Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:
Ruth Richardson was not my favourite politician. But to be fair, she stood for something. Once she'd gone, greyness descended over much of Jim Bolger's ministry. Philosophical schizophrenia was best handled by doing little. Despite Jenny Shipley's more vigorous interlude, modern National still confronts this ideological illness. It believes in free enterprise and growth, but passed many conflicting messages before last week's tax package. There's a raft of private initiatives in health, education and welfare that could provide humane choices for people, supplement the public system, lift burdens off taxpayers, and stimulate growth. Some options such as a clearly-focused review of public school syllabuses and teaching standards could enthuse many anxious parents, and cost little. But Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith and Murray McCully contrive to sound as though they are either attacking this Labour-led government from the left, or want simply to catch it preaching one thing, while doing another. Since the latter happens so often, it's no novelty to hear about it. Extra spending isn't what this country needs, and smart-alecky tactics hold little appeal.
Elsewhere in the world, conservatives have done best in modern times when identified with a clear brand. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl enjoyed long spells in office by aggressively putting top of their agendas growth, and the policies to ensure it. Lesser lights like John Howard and Canada's Jean Chretien have turned their predictable styles into vote winners. They have reduced debt, reformed welfare, and promoted enduring family values. Bumbling around with a sop here, and a concession there, never works, as Labour found with Bill Rowling between 1975-83.
Yes, Helen Clark is a formidable foe. A superb political trapeze artist, she bemuses her opponents. But her government is exposed on many fronts. It likes the poor so much its policies create more of them. It is ridiculously politically correct and makes bad appointments. Such silliness would be gleefully exploited by red-blooded conservatives elsewhere. While it's true that some cloyingly sycophantic journalists give Labour an armchair ride, that would change in a trice if National stopped being a "me too" party. Despite some recent stumbles by Labour, it looks as though another defeat must occur before National sets any credible agenda for the Twenty-first century.
Know who wrote that? Ex Sunday Star Times commentator Dr Michael Bassett, and what is most depressing, he wrote this around the 17th April 2002. Before Don Brash took National's helm in October 2003. Before Don Brash was Bill English, who led National to it's worst election defeat (21%) a few weeks after that column. Dr Bassett had this to say after the 2002 election...
The attempts by Bill English and his "brat pack" to refill the ranks by preaching family values and an alternative version of Labour's message would be a tough task under any electoral system; under MMP it was a suicide note. Any National leader will always be a less convincing centraliser than someone like Helen Clark, to whom it comes naturally. Labour gets away with its policies because its voters are less economically literate than National's, and equate state spending with growth. But big government is a less convincing creed to National's target group. They are marginally better educated on average, and certainly more entrepreneurial. When they hear Bill English preaching more spending on education and health as he did throughout this campaign, they instinctively clutch their wallets, knowing they'll have to put more in the collection plate.
In effect, National's failure to brand itself with something exclusively theirs led voters to seek alternatives. Why did English persist in sounding like a down-market Labourite throughout the campaign? Why, when he had the nation's eyes upon him during the televised leaders' debates, did he choose meaningless slogans over substance? In last Thursday's final debate, the former Treasurer was given a golden opportunity to outline the steps he would take to arrest our economic slowdown. He dodged the gift question and began talking about air points! Words flowed out of him. Most added up to nothing: "The best way to predict the future is to make it happen!"; "Stand up for what you believe in!"; "We are ambitious for New Zealand!" etc etc. When the time available to press home one's policies is so limited, a leader must produce memorable sound bites. Sadly, there is nothing of the revivalist orator about Bill English. It was Bill Rowling, not Robert Muldoon who sprang to my mind as I watched him.
But we shouldn't just blame the pastor. The sermon produced by him, his "brat pack", and Michelle Boag, was confused and weak on detail. They conspicuously failed to exploit the opportunities given them by Labour's political correctness. For instance, why hadn't they read Martin Hames's The Crisis in New Zealand Schools? Hames doesn't confine himself to the sorry political saga of the PPTA and its egregious leadership. He convincingly argues that teachers and ministry policy makers are corks bobbing in a see of pink fluff and politically correct agendas. Standards are falling and teachers have become increasingly undervalued. They in turn through their actions give the whole public educational sector a bad name. Public confidence spirals downwards, and parents turn to private schools in desperation. Crusading for higher educational standards, even if this implied some criticism of National's past stewardship, would surely attract more voters than unspecific prattle in "support" of parents and students, and empty promises to "get alongside" them.
In this campaign National passed up opportunities to reposition itself in line with the party's core principles. On health and welfare, as well as Treaty issues, they should have been more forthright. And surely the extra burdens placed on the productive sector by Labour were ripe for exploitation? It is a fact that economic growth could have been at least 1% higher in each of the last three years had competition within ACC been retained, and excess compliance costs tackled. National could graphically have shown what that extra growth meant for families, but which had been stolen by the left's social engineers. In the end, when past supporters peeped in National's church door during this campaign, there was nothing to entice them further except empty words and even emptier pews.
This caused the second stage in National's disintegration. With the Greens having identified themselves as the right's Public Enemy Number One, something akin to panic seized many past and current National supporters. They didn't have to hear out Bill English's dirge. Instead they set off down the street checking out the political peep shows that MMP provides. There they ogled Peters, Prebble and Dunne. Shop worn each might be, but at least their messages were clear, and none was clearly of the left. Peters in particular has an irresistible appeal to elderly ladies, Dunne to those earnestly seeking a steady, reliable restraining force on a left wing government whose experiments they feared might get out of control. Once it was clear that National and ACT together couldn't form the next government, the same fear that had led to National's creation in 1936 produced its 2002 collapse.
This is crisis time for the Nats. Before they can attract back their lost congregation they will have to define their niche within MMP, and sharpen the message. Make no mistake, there is a place in the market for policies based on National's core free-enterprise principles. Moreover, there are enough bewildered voters milling around to respond to solid leadership and credible policies. This is a conservative country not given to socialist experimentation, and voters will always be on the lookout for a steady, reliable political vehicle. Why else Peter Dunne? Either National engages in very tough soul searching and puts everything up for discussion, including the leadership, or it will end up like the old Liberal Party which finally gave up the ghost in the 1930s, its last few parishioners straggling across to National in 1936. Saturday night was either a new beginning, or the beginning of National's terminal phase.
Does anyone else find it the most depressing and tragic thing for New Zealand politics that in between then and now National managed to effectively halt that "terminal phase" with a three year course of Brashidation bringing them back to 49% in the polls, and now they have gone back to English (albeit as second to Key) and those words written five years ago are still relevant.