With its latest actions, National again looks disunited and chaotic.
What a fascinating board game the National Party would make these days – something between Snakes and Ladders and Cluedo, only with no ladders and a preponderance of daggers pre-inserted.
A canny beltway entrepreneur could also make a tidy sum from devising a real-time online flow chart showing who in the party has dobbed who in to whom, for what and with what result.
You've got to hand it to leader Judith Collins. It must be very hard to oppose the Government's proposed criminalisation of hate speech with a straight face, while making mild-dislike speech a sackable offence in her own caucus.
There should have been an "I am Spartacus" stonewall when Collins convened a late-night Spanish Inquisition into whether former leader Todd Muller had made adverse comments to Newsroom about list MP Harete Hipango. So many of the caucus have talked to the media – about Hipango and much else – that it would have been more interesting to hunt for the few MPs who haven't blabbed. If only to check they still had a pulse.
Instead of Spartacus, it was Lord of the Flies. Led by Muller's one-time numbers man Chris Bishop, the rest of the caucus piled in on him. He was bang to rights, as Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger had reportedly been with him when he talked to the Newsroom reporter and dobbed him in. Although they could have been discussing the day's soup choices at Bellamys for all she knew, Muller chose to own up. But he never dreamt he'd be required to "announce his retirement" – or that he alone would bear the brunt for leaking. To threaten him with expulsion and deselection, as the party did, was a grotesquely disproportionate response to the offence; to bundle him out before the next election, which is still in contemplation, would be even more so. Evidently, being tough on Muller and on the causes of Muller has been a feel-good experience for all concerned. But such is the febrile mood of self-preservation in National that these MPs have overlooked an array of dire consequences.
The thumpingly obvious one is, the party again looks disunited and chaotic. To that repertoire is now added nasty and desperate. To pick off one leaker among many, to preserve the honour of a minor MP such as Hipango, who happens to be a Collins loyalist, has only underlined the insecurity of Collins' tenure.
If the caucus firing squad thought this righteous utu for Muller's spectacularly unsuccessful stint as leader last year, they had their guns pointing the wrong way. Muller didn't appoint himself leader. A majority of the caucus did because Simon Bridges' leadership was tanking fast. It's telling that no one rushed to restore Bridges to the helm later.
It was beyond unfortunate that Muller failed because he had a breakdown. It should– but apparently doesn't – go without saying that that is not a punishable offence, but one deserving of compassion. It was a National Government that knighted Sir John Kirwan for his advocacy on men's mental health, but the party has obviously forgotten about all that stuff since.
National has also thrown away a cross-party asset. Muller is someone the other parties respect and trust – a rare commodity in any caucus. Given the supervening logistics of the pandemic and climate change, a degree of multi-party accord on matters of national interest will continue to be vital. Instead, National is in the process of stamping out the bipartisan goodwill that Muller spent years building over green issues; it has decided that getting votes from the climate-sceptical minority is now more of a priority.
Then there's the possibility of a by-election. His Bay of Plenty has usually been regarded as a blue-riband seat, but could give National a hiding. Given the resurgence of Act and the umpteenth reprisal of the Jaws theme building around Winston Peters, the seat could conceivably split several ways and go to Labour, which captured 42.6 per cent of the party vote in 2020 compared to National's 32.4 per cent.
If this all reads as a bit harsh on poor old National, that's intentional. The most concerning upshot of its self-transformation into an abattoir is that it is not being harsh on the Government – and if there was ever a time for effective opposition, it's now.
Having been criticised by its core supporters for being too moderate, centrist and risk-averse last term, Labour is now going for the doctor on numerous fronts. There's a tsunami of change coming at people, some of it, such as resource management and water reform, barely understood; other issues, such as the ute tax, the carless harbour crossing, immigration restrictions and enforced densification only too well understood. There's barely a citizen who won't bear cost, inconvenience or loss of agency as a result of these sweeping measures. There are numerous signs Labour is moving farther and faster than most people can tolerate, but it takes the view that with the Opposition in such turmoil, there won't be electoral consequences. That is always a dangerous assumption.
Many voters are on the spectrum between a bit narked and incandescently raging about various issues, and will start shopping around. The Government's cheery rhetoric on the Covid vaccine could be a last straw for many. There's growing impatience and disillusionment at New Zealand distinguishing itself as the slowest jabber in the developed world.
Labour should be particularly concerned at the opposition from among its core supporters – even its cheerleading blogs – on hate speech and transport priorities.
There's also a crescendo of warnings about the new immigration stringency impeding urgent progress in just about every sector one can think of, not least health, education and housing.
National should be having a field-day with all this, but couldn't even manage that at the recent round of actual Fieldays. Any National leader traditionally bestrides the mud of Mystery Creek like a colossus. Among Collins' most unaccountable misjudgments, she appeared at one agricultural show in heels rather than gumboots.
While this might have been a subliminal reminder to colleagues that she can cancel any of them with a stomp of the stiletto as soon as look at them, ruling by fear and desperation is not a winning strategy.
Even if it was, her MPs would still be wedging themselves three abreast in Press Gallery doorways in their haste to leak it. They're all Spartacus – until the next leadership ballot.