Ruth Berry: Moves to the centre aim for a share of sunshine

It may not be on a par with the "sunshine" message delivered by Britain's Tory leader David Cameron as he urged a significant step to the centre, but National's new environment plan does signal some parallels.

Released yesterday by Don Brash and Nick Smith, the discussion document concedes carbon dioxide and methane emissions risk destabilising the global climate, abandoning the leader's previously sceptical stance on the science.

As Labour continues to struggle over a way forward on climate change, Smith, with the help of well-credentialled conservationist Guy Salmon, has put a stake in the ground by proposing the graduated introduction of a tradeable emissions permit system.

Dedicated environmentalists will point out it won't save the planet, but it's a statement National wants to be a more serious player in the debate. There are obvious reasons for doing so.

Earlier this year when outlining a "bluegreen vision", Smith pointed party members to polling which indicated the Greens - who poll best in urban liberal areas - held the softest votes, followed by New Zealand First and Labour.

Preserving the country's quality of life was rated as the issue most likely to encourage voters to switch parties.

The Greens scraped into Parliament with just over 5 per cent in the last two elections and if National could seize just a small portion of their votes it could yet wipe out the party, tilting the parliamentary balance in favour of the centre-right, he noted.

This is unlikely given the Green's current polling, but if international trends are reflected here, the environment is becoming a bigger voter issue.

The Tories, like National suffering three consecutive election defeats, are being controversially instructed by Cameron to believe they can win - "Let sunshine win the day" - and to capture the centre ground.

At this week's conference, Cameron, who has already made his green-friendly pitch, repositioned the party as the defender of the national health system, apologised for a history of demonising public servants and criticised those who want him to "bang on" about tax cuts.

It has angered some Conservative stalwarts, raising questions about whether Cameron can take the party with him.

National's John Key has been at the Tory conference all week, no doubt ruminating on the implications of it all for National.

While National MPs are not suggesting Cameron-scale proclamations, most front-benchers, including Key and a substantial number of the new MPs, want a more centrist approach to policy.

The environment paper is the first significant policy document since the election and reveals Brash and other caucus hard-liners on the issue have backed down.

The question is how far is Brash willing to go?

Unlike the Tories, the tensions in National will be not so much over whether the leader can take grassroots members with him, but whether the caucus can take the leader and to a lesser degree the party with them.

Brash locked in the hard right vote last election, which importantly neither he nor the party wants to alienate.

But as the moderates argue, the demise of Act lessens that risk considerably and the centre must become the new breeding ground.

Some shifts will be about tone and emphasis rather than policy changes, or involve sending signals on one-off issues.

Some caucus members are for example now pushing for the right to a conscience vote on Sue Bradford's bill repealing Section 59 of the Crimes Act, keen to vote for it if floated amendments materialise.

Less controversially the party will develop a much more comprehensive arts and culture policy in another bid to boost urban liberal support.

Brash has marked health alongside the environment as another policy area National needs to expand on, but Labour spending commitments will constrain it further than before the next election, creating difficulties.

The party has privately resolved it now can't afford, politically, to roll back Labour's much vaunted primary health strategy, which will see cheaper doctors visits embedded in PHOs nationwide by next year - a policy change.

Key health policy announcements will be parked for some time, while hard-hitter Tony Ryall is charged with eroding confidence in Labour's management of the system and the focus is placed on countering Labour attacks that a National government would slash health and other public sector spending.

Brash's tax speech yesterday was another attempt to dampen expectations of big tax cuts, but its new significance was the emphasis on National's support for "strong public institutions".

This theme will be developed.

Treaty issues will remain a litmus test for Brash.

His blood quantum references to Maori have caused disquiet and not simply because they once again diverted attention from Labour's woes.

Deputy leader Gerry Brownlee - who does not speak of "one law for all", but more subtly says "New Zealanders should all be treated equally by the law" - is working on a constitutional discussion document seeking a less divisive approach to Maori issues.

It aims to address National's inconsistent stand on Maori rights and targeted policies and to recognise its need to respond to the browning of voters.

Brash's foot-in-mouth inability to demonstrate he understands the complexity and nuances involved in these issues and apparent refusal to change presents an obstacle to that repositioning.

His simplistic references to Maori taking responsibility for lung cancer rates, for example, ignores recent work suggesting Maori cancer patients face discrimination - negative, not positive - in the way the system treats them.

Then there is the fact he made them in the context of refuting the need for "separate" Maori policies and programmes - yet targeted Maori smokefree programmes appear to more effectively reduce Maori smoking rates.

National moderates worry that if he continues to ignite hostility it has the real potential to prevent National forming a government - by discouraging centre voters and upsetting potential coalition partners.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia has distanced herself from Brash - but pointedly not the National Party - as a result of his recent comments, which have also outraged the Green Party.

The Greens' relationship with Labour is at a low after it refused to support its election spending stance and its membership is engaged in a formal discussion process which involves it reconsidering its anti-National stance.

Smith's environment paper may yet give those Greens advocating a repositioning further ballast, but Brand Brash remains a problem.

If he remains the leader until the election, there is a prospect of smaller parties trying to depose him as the price of helping National forming a government.

Even MPs who agree with Brash on Treaty issues - or who believed his stance was necessary to recover core National votes - believe the public, partly because of the Labour Treaty retreat, is now less reactive on this front and the prospect of another Orewa souffle rising is unlikely.

National moderates might instead consider something akin to Cameron's new "social responsibility" pitch - which he distinguishes from Labour's "state responsibility" - a concept on which Maori and National have in fact long held common ground. Isn't that what self-determination is about?

Cameron tied the phrase to his sunshine line, as much about optimism in the public - "trusting people to do the right thing" - as the party's ability to win.

National, not to mention Maori, could also do with a dose of that.

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