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Brownlee’s Uranium Breath Leadership Challenge


Brownlee’s Uranium Breath Leadership Challenge

By Paulo Politico

It is likely that Brownlee will challenge English at National’s forthcoming caucus retreat in February. Whoever wins the leadership must demand consistency from his caucus colleagues. A clear, consistent and credible policy alternative is the only way that National will ever capture the imagination of voters.

As it enters its fourth year in opposition, the National Party has evidently learned nothing from its past two election defeats.

National’s loss in 1999 can be attributed to many things. It had become a stale government, led by a stale cabinet. National in government cut New Zealand Superannuation on one hand while insisting that it could continue to cut taxes on the other. Voters grew tired of National’s chronic cost cutting in health, education and the police.

By the time National went to the polls in 1999, defeat seemed inevitable.

Explaining National’s loss in 2002 not so easy. Not only did National lose, its share of the party vote collapsed. Few people will forget Labour’s trouncing of it conservative foe, outpolling National in the crucial party vote contest in seats like Rodney, East Coast Bays and North Shore. If the party vote decided the electorates then Labour outpolled National, 65 to 4.

True, Helen Clark’s government enjoyed great success during its first term. The Prime Minister herself can be well satisfied with her own personal standing. She is far more respected and admired than any of her political opponents.

But Labour’s success in itself does not explain why National in January 2003 looks in no better shape than it did when it lost power in November 1999.

I attribute National’s failure to at least preserve its 1999 vote, to a failure of leadership and a failure to present a credible policy agenda.

National today is a sea of contradictions. Take the recent press statement from National’s deputy leader Roger Sowry, calling for a multi-lane highway to be built between Auckland and Wellington.

The suggestion itself is interesting and arguably worth consideration. But Sowry also made the mistake of inferring that money taken from the petrol tax could be redirected to build the highway.

Consider these points:

Sowry was a member of a government that frequently ratcheted up the petrol tax charged at the pumps. During its final term in office, the National government imposed some of the most significant increases in the petrol tax that we have seen in recent years.

A year ago, Sowry’s own leader Bill English called for the establishment of a multi-lane highway between Auckland and Hamilton. But English suggested directing money for the New Zealand Superannuation Fund (not the petrol tax) to pay for the road. Twelve months on, and National’s leader is being contradicted by his own deputy.

The government has already moved to pass legislation that will serve to unlock New Zealand’s road network. While Auckland stands to benefit, other important projects are currently taking place, such as the State Highway 2 realignment project between Kaitoke and Te Marua in Upper Hutt.

So with one media statement, National’s own deputy leader has (a) established a double standard, (b) contradicted his own leader, and (c) deliberately ignored important development work already taking place.

Simply not credible.

National needs to have a clear and consistent message. The party cannot move beyond its past failures if its own frontbench are going to contradict one another and their own track record.
I think Sowry’s contradiction of his own leader is not deliberate. I doubt that Sowry actually meant to fudge his leader’s message, as it would not be in either of their interests to feud in front of their own cynical colleagues.

But another frontbencher, Gerry Brownlee, is deliberately contradicting English.

By publishing an article in The Press, which calls for an end to New Zealand’s ban on nuclear-powered ships, Brownlee has deliberately challenged the policy position that English has advocated since he took on the leadership of the National Party in 2001.

The timing of Brownlee’s challenge to his own leader is even more interesting. Since the election, English has been proactive in leading National’s opposition to the government on almost every issue. This was designed to maximise his profile and gain the party some much needed media coverage.

Unfortunately the strategy has failed. National went into the summer break with support falling below 20 percent in many opinion polls. Even worse for English, he has been overtaken by Winston Peters, as the second most preferred Prime Minister (although both MPs are far behind the Prime Minister).

Brownlee knows that January is a quiet month for news, and most media outlets consider anything even remotely provocative. So in writing the article, Brownlee knew there was a high chance that it would be published.

Secondly Brownlee knew that contradicting his leader on an issue as fundamental as New Zealand’s nuclear free legislation would get their colleague’s attention. As the shadow Leader of the House, Brownlee knows he has to maintain a good working relationship with other National MPs. So Brownlee (and his supporters) must have gone to some lengths to canvas the sentiments of other caucus members.

Thirdly English did not anticipate the Brownlee challenge. No leader would allow such a contradictory statement to be deliberately released to the media. That Brownlee is prepared to spring such a surprise on his own leader offers a clue as to how the National caucus (a) regard its leader, (b) have sympathy for Brownlee’s sentiments.

Finally, it was left to Wayne Mapp to comment on Brownlee’s article. Mapp reportedly agreed with Brownlee’s call for an end to New Zealand’s ban on nuclear-powered ships. Whatever the merits of the policy u-turn, Mapp too has declared a position that contradicts his own leader.

All of this does not address National’s fundamental problem – a lack of credibility. New Zealanders loathe policy flip-flops and u-turns on fundamental issues. It is a sign of weakness. Such weakness is never rewarded at the ballot box, as National found out to its detriment last July.

It is likely that Brownlee will challenge English at National’s forthcoming caucus retreat in February. Whoever wins the leadership must demand consistency from his caucus colleagues. A clear, consistent and credible policy alternative is the only way that National will ever capture the imagination of voters.

My advice to the National leader (whoever he may be) is to confirm his position as soon as possible and put to bed the contradictions and double standards that has plagued the party since it lost office in 1999.

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