At the end of another tumultuous week for National, two former senior staffers for Judith Collins have spoken out in savage terms about the state of the party. First Matthew Hooton argued that the party could be in mortal decline: "National has been in intensive care. It's now moving to the hospice."
And today, former chief press secretary Janet Wilson has written a column complaining the party isn't learning any lessons from its defeat last year, saying "there is a real possibility the National Party faces irrelevance – becoming just another minor opposition party under MMP".
This all suggests that the party's difficult scandals of this week aren't simply random or minor irritations but are instead an indication that the party needs more than just some minor reforms and tinkering if it is to eventually make an electoral comeback.
Yesterday's column by Hooton argues that National should be flourishing at the moment, given all the mistakes that the Labour Government is currently making, but is instead facing an "existential risk" because of their incompetence, incoherence and disunity – see: National goes from sickly to looking terminal (paywalled).
He explains that under MMP, the other parties on the right, Act and NZ First, are well positioned to compete for the votes that National is losing hold of: "Winston Peters and NZ First are currently speaking to conservative National voters far more clearly and coherently than anyone in Judith Collins' mob, while David Seymour and Act are doing the same to liberal National voters."
A big part of National's problem, according to Hooton, is the breakdown of the traditional ideological alliance within the party: "National has always been a coalition of liberals and conservatives. It only succeeds when the two factions are in balance and treat one another with professional respect."
Judith Collins' former chief press secretary Wilson has argued something similar in a column today: "The party that was once the famous broad church of urban liberals and rural conservatives has lost the former and become the party clinging to old power structures", and "It had also better find that urban-liberal wing that has fled to Labour. That wing holds the key to the centrists and the supporters which swung across to John Key in 2008". – see: National rejects change, faces irrelevance.
Wilson argues that the party seems resistant to having the major overhaul that it desperate needs, because National is "saddled with endless entitleditis, confidently expecting that the big bus of representation will come around again next election". So organisationally, the party is refusing to implement various recommendations from their own internal review, which "is proof (if you needed any) that zero, zilch, nada has been learnt from last year's election drubbing. The change that's sorely needed if the party is to be successful at the ballot box isn't arriving any time soon."
She is also savage about Collins' leadership this week, saying that not only does the leader appear to have despatched Nick Smith in order to bring Harete Hipango, "her bestie", into Parliament, she has now got rid of former leader Todd Muller. This, Wilson says, is about continuing "her Muldoonist strategy of getting rid of MPs deemed not loyal to her" which is driven not just by "her need for utter loyalty" but also by "paranoia". This behaviour – together with Collins' strong defence this week of Hipango over her alleged misuse of taxpayer funds – is labelled "madness".
In terms of that scandal, see Ethan Griffiths' article: National MP who faced allegations of inappropriate spending revealed as Harete Hipango. Here's the key part: "Sources inside the National Party have told the Chronicle that a staff member of the MP flagged a concern in the last term of Parliament, alleging items of furniture were bought out of the MP's taxpayer funds but did not appear in the office. The allegations surround a purchase of some furniture, including a new television, which allegedly were delivered and kept in Hipango's own home. It is also understood the cost of a sofa the MP bought for the office at Parliament was also questioned, and the MP was told to return it."
Todd Muller's forced retirement
The biggest story of the week was the unusual announcement by Todd Muller that he was not going to stand again for election in 2023, with him citing a need to prioritise his health and family. It turned out that Muller had been pushed out by Collins, after he admitted to having badmouthed incoming new MP Hipango in a feature about her.
You can read the offending piece by Jo Moir, here: National Party all out of love for returning MP. According to this, "Several National MPs said she wasn't particularly well-liked in the caucus and didn't have a lot of friends" and she is seen by some as a "liability and not a team player".
The article also details how Collins is said to be closest to Hipango, and how together they backed Muller's leadership coup over Simon Bridges last year "to help clear a leadership path for Collins in the future".
There's also some interesting discussion about Hipango's complaint about the lack of ethnic diversity in the caucus and leadership, but with the suggestion that her own actions actually made this much worse. Further details and speculation about the mysterious departure of Nick Smith are also put forward.
The article obviously caused Collins great displeasure, because on Tuesday she is said to have confronted Muller about whether he had spoken to the journalist, after another National MP Barbara Kuriger dobbed him in. Muller apparently admitted being one of the sources, which led Collins to ask him to resign, threatening that she would otherwise have him suspending from the caucus. This is all covered by Claire Trevett in her article: National MP Todd Muller retires: Who narked and the 'brutal' meeting with Judith Collins (paywalled).
Collins then called an emergency caucus meeting for 10pm that night to deal with the matter. This meeting, according to Trevett's report, "had all the drama of a documentary on wild animals battling at the savannah water hole. Muller tried to hold his ground and stare down Collins – only to be taken down as the pack turned on him. There were allegations, betrayals, acts of revenge and cowards covering their own butts."
In the meeting Muller's former ally convinced him to go, apparently arguing that it was "for the good of the party" that he announced his departure "to avoid the added scandal and drama of kicking an MP out of the party, a drama the party did not need". And Trevett reports that some in the party were worried that Muller would turn rogue, turning on the party.
Trevett suggests that Collins has subsequently had "a triumphal air" about Muller's forced departure. On radio she explained that "Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make the omelette". In response to this, Trevett warns: "The trouble with making omelettes is that they can easily turn into scrambled eggs."
