Running alongside Judith Collins' "Demand the Debate" campaign in public is something of a "Demand Reform" mood within her party. There will be heightened demands for change to be made to the top of the party this weekend, when National branch delegates convene for their annual general meeting. The conference looks likely to be a significant one.
Collins' own leadership is not on the line. Instead, the party organisational leadership and rules are set to be shaken up. There is widespread speculation party president Peter Goodfellow will be ditched.
The mood for change in the party is explained today by Thomas Coughlan in his article, Judith Collins promises change at National conference (paywalled). In this, Collins is reported as front-footing the mood of members wanting a shakeup, apparently promising to "guarantee some significant changes to her party".
Delegates to the conference will be voting on changes to the rules that govern the party. In particular, they'll be changing the rules of the board who run it. For instance, they will be considering whether term limits should apply to all board members.
Coughlan reports on how party members will influence change at the conference: "Elections to the board are important. For delegates at the AGM, it is the only opportunity they get to have a say over who runs their party. Delegates at the conference don't have a direct say over who is elected president. That role is elected by the board. But board elections, which delegates do have a vote in, are a way for the party's members to send a message to the party about how they feel about its direction."
Changes to the National Party board membership
Changes to the party organisational leadership are also occurring, according to Coughlan: "The board is getting the message that it might also be unpopular. The swathe of people choosing not to seek re-election is understood to reflect the popularity among party members of a rule change to introduce term limits for board members. Rather than face being voted down, those members are choosing to leave quietly."
A clear-out of the old guard is expected by many commentators. Former National staffer Matthew Hooton says today: "This weekend's expected purge of the party's board should satisfy National activists' immediate bloodlust and send the necessary message to voters that they accept last year's verdict" – see: For Judith Collins, biggest danger is success (paywalled).
For details of who the 10 candidates for the board are, see the brief profiles by David Farrar: National Party Board candidates.
National Party President to be toppled?
National Party members don't get to vote for the party president – who is actually chosen by the board members. However, the membership delegates have the opportunity this weekend to vote for board members who they think will help push out the current president, Peter Goodfellow.
This explains why Coughlan singles out John Sunckell and Aryana Nafissi as being likely to be elected as new board members, as they would "most likely attempt to topple Goodfellow if they won election". Other candidates for the board will be quizzed on whether they will help to depose Goodfellow.
On the question of whether Goodfellow should go, Coughlan says this: "It's not clear whether Goodfellow privately retains Collins' support. Some say it would be wise to keep him on to steady the ship while the party is in disarray. Others argue he's totemic of the party's recent issues: privileged, and detached from the day-to-day issues of New Zealanders."
The rising discontent about Goodfellow's presidency was also detailed in my earlier June column, Low standards in the National Party.
For a sense of why the party president is still being blamed for National's current woes, see Henry Cooke's National Party president could lose job as 'frustrated' members head to conference.
Cooke explains that while there might be discontent with Collins and her caucus, "far more anger is currently directed at the party's out-of-Parliament executive, particularly Goodfellow. He is widely seen as an excellent fundraiser, but his involvement with the all-important selection processes for National candidates has brought serious criticism."
Former Speaker of the House David Carter is currently on the National Party board, and is seen as the likely new president. Cooke reports that "Carter was coy when speaking to Stuff, saying more than 100 members had rung him asking him to take the job". He is reported as saying: "I'm going to keep an open mind. I'm prepared to consider it – it's a decision of the board". Carter then goes on to criticise Goodfellow's involvement in local electorate candidate selection.
However, Cooke also reports: "Party member and political commentator Liam Hehir said he thought Goodfellow would keep his job, noting Goodfellow's strength as a fundraiser."
RNZ's political editor Jane Patterson reports today that Goodfellow has replied to questions on whether he's heard whispers of a challenge, saying: "I'm not hearing whispers, I'm having people tell me directly that there are a small number of people [who want me gone]" – see: Pressure at the top – National's annual conference.
