Will National’s support solid through leadership changes endure?

Support for National has remained fairly substantial and solid, despite the stepping down of the popular leader John key, and also the retirement of his replacement Bill English.

The current leader Simon Bridges has been far less popular, and party support has dropped a bit over the last couple of years that is to be expected for a party relegated to Opposition. National Party support seems to not be affected very much by leadership changes.

Here is how the polls have tracked since the last election.


Bridges’ leadership doesn’t seem to have impacted much on that.

It’s still half a year until the election and anything could happen in that time, but especially with the diminishing of small party support National looks likely to get a reasonable share of the vote again this year (but may struggle to get enough to get back into government).

Josh Van Veen considers  Simon’s Dream: The enduring appeal of National in the Twenty-Twenties 

National supporters might look back wistfully on the early 2010s. But they long ago dispelled the notion that the party’s fate rested with one individual. In that regard, the National Party of 2020 is ‘Tolstoyan’… Despite losing the 2017 election, National remained the largest party by a wide margin. With 44.5 percent of the party vote to Labour’s 36.9 percent, English could boast of having led his party to an impressive result.

For a third term in government party that was a good result, not a lot down on the 47.04% that National got in 2014.

While Bridges’ personal support languishes behind that of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, National continues to poll higher than Labour. It is clear that a significant number of New Zealanders would vote for party over leader. Almost three years to the day of Key’s resignation, a 1 News/Colmar Brunton poll forecast a National victory. If an election had been held in December 2019, according to this poll, Simon Bridges would be the country’s 41st Prime Minister. The poll can’t be dismissed as an outlier. It was the second consecutive poll to indicate the same result. Not only that, but numerous other polls have suggested a tight race. At best we can say the odds are even.

I think that the outcome is certainly too hard to call at this stage.

So why is National still popular? Ask a journalist or commentator and they will most likely tell you that it is because the new government hasn’t delivered. Labour’s promise to fix the housing crisis and end child poverty turned out to be empty. Not to mention the incompetence of certain ministers, bad communication and disunity between the governing parties. They say “Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.” This explanation would be more convincing if Labour had won a numerical victory in 2017. There would be ground to lose to National. In fact, the numbers suggest that nothing much has changed since election night.

A more plausible explanation is that National’s appeal runs deep in the New Zealand psyche. To understand this, we have to forget about policy details, sensational headlines and the day-to-day vagaries of social media. In practice, there isn’t much difference between the way Labour and National behave in office. One is slightly more generous when it comes to the redistribution of wealth, the other has a reputation (deserved or not) for being meticulously scrupulous with public finances. Where ideology is concerned, Labour and National have both converged on the liberal centre. That is to say, the two major parties share a moderately liberal outlook on issues of public importance. Both have embraced globalisation, diversity, environmentalism, the redress of Treaty breaches, and poverty alleviation.

Beyond political rhetoric the actual policy paths of both National and Labour are much more similar than different. The current Government has tweaked more than lurched.

So perhaps it should be unsurprising if the party of John Key, Bill English and Simon Bridges can be identified with a vaguely utopian belief that New Zealand is still a land of plenty where rugged individuals can prosper – with just a bit of help from the government. According to this cherished belief, there isn’t much wrong with New Zealand.

To National supporters, few things are more repugnant than denying the archetypal New Zealander the fruits of his or her labour. But even more insulting is the imposition that those who ‘got ahead’ by hard work and enterprise should feel guilty about others left behind. To suggest that homelessness is a societal problem is to implicate everyone who has in some way profited from the housing market. To say that child poverty exists because we don’t pay enough tax is to accuse people of being selfish.

Yet there are no reasonable grounds for assuming that a National voter cares any less about impoverished children than a Labour voter. According to the 2017 New Zealand Election Study, 86% of National voters agreed with the proposition that “the government should provide decent living standards for children”. A majority (67%) also believed that the government had a responsibility to provide decent housing to those who could not afford it.

Perhaps that is why it has become fashionable in right-wing circles to dismiss talk of kindness as mere ‘virtue signalling’. Ardern might have spoken with more empathy than English but they both professed a moral conviction that it was their duty to help the poor. Most voters agreed. The crucial difference is that English did it without offending the sensibilities of New Zealanders who believe that wealth is acquired only through hard work and sacrifice.

The enduring appeal of National can’t be explained by Labour’s failure to deliver or brilliance on the part of Simon Bridges. Rather, it is due to the million or so voters who find some emotional coherence in what the party represents on an individual level. It would be a mistake to dismiss these voters as reactionary bigots or selfish boomers. While such people undoubtedly exist, few lack a moral compass and concern for others. Just about everyone is offended by the sight of human suffering.

