write-off the entire purchase amount.

"with the newly re-elected government looking likely to become more incremental in its approach than the radical transformer it promised to be in 2017, there will be an increasing opportunity over the next few years for National"
And we think Labour doesn't see that?!
If Ardern has any chance at another 3 years and maybe another 18, then it has to be by following her instincts ; "Go Hard, Go Early!"

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I do hope National are successful in lifting their game. No country is better off by having a weak or dysfunctional opposition.

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Five easy steps back to power:

1) Our tax system is functionally still the same as it was in 2011. Fix this.
2) Our inflation targeting doesn't include asset price inflation when working out monetary policy. Fix this.
3) Our cities need infrastructure to enable large-scale development to bring down housing costs and enable supply. Get over the rural four lane highways megaprojects and focus your energy on urban megaprojects to unshackle Auckland and stop the rest of the country underwriting congestion and other deadweight losses - paying for the solutions are going to be cheaper than ongoing deadweight losses.
4) Winston is gone. Have the conversation about population settings and migration.
5) Here's the gamble: Student loans. Abate student loans by 10% of their total balance for every year that NZers stay here after completing studies and make their mandatory payments. It's not fees free but it's more than Labour is offering students. It's a hard sell for the right of the party but the path to power lies in the middle.

Certainly 4 ticks out of 5.
Story: The retiring head of Visy (a pratt of a man in his personal life) was asked "How did you become so rich"
Answer - "Look after your best customers and employees, best. Pay your debts on time and ALWAYS collect 100% of the debts owed to you"
The rational to the last bit being, that if your creditors realise they can 'get away' with non-payment of any sort, they will, and come back for more of the same next time.

Good ideas GV. Here is my list, in no particular order of priority.

1. Acknowledge there is a housing crisis and it is a massive handbreak on NZ's prosperity
2. Fix the housing crisis
3. Create incentives to direct investment into productive assets (away from housing), e.g. first $5k per year into KS is tax free
4. Decarbonize the economy - carrots (no GST on ev's) and sticks, hike ETS
5. Fix the housing crisis

My student loan proposal has always been like Kiwisaver: the borrower pays 6% and the government pays the other 6%. You could put a cap on this as "up to the average wage" to ensure that the relief is targeted at the low-end.

It acts like a 6% tax cut on income between ~$20k and ~$51k (average wage) and would certainly win votes.

Your 10% cut is much more generous, and thus probably unaffordable.

It's generous because you're going to need something to stop educated Kiwis leaving for better incomes and lifestyles. This is effectively writing off debt that isn't going to be repaid for years anyway, it would actually relatively little effect in the scheme of things, and would realise the benefits of people a) staying and b) having more disposable income from their pay cheques to spend sooner, rather than it being hoovered up for longer. Repayments kick in here at half the threshold they do in Australia and at a higher rate. They can make theirs work, so why can't we?

Don't recall much about "Have the conversation about population settings and migration." during the election campaign so why vote for them when Labour has an effective immigration policy for the moment called Covids. Both National and Labour will end up likley having very similar immigration policies.
Also not much about housing during the campaign unless i missed that. Of course there was the mantra on the RMA as if it is the silver bullet for housing.

Peter D has possibly just a slight rose tint to some of his comments here but a nice piece of history that is appreciated.

I wonder if Act really is far right these days, but has become what NZF used to be, a pragmatic centrist party trying to offer an alternative to both National and central Labour supporters. Certainly the Government opened the door to them when they over-reacted on the gun laws, while failing to acknowledge that the Christchurch shooting was essentially solely down to a Police failure to apply existing gun laws, and significant holes in those laws. And no one has been held accountable for that, Shocking!

But Peter is correct in the thread through this I think in that any party aspiring to Government in this country must understand that sooner or later they must prostrate themselves before the altar of the voting public and plead their case. It is called democracy, and any party out of touch with those public sentiments through out its term may well find that altar to be the base of their execution.

I read the royal commission inquiry into the mosque attack is due to report its findings in the next month. Surely then some accountability for him obtaining a gun licence?.

ACT is libertarian - the philosophy that you should be able to do anything you like so long as it doesn't hurt others. So far, so very socially liberal. Where people confuse Libertartian with being right wing is in economics. ACT thinks people can look after themselves if the government gets out of the way. Maybe, but only if things are set up so that the rich don't exploit the poor.

The right wing comes into it when they are really looking after peoples' freedom to exploit others.

The rich have to exploit the poor - who else can they exploit?

Being sponsored by wealthy individuals like the Gibbs and wanting to lower the minimum wage is not libertarian.

If you think Act is a pragmatic centrist party, you need your eyes checked.

Why do you think they are not? Seymour himself has said that is their aim.

They plan to massively cut taxes and balance the books. That obviously involves some huge cuts to spending. They can't do it by efficiencies; they would have to make cuts to public services and/or benefits or move to pay per use / privatisation.
The centre is where people feel that the mix of government services and tax levels is about right; Act are a mile away from that.

Yes there are problems with some of their policies. They have been off in the woods for so long some things still escape them, but i still see them trying to sit somewhere in the middle. With the team they now have, I am very interested to see how their policy positions develop.

Left parties have moved towards right and now to be relevant right party too will have to tilt towards left.

