Matthew Hooton: National go from sickly to looking terminal

OPINION:

Since last year’s Covid-19 polling collapse under Simon Bridges, National has been in intensive care. It’s now moving to the hospice.

This week Health Minister Andrew Little was forced to admit the centrepiece of Grant Robertson’s 2019 “wellbeing” Budget had failed.

Of the $1.9 billion extra for mental health, $235 million was for new facilities but only $541,000 has actually been spent. Across the country there are just five new mental health beds.

In Auckland, the Government is completely offside with public opinion over its bizarre $685m bridge for cyclists.

Meanwhile, its vaccination programme is the worst in the developed world. Even with the 100,000 extra doses diverted to New Zealand from the world’s poorest countries two weeks ago, vaccine stocks were just 160,410 on Wednesday. Even that was only because the 20,000 doses a day Jacinda Ardern promised on June 8 has turned out to be 17,500.

Ardern spins the shortages as mere “supply constraints”.

The risks of Ardern’s vaccination failure saw the nation fretting on Tuesday night about another lockdown.

On the Government’s signature failures of housing and child poverty, the ANZ says rents and sale prices continue to rise despite Grant Robertson’s latest package three months ago. Ardern’s own child poverty measures show no measurable improvement in housing conditions, preventable hospitalisations or food security.

Assault victims increased 12 per cent in 2020, according to police.

This is a target-rich environment for any competent Opposition.

Yet instead, the National Party spent its Tuesday night in an emergency caucus meeting to investigate which of its MPs had leaked to a minor website against their returning colleague Harete Hipango.

Former leader Todd Muller owned up, although no one else did.

In fact, to call what National MPs do to one another”leaking” gives them too much credit.

A leak is when a right-wing National MP gives a journalist a copy of a colleague’s left-wing policy proposal as a way of discrediting and stopping it, or vice versa. This involves a certain integrity.

But National MPs don’t leak in this sense, because what they say involves no content. They just slag one another off in general terms to whomever will listen. It’s the playground politics of 12-year-olds.

What they are failing to consider is their party’s existential risk.

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. When they don’t, the problem under MMP is not just that they look like an unelectable rabble, but that other parties can offer centre-right voters an alternative.

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.

Peters’ weekend return to politics perfectly connected with the discombobulation of more conservative National voters over issues like the country’s name. Peters, of course, did not explicitly oppose replacing “New Zealand” with “Aotearoa”, but argued that the Wellington and Grey Lynn elites had never asked so-called ordinary New Zealanders what they think about such touchstones.

New Zealand First also achieved a generation change with the election of 34-year-old Julian Paul as party president. Paul, who joined the party as an 18-year-old in 2005, was central to the launch of its surprisingly vibrant youth wing in 2015 and served as North Island vice president from 2016 to 2019.

The party believes it is building support from younger conservatives and centrists for whom the issues that prompted Peters’ historic split from National are as distant as the First World War is toBaby Boomers. They are much more likely to relate to contemporary economic nationalism, as personified by Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.

Such voters feel badly let down by Labour’s broken promises on housing, and assume they will never own a home. They regard the question of Labour v National as irrelevant to their lives.

When Peters returns to the campaign trail full time, expect him to be surrounded more by under-40s like Paul than over-60s like Shane Jones.

With 7.6 per cent of the vote last year and 10 MPs, Act is even better placed to feast off National’s carcass. It wins some votes from rural conservatives concerned about guns and the Emissions Trading Scheme, but party strategists say its market research suggests these are a minority of its support base.

Instead, they claim the party’s supporters roughly reflect New Zealand’s demographics, with a slant towards people with more sophisticated understandings of economic policy, Covid recovery and housing.

On housing, for example, Act supporters are said to recognise that central and local government are essential in terms of providing infrastructure rather than having any talent for housing development. This is a more nuanced Act than we may have seen before.

Most significantly, party strategists say the percentage of voters who absolutely hate Act has fallen from 59 per cent at the last election to just 27 per cent. For the first time, a good majority of New Zealanders see it as a regular political party.

Those who say they might consider voting Act are claimed to have doubled to a third, and as many as 16 per cent of voters are actively considering voting Act in 2023. Of the new voters Act believes it is attracting, two out of three are former National voters and the third backed Labour in 2020. Act strategists echo NZ First insiders in saying the dramas of the early 1990s that led to their party’s formation are no longer top of mind among its supporters.

So far, Act’s new MPs are behaving themselves, unlike when it last achieved a reasonable intake in 2008. Seymour and his high-profile deputy Brooke van Velden now feel confident to promote their wider team.

Expect to see Act launch campaigns on the economy and Covid, housing and crime in coming weeks — but with the leader giving the limelight to others MPs. It’s not an option Peters, Collins or even Ardern has availableright now.

Some people do make it out of the hospice alive, and Collins remains overwhelmingly National’s best option if it is to be among them. But most people in a hospice have their family and friends around trying to make everything more comfortable. National has both Act and NZ First actively trying to accelerate its further demise.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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