COMMENT

On the eve of Waitangi festivities, will the Nats leader become the National Party leader we need?

The first thing to say about the National Party right now is that they'd be nuts to change their leader. They're doing so well in the polls. None of the previously declared alternatives to Simon Bridges, the sensible ones, I mean, is likely to be any more popular than he is.

Their best leader-in-waiting is Nikki Kaye and she genuinely doesn't seem to want it right now. And then there's Judith Collins.

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Collins would be a more popular leader than Bridges. He sags beneath 10 per cent and she'd probably rise over 20 and maybe over 30. But party support under her would sink to the same level.

Put that another way, there's a fan base for Collins out there, but it's not nearly a majority and there's nobody in the middle. You love her or hate her, and that's that.

US President Donald Trump. Photo / AP
US President Donald Trump. Photo / AP

Collins as National leader would invite the entire enormous centre-ground of New Zealand voters to accept, at least for now, that Labour is the natural party of government. She would turn her own party into a rump.

This is one of the many splendid things about this country. The politician most like Donald Trump - populist and more comfortable at war than at peace - is unelectable. Even better, she belongs to a party that, unlike the Republicans in the US, is not going to enable her because it knows what she's like. The National caucus are not craven opportunists.

The Nats don't stand for very much. "Responsible economic management" is about the extent of it, and for many people that's not a criticism at all. But they have consistently drawn the line, for decades, at nasty populism. They're better than that.

But the question is, how much better? On the eve of a week of Waitangi festivities, here's a big question: how good is Simon Bridges's National Party going to be?

The potential is far larger than Bridges seems to realise. National, right now, has the chance to forge a new, historic identity. To become a major, purposeful political force in this country and, as a bonus, a leader of a desperately needed movement around the world.

The breath-of-fresh-air conservatives.

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It's true. Half the world is watching in horror as their formerly sensible conservative parties are captured by extremists: unprincipled, mean, duplicitous, violent, hateful, narcissist, stupid, short-sighted, shockingly opportunist and corrupt politicians.

Who's going to stand up to them? Who's going to say, we're here to make a better, more decent world? Without punishing the vulnerable because they're the easy scapegoats. By opposing the government without demonising it. By restoring to politics the value of facts and logic and meaningful debate.

How about the National Party?

Former National Party leader Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former National Party leader Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Where's Bill English when you need him? Will Bridges be the guy who stands on principle, with sound policies to match?

I'm not trying to say English was doing a great job for New Zealand. I don't think that. I thought he lagged way behind on social reforms and his nine-year commitment to creating a budget surplus, at whatever cost, ruined of tens of thousands of lives.

But he pursued a coherent and entirely appropriate policy for a centre-right party. You didn't have to like it to appreciate that it wasn't the work of a vain, tub-thumping megalomaniac.

And there was more to English than "fiscal prudence" and moral conservatism. His "social investment" welfare strategy had an outstanding goal: to reduce poverty based on evidence-based policies, targeted assistance and whatever-it-takes wrap-around support.

Yes, you can argue it didn't do those things, but that's about the quality of implementation more than it is about the strategy itself.

You can argue the motivation was cost-cutting rather than social good, but so what? Economic prudence that delivers social value is a common definition of good government, isn't it?

You can argue the social profiling it requires is unreliable and intrusive – but it's hard to argue against the underlying idea. If we know which little kids are most susceptible, as they grow older, to crime, substance abuse, falling out of society, and if we know what support they need to help them not do that, isn't it the duty of governments to ensure they get that support?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she rejects social investment but her government hasn't really articulated an alternative strategy. There's a reason for that: far more social investment programmes than you might think are embedded in government services already. Labour has trimmed the approach and refocused, but it has not shut it down.

Social investment was and still is a world-leading welfare strategy. Conservative governments around the world were watching with interest – some, undoubtedly, still are.

Unfortunately, in his state of the nation speech this week Simon Bridges gave a good impression of having never heard of it.

WE'VE LONG been proud of our brave reformist tradition. First country to give women the vote, a welfare state that arose from the depression, the nuclear-free policy, the genius of the accident compensation scheme, and there's much more. If we have a national political character, that tradition is what it's based on.