Patterson explains the decision-making sequence that will occur at the conference this weekend: "First there will be a vote on party rule changes; that outcome will dictate in part what the new board looks like, and in turn what support remains for Goodfellow."
A long-time National Party conference attendee, Richard Harman, is picking Goodfellow to go, saying last week that his toppling is "highly likely to happen" and he explains that Goodfellow has become something of a lightning rod for discontent at the grassroots – see: Nats look to change president (paywalled).
Harman says the surprise departure of one of Goodfellow's allies on the board is not a good sign for the president: "He got a clear signal last week when longtime Auckland board member Alastair Bell, who was also selected in 2009, pulled out of the race. Bell has been a supporter of Goodfellow. His withdrawal is being seen as an indication that the mood of the membership is for change."
Judith Collins' leadership safe from debate
There have been many negative appraisals of Judith Collins leadership lately – especially when her one-year anniversary came up. See, for example, Luke Malpass' Judith Collins: One year as National Party leader and nothing to show for it, Simon Wilson's Judith Collins' leadership is 1 year old and it's time her party grows up (paywalled), and Tim Murphy's One year on, what has Judith Collins achieved?.
And, of course, recent polling has shown that the public are not very enthusiastic either. The Newshub Reid Research poll out on Sunday saw her "preferred prime minister" rating up a few points, but well behind her rival on the right – see Tova O'Brien's Act's David Seymour overtakes National's Judith Collins as preferred Prime Minister in Newshub-Reid Research Poll.
However, despite this, commentators seem united in their view that Collins' leadership is safe for now. In her column on the conference, Jane Patterson says: "She'll be as aware as anyone the caucus is biding its time, but there's no immediate risk of her being rolled. It's an unpredictable business though and political polls are always high on MPs' minds; one said any dip below 25 per cent could put her into the danger zone."
Matthew Hooton's column today focuses on this point. He argues that Collins is safe at the moment, but that, ironically, once her party's poll ratings go up she will be likely to see a leadership challenge – probably by Christopher Luxon together with Nicola Willis: "Collins risks the same fate as poor old David Shearer. Only when Labour went up in the polls in 2013 and seemed to have a chance of ousting National and Key did David Cunliffe and his supporters finally make their move."
Debate on National's direction
It's not clear how much internal debate will occur at this week's conference about the policy and ideological direction of National. Newsroom political editor Jo Moir reports today that some activists are unhappy that they can't challenge the party's "Demand the Debate" campaign – see: Demand, but no debate, at National AGM.
She reports that party member Terry Dunleavy "wants to have a serious debate about the issues his party has been focused on in recent months", and he specifies what he has a problem with: "Two issues that need addressing is the He Puapua nonsense, and the Treaty of Waitangi being a partnership nonsense". However, the configurations of the AGM process mean it's too late for policy remits and debates about these.
Henry Cooke reports in his column (cited above) that there's some discontent with the "culture wars" orientation of the National leadership, and he reports one delegate's dissenting view: "The delegate said she was keen to see the National leadership stop focusing on culture war issues – as it did this week with a suggestion of a referendum on the name 'Aotearoa'."
The NBR's Brent Edwards interviewed Collins this week about the upcoming conference, and also put to her questions about whether in her focus on issues like the name Aotearoa she was being distracted from the "issues of substance" that she claims to be most concerned about – see: How does National win back supporters who deserted it? (paywalled).
Edwards reports that Collins' conference speech on Sunday "would focus on the future for New Zealand". It would canvas the economy and healthcare, both areas where National thought there had been a significant government failure.
There will also be a major debate at the conference about whether to embed the Treaty of Waitangi within the party's constitution. According to the party, "The Campaign Review recommended the addition of Te Tiriti o Waitangi or The Treaty into the Constitution to show National's commitment to Māori".
Finally, for satire on National's "Demand the Debate" campaign, see Andrew Gunn's Our campaign of relentless pessimism is working well.
• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.