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Election 2016: Centre-right fiasco

Sep 26, 2016 Politics

How can the National Party avoid a repeat performance in 2019?

It’s widely accepted on the centre-right that its project to secure control of Auckland Council has been a shambles.

Optimists pray new networks established with Pacific Island church leaders could be the start of National breaking Labour’s hegemony in South Auckland the way John Key has done in the west. There’s hope 69-year-old former Kiwis coach Graham Lowe is Auckland’s future in Albany. The one bright spot has been Bill Ralston’s independent campaign in the Waitemata and Gulf ward.

There are few organisations more vicious when down than the National Party. Character assassinations have begun on the likes of the Whale Oil blog against those behind the failed centre-right campaign: Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye and former party presidents Michelle Boag and Sue Wood. Epsom-based list MP Paul Goldsmith has successfully — albeit not very gallantly — distanced himself from the debacle.

The fatal error in their project was to assume a top-down approach would work for local government, ignoring the hint that’s in the name. Kaye and Goldsmith were assumed to be acting at the behest of no less than the Prime Minister. There was talk Boag and Wood would bring near-unlimited fundraising capacity, inspirational new policy and stunning brands.

The goal was to stand candidates for every local position under one new centre-right ticket. If you weren’t on board, the story went before Christmas, the steamroller was coming to run you down.

People involved in local government are — how does one put this gently? — not necessarily the coolest kids in town. Not for them, even, the glamour of seeking ministerial limos in Wellington. Their world is about policy for sewage pipes in Pukekohe rather than diplomatic relations with London.

This is not to mock them: we need people to care about the quality of our local playgrounds, and those who put their names forward for local government tend to have more genuine community spirit than those who play the bigger game.

This year’s centre-right effort has been run by pre-Pacman-era people in a post-Pokémon Go age.

With this comes a certain self-respect not characteristic of Wellington backbenchers humiliating themselves asking patsy questions in Parliament in exchange for career advancement. Local body politicians really do expect their concerns about library opening hours to be taken seriously. It’s not surprising there were early personality clashes between those who have long regarded Auckland local government as their turf and those on the new steamroller. What needed to happen may be cringe-inducingly inclusive but nevertheless effective. Like Winston Peters successfully forming NZ First in 1993, Jim Anderton’s NewLabour in 1989 or George Forbes and Gordon Coates launching the National Party in 1936, a great big powwow was needed with the doors wide open to everyone from the palest to deepest blue. (Later purges can quietly get rid of the nutters and extremists.)

However old-fashioned it may sound, the authority for a new political entity needs to be clearly seen as emerging from a convention floor rather than perceived edict from afar. A new movement should be formed and its name chosen by acclamation from the conference floor, a founding executive elected, a constitution drafted by a committee of trusted experts, an initial leader chosen, policy bitterly debated by members, candidates selected in brutal internal contests and a campaign designed for the times. Ironically, because these ancient truths weren’t upheld, this year’s centre-right effort has been run by pre-Pacman-era people in a post-Pokémon Go age.

As evidenced by the past three general elections, ongoing poll results and Phil Goff’s adoption of blue for his mayoral campaign, Auckland is now overwhelmingly a National Party town. It’s odd that the supercity’s mayoralty will be won for a third time by someone with a Labour Party background and that so many councillors from the red team will remain. The recriminations after October 8 over what might have been in 2016 will be tremendous entertainment for those on the sidelines.

But it might be more constructive if someone on the centre-right — perhaps Ralston? — steps up, calls everyone together and starts the process of doing it right for 2019. And it wouldn’t hurt if there was a bit less misguided intensity, a lot more subtlety and some genuine respect for those who really do care about parks and pipes.

Illustration: Getty. This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Metro.


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