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If you read some comments on their facebook page, it seems that there are a core of anti-Labour voters, who are convinced that Labour's slightly different flavour of Neoliberalism is absolute communism. As the article points out though, the further you divorce yourself from reality, the less voters are willing to follow you.

you get two sides of the same coin if you read the comments on kiwiblog and then the standard. both sides are very one eyed.
i was listening to the radio and there was a guy whom worked for the electoral commission whom said under FFP the core right vote was always around 40% now under MMP its around 30% and the core left (35%) had a difference of 5%, so now you have 15% + that align themselves with the middle more and can go back and forth.
so the key is to capture the middle to govern

This is what I find quite disturbing.

Form a party based on your beliefs. But if can't capture enough voters with your beliefs and ideals to govern, then re-write your vision.

Not sure that sort of behaviour is the best outcome for us all. If you have to misrepresent your core beliefs just to get the top job, then you aren't going to do it justice, surely?

Why can your beliefs not change though?

I am not sure that a vision of NZ 80 years ago will really resonate with anyone really today.

You are more or less quoting Groucho Marx, something like - you will enjoy doing business with me because I have principles, and should you not like those, well then I have others.

You're probably right. In my experience people swear off National on the basis of some perceived right-wing policy implemented in the past (but are obviously willing to look past Rogernomics).

That goes both ways: I've heard a log of people tell me they won't vote Labour because they wanted to tell them what light bulbs they can have many years ago. (personally I thought that was a great policy - we all moved away from incandescent anyway, why not speed it up. but wasn't it actually sue bradford, green party, anyway?).

National won't succeed until they find a way to fix the division between the wings of their party.
There's the hardline/anti-Labour/'PC gone mad'/Christian fundamentalist wing who honestly thought JC could save them (I guess she had the right initials?) even though she's obviously off-putting to the majority of voters. Then there's the softer Kaye wing, who are more in touch with majority sentiment but will struggle to justify the existence of their party with a popular and very centrist Labour gov't in power. It's not a new dynamic, Labour has been in the equivalent position before (Cunliffe years).
There's also the whole lack-of-policy problem. People sense that things are changing, that we need a proactive gov't, but National's policies never change. Tax cuts for the upper-middle-class, cut benefits, build roads, juice GDP with migration -- there's a sense that a National bot somewhere will be pushing the same policies a million years hence, when the Earth is a molten ball of uranium and humanity ekes out a living on outer Betelgeuse.

See how the mighty are fallen. National have fallen prey to a disease that has affected many businesses throughout New Zealand history, unsubstantiated boosterism, starting with the New Zealand Company in 1840. National’s claim to be superior economic managers has always been a gross exaggeration, and not necessarily borne out by objective historical scrutiny. Part of their culture review should include a dismantling of the “born to rule” mentality, so much at odds with traditional NZ egalitarianism. So should an examination of their amoral temptation towards sleazy or dirty politicking using outsourced shysters like Whaleoil. If they are to rejuvenate, compassionate conservatism should not be just shallow slogan, but needs to encompass the economic interests of ordinary people, and not just business and farming elites.

I think Jacinda is the perfect PM. It seems like most of the media agree with me. https://mediabias.co.nz/home

That site's methodology is completely cooked. They assume that every politician should get equally favourable coverage regardless of what they actually *do* or *say*. Anyone describing reality will be "biased" on their metrics. A week of articles describing National's election result as 'disastrous' or 'terrible' will see those publications measured as leaning hard Left, even though that is an unbiased appraisal of the situation. Useless.

Yes it would be hard to find something positive to say about the right wing at the moment even if you did lean that way. Peter Dunne has written god knows how many pro National party pieces for interest.co.nz, even he has given up...

i say the methodology is wrong newstalk zb a labour leaning media LOL, thats a joke, every time a host talks or writes about them its about how bad they are, so is it measured off the number of articles not the content, and to make sure they twist the knife you have hosking, hawkesby and co reprinting all those pieces in the herald .
when you have hosking and hawkesby openly saying they support national and hawkesby has a 25% market share that is huge help. i always give kudos to s nash for his weekly slot with hosking and m mitchell as its always 2 against one but he gives back as good as he gets and he this week has not gone over board on the win.

I'm not sure I would consider the last 25 elections as "Recent Times"! You could argue that Labour has won 5 of the last 8 for example.

I think Peter has hit the nail on the head. Since John and Bill left the National party have become more socially conservative; anti urban, anti gay, anti drugs, anti cycling, anti public transport, pro church, etc. They falsely claim to be economically conservative just by offering tax cuts with no corresponding cuts to spending other than cutting super fund payments. They could have a much bigger voter base if they just stuck to being the economically conservative party and dropped the socially conservative part.

1) ACT has boxed itself into a corner by joining with the gun lobby. Many that might have voted for them on other policy grounds alone will be put off. They simply represent a long tail to the right.

2) The centre on politics is moving left. National will need to go with it. They had already started with Key & English and the wellbeing approach. Politicians that want the centre where most of the vote is need to show their policies improve net total welfare (wellbeing) for all New Zealanders.

There was I thinking it was a celebrity contest. Seriously, though, John Key versus Andrew Little, no contest, despite Andrew being a good bloke. Jacinda against Bill English, no contest, despite Bill being a good bloke. Them social skills are valuable.

I'm one of those many many previous Nat voters, felt exactly like the article stated.. Since JK era Nat only beautiful on lip service, but in real practicality? they just favoring certain segment of society, and what they forgot is the wider society that makes this country. Albeit with all of their deficits, it is difficult to be a 'just' ruler and as most of NZ govt the past 20-30yrs showed by history let's hope the next 6yrs under Lab, things can turn for the better (remember? that in order to walk forward, NZ tend to do 9yrs with left foot, before another 9yrs right foot etc.)