COMMENT:

It was the National Party's conference over the weekend, and with a healthy amount of scepticism surrounding Simon Bridges' leadership, it was his chance to shine, to inspire, to reinvigorate. You'd want to look to the future, demonstrate that as the new leader of National you were ready to take them into the third decade of this millenium. National launched a new slogan to that effect: new team, new ideas, New Zealand.

Except National gave us old faces, old ideas and an inconsistent vision.

It's been a wild week. On Monday Bridges went on TV and said that National would be reinstating the benefit sanctions that this Government had lifted because he said tougher sanctions motivated people to get jobs. This despite just about all research suggesting that the opposite of what he said was true. That's bad old National.

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National Party leader Simon Bridges with his wife Natalie and kids Emlyn, Harry and Jemina. Photo / Dean Purcell
National Party leader Simon Bridges with his wife Natalie and kids Emlyn, Harry and Jemina. Photo / Dean Purcell

Then later this week there were some National MPs taking part in the pro-choice protest on abortion, and out came a member's bill on medicinal marijuana, both of these were in defiance of comments that Bridges has made previously but represented a positive progressive step forward. Good new National.

Then to the conference at Sky City and we saw John Key splashed across the media, one of the keynote speakers was John Howard who ended his terms as Prime Minister of Australia all the way back in 2007, and Bridges' lead item in his opening day remarks was a commitment to bring back charter schools. I wondered if this was a National Party conference from 2018 or 2008?

The Charter Schools' policy is a weird hill to die on. It was a policy that was implemented by National after the 2011 election and done so only because it was part of the confidence and supply agreement with ACT (remember them?). It wasn't even something National had campaigned on. Or seemingly cared about. Now they care about it a whole lot.

Education was then something Bridges returned to for his keynote remarks on day two of the conference. The big ticket item was the announcement that National would be reducing class sizes. Great! More teachers is a fantastic idea. While there were no more details at least the idea is positive.

This new central plank of more teachers is a demonstration of how successful Labour has been at winning hearts through compassion. National in government had wanted to increase class sizes but changed tack when the public outcry was so strong. Not this new compassionate National. Bridges talked a lot about compassion in his speeches. He said "We will show them what compassion looks like; the Left thinks they have got the monopoly on compassion. We will make sure we will be a compassionate government when we get in in 2020."

Deputy Leader Paula Bennett also followed this path saying we needed a caring approach to our most vulnerable.

I completely endorse these ideas. But Bridges seems to have trouble staying consistent over the course of a week. Compassion for the vulnerable sure doesn't mean tougher sanctions on beneficiaries. In fact, 24 hours seems to be a long time for him to stick to one idea. Because the day after preaching compassion, he criticised the Government because Labour "want to drastically cut the number of people in prison, regardless of the amount of crime committed. They want to remove all benefit sanctions, so there's no consequence if you fail a drug test or skip a job interview."

Prisoners and beneficiaries are two of our most vulnerable groups Simon, your deputy said we needed a caring approach. Cutting people's money and lock 'em up policies are not caring. Why don't you care?

Simon is a young fogey. It's telling that in his speech he described John Howard as his absolute hero. Howard is a man who last year was publicly against marriage equality in Australia and joined the "no" campaign. He's famous for refusing to apologise to the stolen generation and he got a bit shady with the truth around so-called "boat people".

It seems that National as a party is starting to think about things differently, the pro-choice protest, the medicinal marijuana bill, more teachers, but National's leader might still be struggling to come to terms with the fact it's 2018. Not 1958.

David Cormack is the co-founder of communications and PR firm, Draper Cormack Group. He has worked for the Labour Party, the Green Party and for National.