WikiLeaks cable: National's 2004 annual conference

July 12, 2004
National Party's annual conference

1. (C) Summary: New Zealand's largest opposition party,
National, held an up-beat, almost giddy, Annual Conference
July 9-11. Polling slightly ahead of the ruling Labour
government, conference delegates expressed confidence in
winning the 2005 election. In contrast to the festive
atmosphere, Nat Party leader Brash - a former Reserve Bank
chief - cautioned conference delegates to avoid complacency.
The National Conference studiously avoided any public
discussion of NZ's anti-nuclear legislation; foreign policy
and defense issues did not appear on the formal agenda.
While National's standing in the polls (around 42 percent)
has resulted in increased membership and a growing belief in
the possibility of a 2005 win, National's leadership remains
nervous. End summary.

Cohesion, Stability, Policy
---------------------------

2. (C) New Zealand's largest opposition parliamentary party,
National, held its Annual Conference in Auckland July 9-11.
In sharp contrast to the 2003 conference (ref C), when
National was polling at half of this year's level, the
conference was attended by almost 600 enthusiastic delegates,
who expressed confidence in winning the 2005 election. A
rock'n'roll version of the National Anthem, a rousing speech
by controversial Auckland Mayor John Banks (a former National
Party Minister), and a taped video appearance by Australian
Prime Minister John Howard reflected this optimism.


Pragmatically, the true focus of the agenda was on explaining
the candidate selection process, policy development and
campaign planning. The agenda was carefully designed to
display the Party cohesion -- which had been missing in the
aftermath of the Nat's disastrous 2002 election. The
conference highlighted National's core policies and served as
a showcase for up-and-coming talent from the pool of current
MPs. Associate Finance Minister John Key and Welfare
Spokeswoman Katherine Rich were standouts, delivering strong
speeches despite their relative newness to politics.
Opposition leader Don Brash was in high demand, managing to
appear not only at the speeches, but at coffees and
breakfasts, eagerly searching out recommendations for ways to
broaden the Party's appeal.

Caution ) Danger Ahead
----------------------

3. (C) In contrast to the festive atmosphere, the personally
somber Brash - a former Reserve Bank head - delivered a "very
sobering message," asking delegates to work doubly hard to
avoid &looking back on a scrap-book of temporary polling
successes.8 A Conference theme admonished Nat leaders to
resist the urge to gloat and to focus on the rough campaign
ahead. National is polling in the mid-40 percent range -
roughly parallel to the Labour Government. Internal party
polls show that policy issues yet to be raised by Don Brash
in the lead up to 2005 elections (welfare, education, and
economic development) were unlikely to give the Nats the kind
of broad popular boost in the polls that followed Brash's
recent speech on race on race relations (ref b). In a shift
from the policies pursued in the 2002 election, where
National tried to appeal to center-left voters, the
Conference hammered home the catchphrases of the center-right
) all major policy speeches emphasized the importance of
personal responsibility, the paramount importance of the
nuclear family and the necessity of tax cuts and support for
employers.

Don't Rock the (Nuclear) Boat
-----------------------------

4. (C) The National Conference studiously avoided any public
discussion of NZ's anti-nuclear legislation; foreign policy
and defense issues did not appear on the formal agenda. In a
closed session on Party polling, Nat Party leaders pointed to
a serious dip in public support for National's defense policy
following the release of an internal party report (Creech
Commission report) that recommended changing NZ's
anti-nuclear legislation. The polls rose following Brash's
announcement (ref A) that any changes to the legislation
would be taken to a referendum after the 2005 election. A
breakfast meeting billed as a discussion of the Creech
Commission report was instead a broad discussion of reforms
needed to improve the New Zealand Defence Force. Nat Party
staffers noted that the speaker had been asked to pull back
from the nuke issue in fear that it could overshadow media
coverage of the Conference.

Comment
-------

5. (C) National's rise in the polls from the 20s to the 40s
has resulted in increased membership and a growing belief
within the party that they just might win in 2005. However,
National's leadership remains nervous, wary that a single
misstep or misread of public support could plunge the party
back into the doldrums. National's surge in the polls is
largely due to Don Brash and his reputation as a political
outsider. Equally, National's caucus is largely
inexperienced and its candidate talent pool is not very deep.
Still, National under Don Brash has transformed itself - at
least for now - into a viable contender.
Swindells

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