Title: NBR and National's Dilemma Credit: Craig Young Comment Monday 7th August 2006 - 12:00pm1154908800 Article: 1378 Rights
The National Business Review has picked up questions that speculate about the National Opposition's leadership problems. For the most part, Ben Thomas and David Young get it right. But... Can Don Brash and his current entourage win the next general election for the the Opposition? Already, opinion polls seem to show that the Opposition's tax cuts obsession is losing its power of attraction, or perhaps, it is due to further female voter disenchantment with the Opposition's lack of developed social policies, its traditional achilles heel. No-one has taken an in-depth poll about the gender of government and opposition support, so that might be it. And lesbian and gay voters? Let's dispose of the myth that all lesbians and gay men are affluent childless professionals, for starters. Yes, relationship recognition might well have been the endpoint for further Labour support for that constituency. However, other lesbians and gay men do have children, work in the social services or are not on professional incomes. I suspect those factors account for our traditional history of Labour, Alliance or Green allegiance over the last twenty years. National has a leadership dilemma. I'm not sure whether Thomas and Young are correct in asserting that it takes the form of personalised factional politics. Brownlee, English, Collins,Worth and Nick Smith are identifiable social conservatives, while Key, Rich, Finlayson (?) and several others tend to be social liberals. I'm not sure whether the term "classical liberal" is a fair description, primarily because social conservatives have perjured themselves in trying to enforce social conservative ideological purity on the centre-right through sidelining social liberal stances on issues like abortion, homosexuality, sex work, soft drugs and other controversial areas. It goes something like this. National did encompass social conservatives and social liberals during the nineties, whereas the Labour Party suffered from infighting as Labour social conservatives fought social liberal ascendancy within the partliamentary party. Gradually, Labour Right social conservatives defected to ACT, although some ex-Labour social liberals, like Ken Shirley and Richard Prebble did likewise. As time went on, Labour's situation stabilised, and it formed a congenial relationship with the Alliance and Greens, which led to the ascendancy of the centre left during the late nineties and much of the first decade of this century. One would have thought that the centre-right would have learnt from the lessons of the nineties itself, and maintained caucus balance between social conservatives and social liberals. Indeed, under Jenny Shipley's leadership, that was the rule, and National didn't lose significant support past thirty percent. Unfortunately for them, Bill English took over, and the party was wracked over what ideological direction it should take. Maurice Williamson, a centre-right social liberal, emerged as a primary antagonist of the new National leadership. The rest is history. In 2002, National bled support to New Zealand First, ACT and United Future, and Englishs' leadership suffered as a result, until Don Brash deposed him in a party coup. No-one has really asked themselves what else happened, and why social conservatives became ascendant within the National caucus after the debacle of 2002. After I read Marion Maddox's book on the Australian Christian Right last year, I realised that a comparable situation must have happened within the New Zealand National caucus. Based on limited models of current centre-right governments, National's social conservative element must have concluded that ideological purity was a possible avenue to regaining government, despite profound differences between New Zealand on the one hand, and the United States and Australia on the other. Because Don Brash wasa political novice, they suckered him into becoming one of them. As a result, they were amenable to Christian Right overtures, but these were to prove illusory. Why? The US and Australian Christian Rights have the advantage of a large fundamentalist voting base, whereas New Zealand lacks that advantage. Moreover, the New Zealand Christian Right Old Guard lack political sophistication, and waste their votes on opportunists like United Future, which supported Labour on confidence and supply. Destiny Church and the Exclusive Brethren drove undecided urban, female, LGBT and working-class voters away from the centre-right. That situation has more or less continued, since the election. I have serious doubts about one or two of Thomas and Young's more eccentric remarks. One, they argue that supporters of free market economics tend to be social conservatives. Wrong. That may apply within the United States, but New Zealand's political history and population demographics are different. As a result, there are younger free marketeers who are indeed social liberals. They voted National in the nineties, because National represented their social values as much as their economic philosophy. After that ceased to happen, they abandoned National. Two, Thomas and Young are wrong about ACT as well. ACT was not a monolithic centre-right social liberal party. It should have been, but Prebble and Hide were and are too populist. For that reason, ACT was always polarised between real 'classical liberals' like Prebble, Hide and Shirley on the one hand, and social conservative ideological fanatics like Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman, who