A post mortem of the 2017-2020 parliament shows that far from being the “opposition from hell” as they had threatened, National’s caucus was as ineffective as Donald Trump dealing to Covid 19.
It is a salutary lesson for the new Labour caucus which has won 64 seats in the new parliament. Depending on whether the Green Party with their 10 or 11 MPs is accommodated into government, there may be many backbench MPs who are underemployed.
Many in the National Party refused to accept that despite winning 56 seats to Labour’s 46 in 2017, it was the latter which would form the government. They vowed their revenge would be to make life hell for the new multi-party coalition government. In reality, numerous National’s back and frontbench MPs had too much time on their hands and used it to make mischief and pursue personal agendas.
Emma Espiner (Wehipeihana), writing for Newsroom, shortly before Winston Peters made his decision for NZ First to side with Labour in 2017, echoed many in the commentariat that forecast National would be a formidable opposition.
She noted Labour had in opposition “clawed its own eyes out” during its long stint opposing John Key, trialling five successive opposition leaders. But that wouldn’t happen to National she opined “because National are intrinsically more stable or less prone to backstabbing and eye gouging than Labour”.
Well it didn’t turn out at all like that. Andrea Vance in the Dominion Post’s post mortem of this year’s election not only reveals that National’s election campaign was shambolic, but many of their own goals had their genesis in the disruption emanating from the likes of Judith Collins and Todd Muller early on in the term.
Some National MPs, who spoke to Vance on condition of anonymity, said not only did Collins and campaign director Gerry Brownlee run an inept campaign that delivered “electoral slaughter”, it was ill-discipline throughout the term that was the root cause.
“Let’s be honest about the team of 2017,” said one departing Nat MP, “they have been the bane of National’s life. There have been nothing but leaks, a sense of self-entitlement and real arrogance.”
But it wasn’t just the newbies who destabilised and leaked. Collins, with her Gertrude-like ambition, has been a dark and disruptive force within her party for over a decade, even when the popular Key was leader.
She, and others, undermined Bill English for his failure to get Winston Peters on board during the 2017 post-election negotiations. After all, National’s only raison d’etre is to keep Labour out of power so wealth and assets can be protected. So his failure to do the business meant he had to go.
For nine months English’s successor, Simon Bridges, kept party support at a healthy 44 percent despite many in the party not liking him and his personal poll support being ugly. His spat with former friend and party whip Jami-lee Ross ended his honeymoon.
The resulting party poll slide allowed those with similar ambitions to Collins, such as Muller, backed by the likes of Michelle Boag, to proceed with their dirty work.
But back stabbing has its consequences.
“The way it was done was dirty and … as a consequence of that, they couldn’t stand there in front of us and say you all need to be loyal united,” said one MP who has lost their seat.
Some saw support by Collins in their electorate as a liability as some Republicans view Trump.
On her selection as leader after the disastrous Todd Muller interlude, Collins dragged the entire caucus out to front the media to display unity. But many in that caucus and the public knew it was a sham. Some, not too covertly, distanced themselves from her because of her previous modus operandi of dirty politicking and most well understood she was a polarising figure with the public.
Collin’s billboards shouting “Strong Team” came from the Trump/Goebbels school of lies that if you are going to tell a porky, make it a whopper. It was soon exposed for what it was by the leaking of the Denise Lee email that accused Collins of making up policy on the fly.
Collins and other duck-shovers later tried to blame the leak for a five point dive in National support but the leak only made crystal clear what everyone knew.
“She destabilised three leaders,” said one National MP of Collins. “She did it to John Key in 2014, she completely destabilised Simon Bridges, and she was behind the coup with Todd Muller.”
“Judith crawled over broken glass for a decade to get this job, she isn’t some Joan of Arc figure. Sadly, when she got there, there was nothing. She didn’t even have an A4 of a plan,” another departing MP complained bitterly.
Interestingly, in the same edition of the Dominion Post, two of National’s high fliers who played major roles in rolling Bridges, Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop, were interviewed about their parts in the election debacle. Each were promoted for their assistance in back-stabbing their leader and neither took responsibility for their part in the ensuing election debacle.
Minimising her role and with unintended irony, Willis said: “I see this as a team sport, where you are only as strong as your team. Everyone wants a team to be unified if they are going to put their trust into it. “
Asked about her responsibility for being prominent among the Bridges coup plotters, she again minimises, saying finger pointing is unhelpful. “That’s in the past – my focus is firmly on the future.”
“I reject the idea that I have been disloyal,” she said, adding “what remains important is that I am back in Parliament.”
Similarly, Bishop claims it was a collective decision to change leaders. “We made a decision to change the leader from Simon to Todd, and then from Todd to Judith later on. Those were collective decisions, so the party is collectively responsible and I take my share of responsibility with everyone else.”
Labour is unlikely to have those issues while Ardern retains her popularity as leader. However, while she may be inclined to offer ministerial posts to experienced and capable Green Party former ministers, Ardern may take cognisance of National’s experience that the devil makes use of idle hands.
(Simon Louisson worked as a journalist for Reuters, the New Zealand Press Association, and The Wall Street Journal among others and worked two stints for the Green Party as a media and political adviser prior to the recent election).