Largely, the reforms have come from Labour and Labour-led governments, and the Liberal Party before it, but they have rarely been undone by National. Great battles are fought at the time – there was such a fuss over marriage equality. But when it's all over the antagonisms quickly dissolve – turns out no one is bothered about marriage equality after all.

National beds in the reforms. It asserts its preferred view of itself as the best party to manage the economy by incorporating those reforms into the job of economic management.

It's happening again today. That $1 billion a year regional growth fund National loves to complain about? The party has already announced it will not be abolished. They just want to spend the money more "wisely". The forthcoming Climate Change Commission? You can bet that will stay, too.

It'll be the same with the new legal requirement to report on poverty reduction. And with the Living Standards Framework for measuring the economy and planning the budget, as set out by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf. This year that framework will produce a Wellbeing Budget, integrating the values of social, human, natural and economic progress, and if it works it will transform economic planning here and around the world. There's no way National will shut it down.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Instead they'll do it better, as will Labour if it gets another term. Bold experiments take time to get right.

Professor Marilyn Warin. Photo / Dean Purcell
Professor Marilyn Warin. Photo / Dean Purcell

The pioneer of this kind of thinking is a former National MP, the brilliant Marilyn Waring. But where's her legacy – where's that quality and stature of thinking – in the party now?

It's worth noting that Waring herself doesn't think much of the Treasury work. She finds it superficial – perhaps her old party will accept the challenge to make it better?

New KiwiBuild home owners Derryn Jayne and Fletcher Ross stand with PM Jacinda Ardern Photo / Greg Bowker
New KiwiBuild home owners Derryn Jayne and Fletcher Ross stand with PM Jacinda Ardern Photo / Greg Bowker

Despite the barrage of criticism, National won't dismantle the Housing and Urban Development Authority or stop the light rail projects. Nor will it reinstate National Standards or Tomorrow's Schools.

The reason for all this? There's progress under way right now and it's good for New Zealand. Certainly, there are a thousand problems with the implementation of the Government's plans. Some are the figments of fevered Opposition imaginations but many are very real.

Despite that, these reforms introduce changes to the way we live that are long overdue and much needed.

But are they great reforms? Does the Labour-led Government stand today in the fundamentally transformative tradition of Kate Sheppard and Mickey Savage and the Rainbow Warrior?

Kate Sheppard
Kate Sheppard
Michael Joseph Savage.
Michael Joseph Savage.

The Living Standards Framework fits that bill. In the end-of-year wash-ups of political achievements, Robertson won my prize for Most Important Politician Who Got Overlooked By Almost Everybody.

Many of the Government's other signature programmes have that potential, too: regional development, public transport in Auckland, mass housing construction and the grand climate change coalition of Greens' co-leader James Shaw.

More could be waiting in the wings, although we really don't know yet. Will we develop a new society-wide commitment to ending domestic violence? Will we do that for sexual abuse? Will we make real progress on reducing crime by dealing with its complex relationship to mental illness and substance abuse?

Green Party leader James Shaw. Photo / Dean Purcell
Green Party leader James Shaw. Photo / Dean Purcell

Will we reinvent schools as community hubs, centres not only for children's education but for social programmes, adult education, health clinics and everything else that might create a whānau-integrated whole-of-society approach to bringing up kids?

If it takes a village to raise a child, as we're always fond of telling each other, will we really commit to what that means? Will the Labour-led Government lead the way?

Or will National? They could do it, too.

SIMON BRIDGES could be our Angela Merkel. Standing up for decency on a world stage crowded with bullies. Seriously, he could be the leader who says, we're the conservatives who care.

Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and Christian Democratic Union leader, left, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, general secretary of the Christian Democrat Union. Photo / Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor and Christian Democratic Union leader, left, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, general secretary of the Christian Democrat Union. Photo / Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Because there's nothing inherently left-wing about putting an end to domestic violence or reducing poverty. Or fighting climate change.

But what actually is National's response to the reforms of the current government? And, to be answered on the back of the same postcard, what's their response to Donald Trump? And to all the mini-Trumps popping up in Europe, South America and even, almost but not quite unbelievably, in Australia?

