When Shane Ratey replaced Judith Collins at the helm of the National Party of New Zealand today, she became the fifth national leader to face Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. When Ratey, who holds the top spot on a caretaker basis, steps aside next week, that number will go up to six. in four years.
It is an unprecedented period of turmoil for New Zealand’s most electorally successful party in the post-war era.
Collins’ departure comes as no surprise to anyone. Discontent with his leadership has been budding within the National Party family for some time now. When it came to a head on Simon Bridges’ demotion last night, it seemed the end was near.
The former leader’s continued association with right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, his criticism of prominent microbiologist Siouxsie Wills, his role in forcing the resignations of former party leader Todd Mueller and veteran lawmaker Nick Smith – these and other strategic choices have long left his rights were reduced. in sections of the caucus and broader party organization.
When the family feud broke into the public domain a few weeks ago, things went up several notches. The moment party insiders like former Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Collins’ own former press secretary began questioning his fitness for office, you got the idea that the tide was turning on Collins.
leadership cuts all the way
In the end, though, it was the elections that did. In 2017 Bill English voted National with 44.4% of the vote. After three years and few leaders, Collins took the party to 25.6%, its worst electoral performance since 2002.
Things have never really picked up, with the pressure building up as one anemic pole is rising after another. The steady increase in support for the ACT party has complicated matters. In the National world, David Seymour’s party is considered the Support Act, but the Act is now pressing National for top billing.
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And so Collins went. But there is more to it than his own performance. In an age of hyper-personal politics, the obsession with party leaders obscures other important aspects of a successful political party. There is more to politics than being a skilled leader – lieutenants matter, as do infantrymen. Policy matters, the non-fashionable “cake stall” portion of political parties matters.
In other words, the boss of the parliamentary wing of the party is not the only one who has to show up. Leadership must also come from those who control the broader party organization, and public criticism from party insiders suggests that issues within the National are beyond the leadership of the caucus.
For example, the national party’s board plays an important role in the selection of the candidate, and it has not covered itself in glory until recently. There has been a string of poor (generally young, male and Pakeha) candidates, and after the 2020 election the party somehow managed to wind up with a caucus that looked more like New Zealand of the 1950s than the 2020s. Was.
split a party
Collins’ departure won’t solve those systemic loopholes. Nor will it deal with the most pressing issue facing the national – deciding what kind of political party it wants to be.
Historically, the National has been a broad political church, accommodating a heterogeneous mix of economic liberals and social conservatives, urban dwellers and residents of the rural heartland. And it has been very good at ruling and gaining power 47 of the 76 years since the end of WWII.
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But the party looks disjointed at the moment, with the divide between the socially liberal and religiously conservative wings clear to all. The party (at least under Collins) is more interested in the clashes of the Culture War than in addressing material issues, particularly rising rents and housing crises.
Furthermore, if National is to regain power in 2023, it needs to bring back voters who joined Jacinda Ardern’s Labor Party in 2020. Both Ardern and his government are beginning to shine as the pandemic continues to overwhelm more people. Start flagging, offering any kind of attack to the national that will appeal to those who are looking for a reason to return. But Collins’ focus was often elsewhere.
In a sense, Judith Collins lost her job because she didn’t belong to John. The National is on a mission to find the next John Key since Native resigned as leader in 2016 (although, and this is unlikely to be entirely coincidental, he has recently made some sort of difference here and there). like the Political Legacy Act has started popping up).
Five lead changes later (and with another to come next week), the search continues. But installing a fifth new leader (six if you count Nikki Kaye’s hour-long tenure after Todd Mueller’s departure) because Key’s timing will not be a panacea for the party’s problems. The national problems are much deeper than this.
Meanwhile, whoever becomes the next leader may be looking forward to leading a party that is marginalized, with three former leaders on the margins – one who is clearly spending his time and the other. Which, one suspects, is not taking it (or anything). others) lying down.
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The ACT is circling the right, while Ardern on the left has led the country to higher vaccination rates and is about to open up. To say that the next leader of the National has finished his job would be an overly political understatement.
For New Zealand’s most electorally successful party in the post-war era, the chaotic events of the past 24 hours are the latest episode in an unprecedented period of turmoil. so he is. But beyond the implications of the current bloodshed for individuals and parties, there is a more important dimension to the ongoing disorganization within the national.
Representative democracies need functional governments but they also need strong opposition. At the moment, New Zealand has one of these things but not the other. It can’t continue – and yet it goes on.