But the simple truth is that most New Zealanders are comfortable and few understand material hardship. They have difficulty accepting that strangers doing it tough can’t just go to Work and Income for help. Homelessness and child poverty, while troubling, only exist in the news media. For them, New Zealand is still a land of plenty. Any statement to the contrary is a personal attack.

I think there may well be many who see not much wrong with Aotearoa as it is – for those prepared to work.

When leftists say “tax the rich to feed the kids” and demand justice for beneficiaries, it is as if they are speaking a different language to everyone else. Ardern’s decision to permanently rule out a capital gains tax confirmed that National, not Labour, is closer to the mythic New Zealand ideal. Whatever his shortcomings as a leader, Bridges’ sense of history is clear. He knows that National can win in spite of any one individual.

Labour must now make a difficult choice: whether to rely on NZ First and the Greens or go head to head with National in a contest for the political centre. This choice will define New Zealand politics for the next decade. To get it wrong would be Simon’s dream.

Labour is moving more towards being reliant on the Greens at least – the Labour-Green ticket. And they will also need to grapple with how much to associate themselves with NZ First as an  essential part of their continued coalition chances.

National may not manage to lift their support to get into power later this year, but they are still seen as a large single party with solid support.


Brendan Horan blasts NZ First

Independent MP Brendan Horan, who was ejected from NZ First by Winston Peters, fought back against his old party in his opening speech in Parliament on Tuesday.

I take this moment to thank New Zealand First, because there is no way I would be able to stand here and speak on democracy, to talk about true, inclusive democracy, if I had not been so undemocratically dumped by the New Zealand First party.

It is a tragedy of our political system that such a party can be captured by one man who did not even stand in an electorate. I can hear the cult screaming now “But we voted for him.” But what of those people who voted for the principles of New Zealand First, which includes an MP’s first duty being to the people of New Zealand and their electorate, or open and accountable Government?

Or the fact that New Zealand First campaigned for a fair go? What of those voters who believed that that party would give people a fair go? Ask Ben Craven, the party’s youngest candidate in 2011. Ask Josh—

Andrew Williams: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is the Prime Minister’s statement debate. This honourable member is not speaking at all to do with the Prime Minister’s statement.

Mr SPEAKER: This is a very wide-ranging debate and the member is certainly speaking within Standing Orders.

BRENDAN HORAN: Thank you. As I was saying, ask Ben Craven, the party’s youngest candidate in 2011, and ask Josh Van Veen whether they got a fair go when they were sacked on a rumour, with no investigation, no disciplinary hearings, and no chance for them to say what really happened; just sacked. This breaks every labour law in the real world, but not here within the walls of that political party.

So what really happened? Well, like most victims of workplace bullying, neither of them will talk. But people who know the full story will not be silenced. It turns out that they dared to question the integrity of Mr Peters’ director of operations, Apirana Dawson. There was a promising young man who was led to the dark side, taken astray by his leader.

[continuation line: Mr Williams, you must remember]

Mr Williams, you must remember this article here: “MPs trade slurs over blog ratings”. Here is a beautiful picture of the honourable Richard Prosser—he looks young and vital—and also a very good-looking Denis O’Rourke. “MPs trade slurs over blog ratings”. I am talking about the same Apirana Dawson who leaked confidential emails between New Zealand First MPs to his friend working for the Christchurch Press in 2012.

Andrew Williams: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Surely this is not within the Standing Orders to be getting into personal matters relating to individuals and individual Parliamentary Service staff—surely not.

Mr SPEAKER: I am afraid that on this occasion, when we are having the debate on the Prime Minister’s statement, it is a free-ranging debate. The member making these statements needs to do so responsibly. I cannot in any way cease a speech or rule it out of order at this stage.

BRENDAN HORAN: Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is the same Apirana Dawson who not only leaked confidential emails between New Zealand First MPs to his friend working for the Christchurch Press in 2012 but also traded expressions with the media using the false name of Bruce Bayliss and also filed Official Information Act requests about an MP using that same false name of Bruce Bayliss.

Would taxpayers approve of their money being used in this way—this dabbling in the dark arts? What happened to the principles of that party? One asks what the New Zealand First MPs are doing for Ben Craven and Josh Van Veen, the two young researchers unceremoniously and unfairly sacked on hearsay, the innocent victims of plots and subterfuges, all overseen by the leader of that party.

What have New Zealand First MPs done about this injustice? How would one describe a New Zealand political party that would unfairly sack its most loyal staffers in favour of keeping its dodgiest? Is this another demonstration of a political party leader’s serious lack of judgment? How can anyone in that party speak on workers’ rights and be taken seriously or believed?

Mr Speaker, look closely, you are witnessing the demise of New Zealand First. The question is whether New Zealand First MPs will have the courage and conviction to take the step that was forced upon me and then broadcast their points of view.

As the Speaker says, Horan has a right to speak.