In this corner of the world, Bridges could say, we're going to demonstrate how not to fall victim to the bullies of the right or the nutjobs of the left – or whatever epithet he thinks will stick to Ardern and Robertson and co.

We'll create a platform of long-term economic, environmental and social planning. We believe in fiscal responsibility, evidence-based policy, an inclusive society and conservative values, and we're going to show everyone just how well those things will serve the modern world.

What are conservative values? That's for him to say. But they don't require him to cling to every old idea. Conservatism, in every age, sifts tradition to find its relevance to the new.

If Bridges doesn't want to be Merkel, he could be Boris Johnson. The bicycle-riding Boris Johnson, I mean, the guy who has more fun, warming hearts and caring not a fig for tired old stereotypes about what cars are doing to cities. Not the loony Brexit opportunist, though – we don't need one of them.

Boris Johnson. Photo / by Mark Mitchell
Boris Johnson. Photo / by Mark Mitchell

And yet Bridges does say some loony things – it's as if, sometimes, the only people he's listening to are social media whackos, sniggering endlessly about "Cindy", crying incompetence at everything her Government does. There truly is a streak of Johnsonian populism in Bridges, complete with the aura, shared by Johnson and Trump himself, that you never quite know if he believes what he's saying.

In his big speech this week Bridges promised to roll back a capital gains tax, if one is implemented, and he repeatedly characterised the Government's approach to crime and corrections as "taking the side of criminals". That's poor-quality thinking.

On both those issues, the Government is doing the electorally difficult work of digging the country out of a hole. Bridges should be grateful: he won't have to do that work himself. Instead, he took the chance to say he would push us back into it.

I know, it's not easy being a sensible centre-rightist. The far right hates you as a traitor and tries to pitchfork you out of office. The centre-left is chasing the same votes as you, because by definition they're in the centre. In a fevered world, trying to sound sensible can easily mean you make no sound at all.

Doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do.

IT'S AN EXCITING time to be Simon Bridges. He is starting to roll out policy platforms and that's good news, because it should provide an answer to the great mystery dogging New Zealand politics: just who is Simon Bridges?

Is anyone surprised his personal polling is so low? It's not that we don't like him at a personal level. He's obviously a decent guy. But, as David Cunliffe, another obviously decent guy, will surely attest, what we hate, whatever our politics, is a politician who seems not to care what he believes.

Who is Simon Bridges? Is he the guy who's going to let Judith Collins define his party for him? Dealing to her leadership ambitions would be a great way for him to show us who he is.

Former Labour Party leader David Cunliffe Photo / Jason Oxenham
Former Labour Party leader David Cunliffe Photo / Jason Oxenham

Or is he a young fogey – a member of Parliament's strong new generation doing his best to disguise himself as the muddled old? That's what he does whenever he tells us, "Look at this stage I'm not sure about ... [insert any perfectly sensible and much-needed piece of social reform]."

Or is he going to be the leader who finds a way to forge his party as a new conservative force for good, at home and in the world?

New Zealand needs a centre-right party brimming with imagination, integrity, responsibility and enterprise. A party with vision and the skills to bring the country together to achieve it. A breath of fresh air.

And the world needs leaders on the centre right who reject Trumpism in all its guises. Wouldn't it be great if we had one of them?

Is that Simon Bridges? He's not a lost cause. He told Leighton Smith on NewstalkZB before Christmas that "man-made global warming" was a real thing. That's a very low bar to clear, but he did clear it.

A few days later, though, on RNZ's Morning Report, he said he agreed climate change was "an issue". But then he said "we've got a bit of time" and he was not especially worried about the future for his children. And this week he implied but didn't say that National will re-start new fossil-fuel exploration.

Who in this world understands climate change is a real issue but thinks we've got lots of time to fix it? It that all Bridges will be - the guy who agrees about the problem, agrees the old solutions haven't worked, then says no to whatever new solution is proposed and doubles down on the old?

There's no future for National, doing that. No future for Bridges, either. If the party really does want a populist bozo for leader, they've got a better one in Judith Collins. If he doesn't stop that nonsense, history will pass him by, and so, perhaps more to the point, will his caucus.