Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Michael Coote: On the Money - Phony War Looms in Parliament

The National Party has gone through revolution since the abrupt resignation of its former leader, ex-prime minister Bill English.  This greyest of grey men was not likely to have relished time as the humiliatingly outflanked opposition leader facing acting prime minister Winston Peters for six weeks whilst prime minister Jacinda Ardern took maternity leave from her job.

Political commentator Barry Soper recalls that Mr English seconded the motion to expel Mr Peters from National in the early 1990s.  The reversal of fortunes looming must have been relished by Mr Peters and dreaded by Mr English.  Far better for the latter to drop out of Parliament, grab hold of one of former National prime minister John Key's reinstated mates rates knighthoods, and, transmogrified as Sir William, sally forth boldly in search of fat corporate sinecures to cash out any residual value of his extinct political career.  That path was already well worn by Sir John in service of his own personal chivalric cause.

So now we have hopeful Simon Bridges in the hospital pass role of National's leader in opposition.  Mr Bridges is not the sharpest political tool in National's box, but then we must consider him in light of the execrable alternatives put forward by his own party in the post-English leadership contest, none of whom could conceivably have led National to victory in 2020.  Ask yourself - would you want Amy Adams, Judith Collins, Stephen Joyce or Mark Mitchell as the next prime minister?  Some no doubt would, but probably not enough to take National where it needs to go.

National was returned to Parliament as the largest political party represented after the 2017 general election, but its talent pool had grown so effetely attenuated and etiolated from years of Mr Key's overshadowing autocracy - and, in Auckland, former National Party president Michelle Boag's Putinesque meddling - that there was not much left able to stand by itself after his self-interested departure whilst the going was good.  Mr Key's exit has resulted not only in the downfall of Mr English but also the implosion of Stephen Joyce, long assumed to be next in line under National's putative heir-and-spare succession planning.  National has suffered from Parliamentary quality loss in its mass recruitment of lightweight, photogenic young bimbo MPs - male and female - particularly in its safe seats in Auckland, for example.  Keyite-era complacency has led the party into chronic leadership potential dearth.

There is no legacy remaining of the glorious roi soleil Key years in the present musical chairs scraping and shuffling of National's remnant rabble all a-scramble for a place nearest the quivering shadows of their new leader's quaking throne.  Rightly does Mr Bridges pronounce a new era for National, but that hardly sounds like a thumping first-past-the-post-style 2020 general election victory in the making that will see the party return to power of necessity alone in the absence of any viable coalition partners.  Robert Muldoon used to sneer that his hapless successor Jim McClay was a Clayton's leader - a leader you have when you do not have a leader.  Mr Bridges fits the McClay profile perfectly of a leader you unflinchingly throw under the bus if polling indicates defeat looming closer to the next general election.  How not to be a political dead man walking is Mr Bridges's conundrum, but the more interesting question arising is who is National's next Jim Bolger?

A key problem for Mr Bridges in seeking to make his mark is that during much of his truncated honeymoon period as National's new-found leader, he will end up facing not Ms Ardern, but Mr Peters as head of government.  Ms Ardern is scheduled to hive off for maternity leave sometime in June, just three months or so away.  She will ensconce Mr Peters as acting prime minister for six weeks after that, not returning to work until July or August at latest, generating huge publicity along the way, much of it in women's magazines.  In the three months up to when she does a bunk, Ms Ardern will be a sacred cow praised everywhere in the fawning media and ardently supported by many voters in her "female first" stance.
Thereafter, the National opposition will be in the curious position of facing weeks of stonewalling and belittling contempt from an acting prime minister who is simultaneously engaged in suing senior past and present National MPs, including deputy leader Paula Bennett, over alleged breach of privacy (see table).  The pending legal action could engulf a couple of members of the serving National opposition before Christmas.  It will be interesting to see what Mr Bridges's Plan A will be in this phony war atmosphere, let alone his Plan B supposing he has not got the first line of attack right.  The time of greatest risk to Mr Bridges's political pretensions will occur just when he needs to shine most against Ms Ardern and bring a stop to witless media and public adulation of her every word and deed.
List of National MPs at risk of being sued by Winston Peters in 2018
National MP
Current Status
Paula Bennett
Deputy Leader of National Opposition
Anne Tolley
Deputy Speaker of Parliament
Bill English
Retired from Parliament
Stephen Joyce
Retired from Parliament

You do not have to dislike Ms Ardern, Labour, or the coalition government to believe that for the good health of our democracy she needs to be held objectively to account for how she is doing her prime ministerial job in every respect.  Jacindamania must come to an end.  Jacindarella got the top job she always denied she was after and so now she is the regnant princess who must answer for all her exercises of power.  National as the main opposition party (forget disappearing Act, which is pitiably polling its rapidly dwindling membership base for suggestions on what it really stands for) has to find the irritating pea under the fairytale princess's mattress and place even more there.

