COMMENT

New leader, new forward-focus, all the policies under review, National is getting itself fit for purpose in 2020. The slogan says it all: new team. new ideas. new zealand.

No, wait. National has perfectly good policies and if the election hadn't been stolen by that fool Winston Peters, it would still be in power. Where it belongs. As everybody knows.

Both views had plenty of believers at the National Party Conference over the weekend.

Advertisement

The first line is the official line and environment spokesperson Scott Simpson was its exemplar. He revealed party leader Simon Bridges has asked him to "run the ruler" over all policy areas, education, health, everything, to measure them against environmental goals.

Definitely some new thinking there. Amy Adams, Nikki Kaye and others produced more of it.

Then there were the look-backers. Former Aussie PM John Howard was their guy, warming them up by calling the 2017 election result "unjust" and "unfair", and MMP "crook".

He spoke to Old Zealand and got a lot of applause. If the party was looking for someone to inspire them with their future prospects, it could not have chosen worse.

Is Bridges new or old? He called Howard "my hero, my absolute hero". But when asked later if he supported Howard's views on MMP, he harrumphed and said no.

What about his denial there had ever been genocide of Aborigines? More harrumphing.

Jami-Lee Ross was also looking backwards. He presented the party record on transport as if there was no need to rethink any of their old policies. We'll scrap the Government's plans and go right back to ours, he said.

The thing is, after decades of neglect, from both National and Labour, transport is in crisis. So a return to the policies that created the crisis will get us out of it?

Judith Collins was much the same on housing, but with a string of supercilious jokes all aimed at minister Phil Twyford. She seems unnaturally obsessed with him.

Did she think jokes were votes?

"Oh," she said later, "but they are."

Climate change spokesperson Todd Muller suffered from what he later called "telling the audience what they needed to hear". His main message was not that the whole country, including the farming sector, has to rethink its approach to the environment. That would be too forward thinking.

Instead, he said farming, especially dairy, is already doing the right things and we should not try to lead our trading partners on climate change. The old John Key line.

Paula Bennett made the most surprising speech. She used to be the life and soul of these conferences but this time she seemed utterly sad.

Of course she made the requisite adulation about the new leader, but she sighed and sighed, her voice inflected down, she sounded close to tears. She ended with a shrug and did not use all her allocated time.

And then it was Bridges' turn. His first big party speech, the moment he would put his stamp on the party. He didn't do it, instead producing a stock speech that any party leader since Jim Bolger might have made.

Maybe that was the point. The world is changing, but don't worry, the National Party is not going to upset you with surprises.

Even his big announcement – support for smaller class sizes – was equivocal. Asked afterwards what it meant, he said the current Government's plan to have 1500 more teachers over five years was "roughly the right ballpark".

So did that mean the Government is already doing what he'd like to see done? He fudged the answer.

He did wear an orange tie. That was different.