Having been turfed out of government last year, the National Party is doing what all parties do when dealing with failure – re-evaluating what they are doing wrong and making some necessary changes.
During their annual conference at the weekend, some new directions were signalled, but are the changes enough?
Political commentators are divided about whether the conference heralded the beginnings of a bold new future for National, or whether it was just more of the same.
Change is happening – a swing to the centre
There is no doubt that National is now presenting itself, under new leader Simon Bridges, as a more centrist party. For veteran party conference attendee, Richard Harman, this shift is quite considerable: "National's policy rewrite is underway, and the party is showing signs of making a dramatic swing to the centre" – see: The Nats' difficult road to 2020.
Harman points to Bridges' announcement of National's new policy to prioritise smaller school class sizes as indicative of this new ideological mood: "That was a remarkable statement from someone who had been a junior Minister when then-Education Minister Hekia Parata announced in 2012 that she wanted to increase class sizes. Then the National Government argument was that class sizes didn't matter."
Harman suggests other policy discussions showed a similar shift underway: "Some of the policy breakout sessions were equally revelatory. A session on foreign trade and defence policy was prompted by its chair, Todd McClay, to offer ideas on what an independent foreign policy would look like." Harman also quotes Bridges emphasising the need for other policy changes: "We have to be a 56 strong MP policy machine".
But Bridges' best line of the conference was this: "I don't want to win in 2020 just because the Government is incompetent. I want to win a contest of ideas, to demonstrate that National has the vision and the team to deliver a better future for everyone."
To former National staffer, Ben Thomas, this speech by Bridges "sought to move beyond relitigating the fights of the past" – see: Simon Bridges' big conference speech: did he drum up a new National vision?. He points out that "the speech was setting up a softer public image for the opposition leader. He was joined onstage by his wife Natalie, who he described as a 'leftie'."
Thomas believes Bridges' softer and more moderate positioning was also evident in the big move by National last week to gazump Labour's medicinal cannabis bill with something that was arguably better and more liberal. This was, "an unexpected and largely successful raid into Labour territory. Far from being an obstructive 'opposition from hell' as some had worried, Bridges seems intent on getting National ready to take the reins again in 2020." Thomas does point to other parts of the conference that contradict this forward-looking and more centrist positioning.
Apparently, John Key also endorsed Bridges' attempts to jettison old, unpopular policy and come up with fresh thinking. Tim Murphy reported from the conference: "Key's message to Bridges was that he should not at all be afraid of changing policies. He, from Opposition, has to deal with the New Zealand that we have in 2018" – see: A change comes over the National Party.
Murphy also paints a picture of the rejected National Party going through the stages of "the grief of losing power", saying that they are now firmly in the "acceptance" phrase, which means they realise the need to listen to the public. And he quotes Judith Collins: "The best thing about being in Opposition is we have got a couple of things we can use – and they are called ears."
Murphy details the "policy advisory group" work going on under Nick Smith's leadership, but points out that some of this is being overshadowed: "the emergent humility was swamped at times at the weekend as National mimicked an old general, fighting the last war: pledging to reintroduce charter schools, repeal the Auckland regional fuel tax, green light oil and gas exploration and borrow Labour's policy from 2014 of reducing class sizes in schools."
Despite the desire in National's leadership to move towards the centre of the political spectrum, there is going to be a continued social conservatism inherent in the party's positioning, especially because of Simon Bridges' own personal politics. This is explained well in Audrey Young's Saturday column, National leader Simon Bridges needs to handle his legacy with care.
Young points out that "Bridges was brought up in the Baptist church and remains a Christian with conservative views who has never smoked cannabis and voted against gay marriage." And suddenly there are three very polarising social issues rising up the public agenda: cannabis, euthanasia and abortion. On top of this, other polarising issues of welfare and law and order will push National to represent a more rightwing position.
For the moment, Bridges' decision to focus on education was a smart one according to former National staffer Brigette Morten, who says "A focus on education reflects National's record. Over their last term, education spending increased by over a third. However, specifically announcing that more money would go in to tackling class sizes shows that the party has gained a fresh perspective" – see: Bridges meeting the needs of party faithful and new breed.
For Morten, the new policy also signalled to voters that National is going to be different under the new leadership, and also that Bridges has been listening to the feedback of parents.
Is that all?
Has National really changed that much? Simon Wilson was at the conference and saw little evidence of any substance in the party's new slogan "new team. new ideas. New Zealand" – see: National's Old Zealand problem.
Not only does Wilson point to the traditional policy messages being aired at the conference, he is scathing of the new leaders' speech: "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."
Claire Trevett also pointed out the lack of detail about the new thinking: "No figures, no targets, no anything. It is a rare thing to see a leader release a policy at a big conference without any details. Bridges simply flagged the intention and said the party would work on the details over the next two years. That would normally be fine, if Bridges had not criticised Labour for doing exactly that in Government. National has railed against Labour over the number of working groups it put together to work out the mechanics of how its policies will work" – see: PM Jacinda Ardern gatecrashes Simon Bridges' party.
Trevett reports that "Bridges' speech was full of the usual phrases that warm the cockles of the hearts of National's rank and file" and, like Wilson, says the speech "could have been delivered by any of his predecessors".
Finally, "What does the National Party stand for?" Gallery journalist Jason Walls asked the question in a column late last week. Walls says that, "aside from clashing with the Government on seemingly all and every matter – as well as a few areas of direction change within the party – there is not a lot more National has on show". Nonetheless, he does outline National's new plan for change: "Year two: It's now all about 'discussion' and formulating more details on some of the party's ideas. Year three: Now it's time to unveil the policy so 'New Zealanders feel they have a real choice in the 2020 election'." – see: With no new policies to fall back on, National has become trapped in an endless cycle of just opposing anything the Government says.