The 17th President of the National Party

By Audrey Young

Outgoing president Judy Kirk. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Outgoing president Judy Kirk. File photo / Mark Mitchell

Judy Kirk has left a letter on her desk in Wellington for whomever will replace her as National Party president this weekend at the conference in Christchurch.

The letter addressed to "The 17th President of the National Party" offers her successor her full support and some private advice.

She won't divulge the contents but if it reflects her own record, it probably tells them to stay out of politics, actively support the parliamentary wing, encourage members, and don't forget to push the party vote.

Unlike Labour's former high profile president Mike Williams or her predecessor Michelle Boag, Judy Kirk has been hard to get a headline from. She kept her promise to be a "backroom" president when she took over in 2002.

Whoever it is, hers will be a hard act to follow, not because she is regarded as an organisational or campaign supremo but because the party has been so successful under her watch with the notable exception of June's Mt Albert byelection fiasco.

Some say that the success in her time has been despite her, not because of her.

Certainly Steven Joyce who promoted straight to cabinet after his election last year is credited with working closely with Judy Kirk in rebuilding the party from 2002.

But results speak.

As she puts it: "I came in at the worst time and I leave at the best."

From the ruins of the 2002 election result (20.93 per cent), the party was radically restructured, morale and membership grew under Don Brash, and after narrowly missing out on gaining power in 2005, it won in 2008 under John Key's leadership.

Judy Kirk's personal success has echoes of Paula Bennett - the former solo mother who is now the cabinet minister responsible for welfare.

As a solo mother of three children in the early 1980s, Taupo-based Judy Kirk visited her local MP at the time, Roger McClay, because she had been turned down for a Housing Corporation loan to buy a house.

She felt she met and criteria and had been unfairly denied it. Mr McClay intervened and she got her loan.

"He made a difference and it affected me," she said. "That sort of hooked me."

She went on to work as an electorate agent for Mr McClay and later MP Georgina te Heuheu in Taupo as well as becoming more involved in the party.

Judy Kirk has been a president "of the party," steeped in party culture, and engaging with the backroom volunteers. That probably enabled the work of important recent players who were not of the party: Mr Joyce in reforming the organisation and leaders Dr Brash and Mr Key.

Of her achievements as president, Judy Kirk rates the most significant as establishing a candidates college to encourage quality candidates, improving relations between the party and parliamentary wings, increasing membership (thought to be about 30,000) and establishing relationships beyond the party.

On Tuesday, the National caucus presented her with a Royal Doulton vase and a silk scarf.

All is not completely rosy within the party, however. There remains disgruntlement that the restructure in 2003 omitted regional representatives from the ruling board of directors and that it removed the right of members to elect the president was removed.

That election is now conducted by the board of directors - which comprises seven elected members and two caucus reps - John Key and Nathan Guy.

The issue threatened to spill over to this weekend's "victory" conference.

But Judy Kirk helped to defuse it at regional conferences and any further unhappiness about it will be on the plate of the new president.

Presidential contenders
There is no logical successor to Judy Kirk and the way National selects its president means it is two-part process. The president must come from the board of directors of nine. As well as vacancies through retirement, vacancies are rotated. This afternoon five vacancies on the board will be filled from eight nominees. The new board will elect the president tonight or tomorrow morning.

Wira Gardiner
Former National Party Maori vice-president and candidate. A proven leader in the military and the public service. Became a trouble-shooter for Labour and was awarded a top honour by them (now Sir Harawira). Became a dormant member after Don Brash's Orewa speech. The private favourite of some senior ministers but potential conflicts in being married to MP, high-flying first-termer Hekia Parata, could count against him.

Could be a case of arise and arise.

Scott Simpson
Long established player in Auckland region and steeped in the party. Former regional chair and up for re-election to the board but with three nominees from Auckland, including present regional chair Alastair Bell, and one sitting member from Auckland, it is not a cinch he will be re-elected. But has been around so long he has a few enemies.

Peter Goodfellow
Has passed first base because is already on the board and is not up for re-election. Wealthy Auckland businessman. Has attracted less factionalism in the contest than Gardiner and Simpson and could come through the middle as a compromise candidate.

Roger Bridge
May make a late run as the only South Island contender, depending on who is elected on Saturday. Is already on the board and is chairman of Canterbury Westland region. The rank outsider.

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