mindlessly pandered to the Little Zealand and 'macmovement' fringe. The latter are largely responsible for driving voters away from ACT. So, what happens next? There are a couple of alternative scenarios that I can envisage. One, National continues down the same inertia-ridden path. It continues to obsess over tax cuts, and ruminate about personality politics side issues, which lead to haemorrhaging of its vote. It fails to produce convincing social policies, which leads to further female disenchantment with its electoral prospects. It begins to reflect its loss of support as a result amongst all opinion polls, even the more optimistic One Network News one. As a result, the Opposition continues to lose polling support. At the 2008 election, it suffers a fourth consecutive election defeat, polling about thirty percent. Worse still for it, ACT and New Zealand First are voted to oblivion, and United Future contracts down to Peter Dunne, its baseline. Although Tariana Turia is unhappy about her caucus decision, Labour and the Greens accept support from the Maori Party on matters of confidence and supply. National is left isolated within Parliament. As a result, delayed bloodletting breaks out. Two, National does overthrow Brash in a coup at some point, leading to John Key as his most logical replacement. Taking a leaf from David Cameron's book, the Nats decide to pursue a more centrist path. With Katherine Rich as deputy, the Opposition returns to its more pragmatic balance of social conservatives and social liberals. Brownlee ruminates about his deposition, but is placated with policing as a portfolio, while Collins gets defence or some other portfolio suited to her rottweiler disposition. As a result of its more moderate and balanced leadership composition, the 2008 General Election becomes a two-horse race. As I noted in an earlier article, the National Party indeed does have a choice of directions. It can either decide to pander to its unrepresentative social conservative ideologues and alienate mainstream urban and female voters (and probably lesbians and gay men), or it can emulate its successful strategy of caucus balance and pragmatism from the nineties. Indeed, David Cameron's British Conservative Party seems to be going down this road, and has been successful in regaining electoral support from a divided Blairite Labour Party as aresult. Why might National decide to pander to its social conservative elements instead? I suspect that self-delusion and grandiosity might be to blame. No doubt these elements can point to the US Republican and federal Australian Liberal/National Coalition and argue for the 'effectiveness' of social conservative ideological purity. If, as expected, the Republicans lose control of one or both federal Congressional houses in the forthcoming mid-term elections, then that argument will lose some of its effectiveness. For that matter, the Australian Liberals cannot last forever with Howard as their leader, denying Peter Costello's aspirations. Howard's social conservatism has already cost them all of Australia's state and territorial parliaments, which suggests the real fragility of the Liberal/National Coalition And Labour? Helen Clark will continue as leader for the foreseeable future. It has its own overseas examples to ponder. In Britain and Australia alike, factionalism and personality clashes are ruining electoral prospects, but fortunately, New Zealand's Labour Government lacks neuralgic points like the Iraq War quagmire, or ALP factionalism. Phil Goff and Steve Maharey might well lead the Labour Party at some point in its future, but Helen is an effective leader, and brilliant strategist. Moreover, if the next government looks like being a Labour/Green arrangement, then it may concentrate more on social policy issues. In its turn, that may galvanise support from its urban, liberal, female, working-class and lesbian/gay constituencies. Don Brash will never become New Zealand Prime Minister, although it is possible that John Key might. On the other hand, Helen Clark could well become Labour's Keith Holyoake, controlling her caucus and party for four to five parliamentary terms. National may well be doomed to Opposition for the rest of this decade. It is not a foregone conclusion that the third term of the current government will neccessarily be its last. Awkward Members of Parliament can be deselected at some point, as might well happen with Taito Phillip Field in Mangere, so personality politicsmight well backfire, especially if they are seen to be at the cost ofcoherent Opposition policy development. Granted, Field made some foolhardy decisions over individual immigration cases, but will probably never be reappointed to Cabinet as a result of those errors of judgement.If and when Field is signalled to leave, that may well ultimately defuse the liability that his error of judgement has left for the Opposition to exploit. Incidentally, he's not doing the cause of social conservatism any good, either. Within the Labour Party, social conservativesmay havedeveloped a bad reputation as disloyal ideologues, which may contribute to their absence within the caucus and party organisation as a result. To conclude, the next election is not yet a foregone conclusion, nor is this government in irreperable decay. Nor is the Opposition neccessarily sleep walking to inevitable election victory in 2008. If I were the Opposition, I'd ask myself why. Recommended: National Business Review Labour Party National Party Craig Young - 7th August 2006    
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