National's annual conference starting today is doomed to be a success because organisers do whatever it takes to ensure party conferences always are.
The exceptions become political folklore, such as the National and Labour fiascos in 2003 and 2012, sabotaged by Maurice Williamson and David Cunliffe respectively.
This weekend, leadership contenders Judith Collins and Todd Muller will be on their best behaviour. Simon Bridges will be given free rein to present himself with the usual slick corporate video and keynote speech on which his advisers will have been working for months. There will be a couple of policy announcements, one to delight the base and another to attract the median voter.
But no one will be deluded into thinking any but a small minority of delegates genuinely support Bridges. Beyond those in the Christchurch Town Hall, party donors have shut their wallets and the attitude of National's wider supporters is recorded with at least some accuracy by the polling companies.
Of National voters, only one in eight is loyal enough to tell pollsters they want Bridges to be Prime Minister.
National is walking towards a defeat every bit as devastating as Bill English's in 2002.
Optimists tell themselves that National can be content as long as it sits around 40 per cent in the polls. As long as the economy declines and strategist Paula Bennett organises a good campaign, National can bring another 5 per cent over the centre line and get ahead of Labour. As long as the Greens and NZ First then fall below 5 per cent, Bridges will become Prime Minister.
In fact, National is probably not above 40 per cent any longer, with at least two prominent polling companies putting it at more like 38, with Act adding another 1 per cent to the Opposition tally.
Bridges' loyalists may convince more guileless delegates that these are good numbers but they ignore the consolidation of the centre-right vote achieved by Don Brash and John Key.
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In what is generally regarded as National's absolute nadir in 2002, when it won just 21 per cent, Act and United Future came in with 7 per cent each for a broad centre-right score of 35 per cent, not much less than now under Bridges.
Add in the 1 per cent that went to each of the Christian Heritage and Outdoor Recreation parties and the actual situation for the centre-right is already pretty much as bad as that night in 2002 when the party was reduced to tears.
Worse, regardless of what decision Bridges eventually makes with respect to a possible coalition with NZ First, Winston Peters is set to make a pitch to National voters that a vote for his crew is necessary to check the Greens in a second-term Ardern regime. If the polls stay anywhere near where they are now, there will be an indisputable logic to what the old man claims.
Bridges has convinced himself that Scott Morrison's unexpected victory over Labor's Bill Shorten is a model for his own path to power — thus his increasingly shrill tone on Labour's new imposts and opposition to measures to combat climate change.
But those closely involved with Morrison's win say very few lessons can be taken from Australia. Its preferential voting electoral system is closer to our old first past the post, so that Morrison was able to ignore potential Liberal voters in safe seats and focus on those in marginals, especially but not exclusively in Queensland.
The Liberals can gain from winning a vote in a marginal in Queensland even at the expense of losing two in a safe Labor seat in Victoria. In New Zealand, where the party vote is all that counts, such calculations don't apply.
Moreover, New Zealand is closer politically to New South Wales than Queensland. Emulating Morrison's messages to win over undecided Queenslanders is not a path to power here.
If there is a lesson from Australia, it is that even a shambles of a Government can defeat an Opposition led by a deeply unpopular and unappealing leader like Shorten.
Through the Australian campaign, Morrison sat around 40 per cent as preferred Prime Minister and Shorten in the high twenties. The gap between Jacinda Ardern and Bridges is four times as great.
Even crueller, Bridges' unfavourability ratings are at levels seldom seen by pollsters.
Those conducting focus groups say it is difficult to even get a conversation going on the possibility of him being Prime Minister, so improbable do voters consider the idea.
Sadly for him, voters simply won't take seriously anything Bridges has to say, so National has no effective means of communicating policy to the public, even if it had any.
The Ardern Government is the emptiest and most incompetent in living memory, and confronted with even a moderately appealing Opposition should be laughed out of office after a single term.
Nearly two years since its formation, we have learned this week that it has no idea how to allocate even the one popular part of its Budget, its $1.9 billion for mental health.
That its constituent parties sit at around 60 per cent in the polls, 20 points ahead of the Opposition, is an indictment on all those whose job it is to hold power to account.
As long as they keep their jobs, National MPs may not care if they sleepwalk to a 2002-style debacle but they will be condemning New Zealand to another three years of policy drift and meaningless prime ministerial twaddle. Could things really get worse under new management, whether Collins, Muller or even Nikki Kaye?
- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.