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The next National leader: Simon Power

The next National leader: Simon Power

By Paulo Politico

First Published on Spectator.co.nz

National Party’s frontbench looks old and grey. The ‘Brat pack’ gang of ’90 – Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith, and Tony Ryall – are not the opposition attack dogs that we were promised. So who is the “man” of the future? Stand up Simon Power!

289 votes was all that was required for Rangitikei to be declared a ‘National hold’ in 1999. That piddling number of votes represents the majority for Simon Power, the local MP and the next leader of the National Party.

It can’t have been easy for Power. When he was first elected in 1999 he entered parliament in a swirl on controversy. A ballot box full of votes, missing from the Himatangi Beach Community Hall (a Labour stronghold), could not be accounted for. But Power eventually emerged the victor and Labour’s second placed Craig Walsham conceded defeat.

Arriving at parliament as a backbench member in a tired caucus, Power was quickly singled out as ‘one to watch’. The solicitor from Palmerston North was seen to be a breath of fresh air in a party that looked dilapidated and discredited in the eyes of the voters.

Rising stoically from the backbench, Power is now number 14 in a caucus of 39 members. Not bad after only two years in parliament. But Power’s next promotion is likely to be because of events well beyond his control.

As it stands the National Party’s frontbench looks old and grey. The ‘Brat pack’ gang of ’90 – Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith, and Tony Ryall – are not the opposition attack dogs that we were promised.

The portly Sowry is the party’s health spokesperson, who has failed to produce a policy that can differentiate National from the government. First elected as the MP for Kapiti in 1990, Sowry lost the Otaki electorate in 1996 and 1999. He is an MP by virtue of the party list and looks set to lose again, this time to Labour’s new candidate, 24-year old Darren Hughes.

Nelson MP Nick Smith struggles to look credible against Education Minister Trevor Mallard. The latter is a government tough-guy who has been one of the best performers in the House. By contrast, Dr Smith carps and moans but offers little other than a policy to undermine equity funding – which would take money away from poorer schools.

Tony Ryall has chased rumours of ministerial scandals for months without being able to claim a single political scalp. The softly spoken Ryall is actually National’s economic and regional development spokesperson. But you wouldn’t know it because Ryall never has anything constructive to say about regional issues.

But by far the biggest disappointment has been Bill English. Regarded as the leader who could lift the National Party, English leads a caucus that is panicking in the face of deteriorating poll results.

According to the One News Colmar Brunton Poll, Prime Minister Helen Clark commanded an impressive 24 percent lead over Jenny Shipley when she (Shipley) was rolled as National’s leader in October last year. Six months later and Clark had stretched her lead to a mammoth 35 percent over English.

National’s attempt to dampen down the nation’s spirits don’t seem to have worked either. Confidence in the economy, the outlook for a brighter future and a strengthening labour market continue to fuel voter confidence. Approval of the government’s performance continues to outpoll disapproval by over 29 percent.

If National loses the next election then the party wont be content to just take the disaster on the chin. Recriminations will be severe and the ageing Brat pack are in danger of receiving some harsh criticism.

For Power the prospects are actually quite good. If he can separate himself from the National Party leadership then he may be able to avoid the carnage that follows a second straight loss at the hands of Helen Clark’s Labour Party.

A Clark verses English contest may well see Clark win by more in 2002 than she did in 1999. That year she faced off against the glamorous yet clumsy Shipley. It wasn’t a pretty sight as Shipley sustained attack after attack for the poor performance of her government.

Since taking over as leader, English has been equally gaffe prone. His flip-flops about National’s on-again off-again support for the war on terrorism earned him a whole heap of public disdain. He also lost credibility for announcing that poorer schools are “awash with cash”.

Elderly New Zealanders worry about English’s promise to abolish the superannuation fund. This policy would effectively drain away the money set aside to pay for future superannuation payments, a dire prospect for older New Zealanders.

English is in extreme danger of being blamed for what may turn out to be National’s worst defeat since it’s formation in the early 1930s. Who wants to be associated with that invidious honour?

If English goes down by a small margin then he may hang on. If he goes down badly then his credibility will be damaged. Sacrificing one or two of his front bench as martyrs might keep the wolves at bay for a while. But bigger problems loom on the horizon.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for a badly damaged English, National will look to Simon Power to fill the void. I liken the situation to that faced by Australia’s Liberal-National coalition following its defeat in 1990. On that occasion the Liberal caucus asked a little known second term MP called Dr John Hewson to lead the coalition against the Hawke-Keating Labor government.

Here in New Zealand it will be Power who is asked to fill the leadership vaccum created by a bad result at the next election. National MPs have said the 2005 election is not their target. They want to win this year. Failure to do so must bring into question that party’s current leadership.

National’s current malaise is a result of years of broken promises and mismanagement. That is continuing at present under English. A failure to stack the front bench with talent means that not only does English face the prospect of declining electoral fortunes, but Sowry, Smith and Ryall will sustain damage as well.

This must be a delicious prospect for Power. The opportunity to lead a party without being hamstrung by the ageing Brat pack will be too good an opportunity to miss.

I would not be surprised if Simon Power is already having the quiet conversations with some of his ‘millennium’ colleagues (the newly elected class of National MPs elected in 1999). The millennium MPs already outnumber the Brat pack eight votes to four. That’s twelve votes already decided. How the other 27 votes fall will be largely determined by the events of the next 12 months.

The smart money has to be on Power in the long term.


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