National disunity and consequences
There are certainly some divisions in caucus over Muller's forced departure. Following the announcement of his retirement over his speaking to the media, Bridges posted a photo on social media of him talking to journalists, with the line: "Speaking with the press is a normal but important part of being in politics. For me it's an opportunity to speak not only to journalists, but to all New Zealanders."
In her article above, Trevett outlines the significance of Bridges' post: "On any day, it would have been an innocuous post but given the timing some have interpreted it as either a small sign of solidarity with Muller's plight – or a message that a leader can only go so far in gagging MPs."
She has also commented that Muller's crime is hardly that extreme, for which he has paid a very high price: "It seemed a very tough penalty for what amounts to a low-grade offence. It is not unknown for MPs to brief media, or pass an opinion on someone or something on the quiet. But that falls short of a genuine leak. This was not a leak of information, or of confidential caucus discussions, or even comments critical of the leader." But she explains: "Many of the MPs will be well aware that Muller is simply the fall guy: the one man taking the fall for something a fair few of themselves have done over recent years. Leaks had plagued National for years, and Collins wanted to make an example of someone."
Trevett has also written about the Muller debacle again today. She argues that Collins has simply front footed the need to finally deal with all the disunity and ill-discipline in her caucus that continues to plague National, especially the leaking: "So when Collins was handed evidence of one, she went for the crackdown – turning her policy of crushing the cars of boy racers into a policy of crushing her own MPs who whisper to media. In terms of making that message clear and being seen to flex leadership muscle, Collins will not be totally unhappy that the real reason for Muller's resignation has made it into the public eye" – see: National Party leader Judith Collins' ousting of Todd Muller will have a cost (paywalled).
The problem, according to Trevett, is that although this crackdown might be successful in silencing MPs who are talking out of turn, it might also undermine trust without fixing the actual problems in the party. What's more, it might be seen by others as somewhat hypocritical: "she was widely regarded by the other MPs as having leaked, briefed media, and undermined leaders. There was already suspicion among many MPs that Collins effectively pushed Nick Smith out by telling him a media outlet was about to broadcast a story about an investigation into a 'verbal altercation' Smith had with a staffer. No media outlet had that story at the time."
Now there is "a climate of fear and disquiet within caucus" and Trevett argues that "There is only so long a caucus can limp along in that state." Other MPs will also be worried: "There is already speculation doing the rounds about who might be next on Collins' hit list – Collins does not disguise her views of enemies well."
Also writing on the issue today, press gallery journalist Henry Cooke is amazed that an MP talking about their party has been so strongly censured: "The thing is, it is normal. Talking to the media is a huge portion of contemporary politics. MPs, particularly ones in Opposition, talk to journalists constantly, trying to get them to write certain stories or convince them to see the world the way they do. Occasionally those conversations will involve frank views about colleagues, especially when the party is in a bit of trouble" – see: The only thing worse than a leak is talking about a leak.
Cooke says that the article "wasn't exactly earth-shattering" and so it's telling that "Collins decided to go thermo-nuclear". He argues that it is actually futile and counterproductive for politicians to deal with "leaks" as strongly as Collins has: "It's like trying to put out a small bushfire with kerosene: it just gets larger and more dramatic."
Instead, Cooke advocates the approach that the Labour Government takes with the many leaks that it endures: it simply ignores them, which denies the story further "oxygen". And, given that further stories have now come out about the disciplining of Muller for talking to the media, he asks of Collins: "Is she now going to hunt down whichever MPs shared the news of the caucus meeting?"
Newsroom's Jo Moir has the same reaction: "If that is the new bar for resigning, then presumably National is on a witch hunt today for whichever MPs promptly fed the details of the late-night meeting to media. The imagery of National MPs, who happily and regularly talk out of turn to journalists, sat in that meeting with their pitchforks crying 'Shame, Shame, Shame' at Muller is irony at its absolute best. Not to mention those who left the meeting and immediately hit 'press gallery' on their speed dial" – see: National's two-year ticking time bomb.
Moir says that Muller is possibly now a bigger problem for National than before: "Muller now finds himself in a caucus that has 100 percent turned on him. He may well find a new gig and leave before the 2023 election, prompting a by-election in his seat. Until then, Collins has on the one hand shown her strength as a leader in getting the caucus to unite behind her, but on the other she's lit a bomb that could potentially go off at any point."
According to Moir, the latest episode merely shows how divided the National caucus is: "There's clearly a group of MPs within the caucus who are still feeling very raw about the rolling of former leader Simon Bridges. No party, not even Labour with its majority, could function with one group still so angry with another so long after the fact." She therefore wonders if the current National caucus is just too terminal: "With so many MPs holding individual agendas in that caucus, it might just take a mass exodus to wipe the slate clean and start again."
This is also the orientation of broadcaster Peter Williams, who asks: "how can you take these guys seriously? Is it best that they just fade away and let the political right be filled by some more sensible people?" – see: National Party in disarray.
Finally, although the problems of the National Party in recent years have seemed to be all about leadership, perhaps it's bigger than this, with the need for its leaders to have better cabals around them – that's the argument recently made by Danyl Mclauchlan – see: What if National's problem isn't the leadership, but the cabal?
• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.