Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: Wow factor missing from the conference of bright ideas

Bill English. Photo / Richard Robinson
Bill English. Photo / Richard Robinson

Conference 2013 was meant to be the conference of good ideas, according to the National Party's Bill English and Steven Joyce last week.

It wasn't going to be saturated with tight party messaging with no room for spontaneity or creativity. That will be next year's prescription, being an election year. This was to be the conference where delegates came up with fresh ideas to wow the electorate and create the momentum for a third term.

Party president Peter Goodfellow wants members to change their wills to make bequests to the National Foundation, the party's new investment vehicle. The wealthy businessman will do so, as will leader John Key, but both are thought to give fairly handsomely already.

One of the best ideas for electorate fundraising was Waitakere's Paula Bennett coffee mug with the "Zip it Sweetie" logo, the famous quip to her Labour shadow, Jacinda Ardern.

Another good idea was to hold the conference in Nelson, the first time in the party's 77-year history. The boost 600 delegates give a regional city over a weekend is huge.

Even the community activists appeared to welcome having a solid target for their frustrations, and they gathered in force on Saturday.

Nick Smith suggested a Government had not been in such good shape five years in since the Holyoake years. Sir Robert Muldoon had been contending with Derek Quigley and the Springbok tour, David Lange was at war with his Finance Minister Roger Douglas, Jim Bolger had fallen out with his Finance Minister Ruth Richardson and 11 members of caucus had changed parties. And under Helen Clark the foreshore and seabed issue had split the country and one of her MPs had left to form the Maori Party. All unhappy times.

His point was well made. Despite some failures of political management, most recently over the GCSB spy legislation, the National Party is travelling well in its fifth year in government.

And the conference was full of self-congratulation, with ministers dominating every session to spell out what they had done.

There were certainly no new ideas in ministers' speeches. They operate under the strict understanding that they are not to say anything that might detract from the prime minister's speech and coverage.

Grumblings about possible changes to snapper bag limits were restricted to the last few minutes of a workshop.

Only nine policy remits were debated by rank-and-file members. At least National's remit debates were open to the media, unlike the Green Party, who would rather hold debates on democratic reforms and other such policy in closed sessions.

The Young Nationals got unanimous support for the Government to pick up Jami-Lee Ross' private member's bill that would allow employers to hire casual labour during strikes, but that was about an existing idea. Trade Minister Tim Groser had very strong views on modesty - more precisely why he thinks businesses need a few lessons on modesty in dealing with overseas clients.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson played a YouTube clip of a top-quality, 30-storey hotel in China being built in 15 days. (He said he'd like to post a video of the BNZ Wellington building: 15 storeys in 30 years.)

The biggest idea was when the prime minister told the Nelson magazine Wild Tomato that if there was any policy he could change overnight, it would be to change the New Zealand flag to the silver fern.

He was happy to talk about Fonterra, even the GCSB through gritted teeth. But he did not want the flag story to fly when the media seized on it.

Conference 2013 did not get green shoots from the party's grassroots. Maybe Messrs English and Joyce just thought it sounded like a good idea.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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