National, polling well and still the favourite (narrowly) to win the October election, has been hit with three questionable calls in the last week or so.
None on their own are terminal, but collectively they paint a picture of sloppiness.
The most public has been the revelation that the University of Waikato vice chancellor Professor Neil Quigley spoke extensively to the National Party about its policy to build a new medical school at the university.
This says more about the university than it does about National, but the party and its health spokesman Shane Reti should nonetheless have managed the relationship better.
“The first student intake would be 2027 - a present to you to start your second term in government!” Quigley wrote to Reti, in an email obtained by RNZ.
The second is the apparent proximity of casino group SkyCity to National’s policy to regulate and tax online gambling, a key tenet of the party’s tax policy. SkyCity has been lobbying the Beehive hard for changes to online gambling rules, arguing the current rules put them at a competitive disadvantage.
The costings for the policy appear to have been influenced by SkyCity’s own modelling.
The third story is the party struggling with how much it should say about the Winton subdivision in South Auckland, and the legal action Winton is taking against Kāinga Ora for refusing to fast-track the project.
Winton director-shareholders Chris and Michaela Meehan have recently donated to National and Act. Last year, Chris Meehan’s company Speargrass donated to National.
This got National’s housing spokesman Chris Bishop in trouble after it was discovered he issued a press release in support of Winton’s court challenge after the first donation had been made. Bishop was unaware of the donation at the time he issued the press release, putting the error in the “cock-up” rather than “conspiracy” camp - but it was still unwise and would have gotten National in more trouble had they been in government.
Each case shows National operating well within the rules, but skating close to the line in terms of the way the party manages its relationships with supporters, donors and - that dreaded word - “stakeholders”.
They are a wake-up call to leader Christopher Luxon to sharpen up some of the party’s processes, lest National begin to be seen as the political wing of the country’s vested interests. In Reti’s case, he got too close; in Bishop’s case, he was not close enough to know that he should have thought harder about that first press release.
You would expect National to sound out the University of Waikato before pledging to build a new medical school there. It would be terribly embarrassing if, after the announcement, Waikato were to announce it did not want a medical school (although the university had been pushing for one since 2016).
But the cosiness of the emails between the university and National are of concern, particularly if the party gets into government. The university is, after all, a public organisation and should not be getting too close to any political party.
The apparent cosiness between National and SkyCity on the tax is slightly unseemly, even if they both have a point. Regulating online gambling would be good for SkyCity, good for a future National Government’s bottom line and, most importantly, good for problem gamblers - because it might encourage them to gamble in a more supervised environment. But the weighting of those three interests in the minds of National’s policy-makers errs towards the second of these criteria, rather than the third.
Bishop’s backing of the Winton position is a perfectly logical one, and coheres with National policy and philosophy. The issue: that Kāinga Ora treats its own urban developments preferentially to private ones when it comes to fast-tracking is an absolutely legitimate one.
But the fact Bishop was unaware of the donation at the time he issued this first statement was clumsy and problematic.
Party spokespeople rarely get involved in specific cases like that. It is not too much to ask that Bishop or a staffer do a quick scan of recent donors to ensure there is no problem. Donations needn’t stop National from advocating for a more permissive position from the likes of Kāinga Ora either, but they should be careful about it and more upfront about any connection they have to the person they are advocating for.
Bishop told Newsroom he did not think he was conflicted by the donation.
“I don’t think so. As long as it’s disclosed properly, which has been done, that’s why we have disclosure laws,” he told Newsroom.
“When I issued that press release in October last year, I had no idea that Winton had donated, or was going to donate, to the National Party. I was utterly unaware of any of that stuff.”
These three instances are together quite serious teething issues for National, growing pains as it emerges from the doghouse of 2020 to a large, credible party of Government.
Luxon should crack the whip and demand better. With comparisons being drawn between this campaign and the 2005 election, National should be reminded that the company they keep can quickly become a very salient election issue.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.