The high courage line of attack would be for National to assail Ms Ardern for doing a selfish six-week runner from her job to suit her own personal interests at the expense of the national interest.  The prime ministership she occupies is unique in its duties, burdens, commitments and responsibilities as the executive head of state.  The constitutionally superior Governor-General's office in New Zealand is a pooh-bah nobodyship designed for government flunkies, stooges and tokenists to scoop up huge sums of public money as feckless and servile placeholders for the reigning Windsor of the day (WoD).  The real deal is the prime minister's role.

The prime minister's position is the true concentration point of political power in our country, not just any old breadwinning lark in the public or private sector wherein you simply plug a maternity leave gap with a disposable temporary contractor, even if it is the septuagenarian superannuitant Mr Peters on his last Parliamentary hurrah.  What is so special about having a baby that you skive off when you feel like it from serving as prime minister?  Would we tolerate a prime minister who wanted to take six weeks off work to go on extended holiday, engage in academic sabbatical, or simply because they could be not arsed for a while?  You cannot just bugger off for 42 days from the job and say you will keep in touch.

If National had possessed any strategic nous, faced with Ms Ardern's well-advertised self-indulgent maternity kick, it would have anointed Judith Collins as its leader.  Ms Collins has the wolverine instinct to vivisect without anaesthetic  - metaphorically speaking - Ms Ardern's womb-driven career choice as public blood sport in a way that Mr Bridges cannot afford to do and probably is not even up to trying.  The potential damage done to National in the process would be a calculated trade-off versus chaos imposed on the flaky tripartite government coalition as Ms Ardern's fitness to lead at all was called into serious question.  After that, using polling as justification and in order to win the 2020 general election, National could have ruthlessly defenestrated Ms Collins in an act of party tribal contrition and selected instead an emollient bumbler like Mr Bridges as a plausibly likeable enough replacement before too many people had cottoned on to him.  But as things stand, National has put Mr Bridges in the front spot far sooner and for longer than is good for him, pretty much blown the next half year ahead in which to destroy the government, and merely postponed a divisive leadership tussle lying in wait once Mr Bridges goes down in ignominy. 

Economic, financial and political commentary by Michael Coote.


5th generation Kiwi said...

Good article, I voted National last election not because I particularly liked them but because everyone else looks even more inept. Key was the great compromiser that took National into a central left role forcing Labour even more left. What else is there in NZ politics, the fairyland Greens or the Act (what do they stand for) party. NZ first or Peters First will surely implode next election presuming Peters retires, his party is dead because he backtracks and sells his sole to the highest bidder and besides there is only room for one leader in his party with his ego preventing any serious contenders to take over after he goes.
There is a very real opportunity for a new political party to take the vacant centre right position in NZ. Many NZ First supporters and disillusioned National party supporters would I believe support such a party to be the natural coalition partner for National. This is something that National should behind the scenes supporting because it has no prospect of and coalition partners with what's there at the present time.

Auntie Podes said...

What a coot! And pompously pedantic with it!
Joyce or Collins were the better choices available. The Nat's have shot themselves in the foor with this Bridge to nowhere.
I forecast that the Holy Mother-to-be will be short-lived - she's all vision and gesture.

Graham Cliff said...

Some of this opinion is reasonable enough, Michael, but there are a couple of points on which you need to be challenged:

Firstly, to call the current National caucus "remnant rabble", and to describethe latest intake of MPs as "photogenic bimbo[s]" is beneath you. Such purple prose detracts from your credibility.

Secondly, you appear to have fallen into the trap of buying into a (left wing) media-generated image of Judith Collins as some sort of man-eating hardnut. Please grant her with enough intelligence to recognise that she can be both tough and sensitive as a political leader; I believe that she could take National into government in 2020 (or sooner) given the opportunity, because what a nation generally yearns for is a strong leader - especially when times are tough - which they undoubtedly will be - before long. Think of Margaret Thatcher, but without the imperiousness - and there you have it.

Anonymous said...

well said article although had to get the dictionary out for some words, enjoyed the comments to, definitely a gap for a cen right party, so whose around????