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Gordon Campbell: Devising National’s comeback

How the backroom strategists might be concocting National’s battle plan…
by Gordon Campbell
First published on Werewolf

steven-joyce1In a windowless room in a Wellington high rise, Fletcher Mudgway, 25, had been hard at work for days, leading into weeks. He’d been working the espresso machine down the hall pretty hard, too. Sure, they’d told him things like: ‘Don’t be afraid of being a disruptor. This is blue skies stuff. All the ideas you can put on that whiteboard are good ideas, kid.’ Maybe, but he knew the score. It was his misfortune to be landed with this crazy, hopeless mission – to write the first draft of the political strategy to get National re-elected in 2020.

Despite all his efforts, the best he could hope for would be that come February, someone two or three tiers down the party hierarchy from Steven Joyce would glance at his draft plan, flick it across the table and go: ‘Maybe we can do something with this piece of shit.’ Fletcher Mudgway approached the whiteboard. National’s journey back to the Beehive had begun. Begin at the beginning. Take no prisoners.

The problem. Since National got the bad news from Winston, buckets of praise had been heaped on Bill English for leading a third term National government to a 44 % plus share of the vote. Well, faint hoorays all around. Because to win that result, Fletcher sighed, National had burned off the main coalition partner it needed to achieve a governing majority. The rest of the centre-right squad were rubbish. The Act Party – under David Seymour’s leadership at least – wasn’t ever going to be a serious prospect, and the Maori Party wouldn’t be coming back from the dead any time soon. Looking ahead, there was only one partner National had to (somehow) get to the altar. There were only three years to do it. Already, it felt like too much, too soon.

The target. That prime target, the only target for National, had to be New Zealand First. Over the next three years, it had to be bought off, split asunder or otherwise prised out of its current governing relationship. Time was National’s enemy, but also its friend. If and when Winston Peters took his leave of the political stage sometime in the next 18 months - and Bill English did likewise after sticking around for a while as a handy absorbent for this year’s defeat – there would be fresh leadership, maybe capable of enacting a new courtship dance. In the meantime, National could busy itself by stoking the enmity that already exists between NZF and the Greens. On the whiteboard, Fletcher wrote his first set of bullet points. His list of potential sources of Greens/NZF frisson included:

Agriculture, Climate Change, Regional blah blah. There was an entire history of over-promising and under-delivery to draw on here. Just like Jim Anderton did the last time that Labour led an incoming government, Shane Jones had come steaming in making much ado about regional development, and the jobs this could potentially create. Hah. Faint hope. Meanwhile, the Greens were still yearning to include agriculture in the emission trading scheme (ETS) sooner rather than later, and were also intent on reducing the extent of river/lake pollution caused by intensive dairying. A collision between the Greens and NZF was virtually guaranteed, even before you got onto Tracey Martin’s weird views on the smacking legislation. This was GOOD, Fletcher wrote in capitals, this was very, very good.

The conflict would create plenty of room for a farmer-friendly National Party to advance its relationship with Jones. Rural mates bonding against those latte-swilling socialists. (Fletcher blinked. Didn’t he enjoy the occasional latte himself? Stop that thought.) Hmmm. Almost certainly, Shane Jones was the sort of Minister who liked his briefing papers short and sweet. Come 2020, National could be reasonably sure that Jones would be lazily looking around for a scapegoat if and when things came a cropper and the NZF he aspired to lead was being seen to have under-delivered more than somewhat. By then, Jones might well welcome a friend who could help him blame the Greens for it all going to custard and – added bonus – the Greens never really believed in the efficacy of the ETS anyway, right? That point had to be useful, sometime. Make a note.

True, Ardern and Peters and NZF had done their level best during the coalition negotiations to head off exactly this source of friction. As a result, the coalition agreement documents do not vest Climate Change Minister James Shaw with the power to bring agriculture into the ETS. Instead, it delegated that decision to a new and independent Climate Change Commission, on the express understanding that the inclusion of agriculture would not occur immediately. Smart, but not smart enough, Fletcher thought. Because just how the division of labour (and the separation of powers) will pan out between the Minister and this new Commission remains to be seen. Yes! Any hiccups in that ministerial/commissionariat relationship offered some promising lines of attack in future, for any Opposition on its toes. Watch that space.

Defence. Bo-ring, Fletcher thought. Old people in dress up, fixated on seeing tomorrow’s conflicts through the prism of the past. But maybe, just maybe… Wasn’t it also true that since its inception in the 1990s, New Zealand First had been fatally prone to factionalism and splits in the caucus ranks? Hadn’t Peters already called for waka jumping legislation to deter any such faction fighting in future? As in that Candyman horror movie that his girlfriend Kat liked so much, mightn’t fear call into existence the very thing that it most fears? Indeed, it might. With a bit of prodding.

Meaning: if National couldn’t successfully woo Jones, there was always the fallback option of enticing Ron Mark into acting out his festering sense of being under-estimated and under-valued. Earlier this year, Mark had been associated with a grouping in New Zealand First that seemed to be very, very annoyed at the way Jones was being parachuted into the party hierarchy. Looking ahead, Mark now headed a Defence Ministry that had $20 billion earmarked (by the outgoing National government) for spending on new equipment for our armed forces, by 2025. Alas for Mark, most of this spend-up will benefit Aussie shipyards, rather than create jobs at home. Unlike Jones out in the regions, Mark won’t have all that many bragging opportunities when it comes to job creation. Fearful. Permanently aggrieved. Da Doo Ron Ron / Lets Do Ron Ron…

Besides, Labour and the Greens will inevitably feel tempted to raid the Defence piggy bank, in order to meet what they see as far more pressing social needs here at home. Maybe National – on the premise that if you can’t woo New Zealand First, you can set them against each other – could position itself as Mark’s helpmate in his efforts to upstage Shane Jones, and champion our traditional defence ties. On the day that the new government was sworn in, Fletcher couldn’t help but notice that Mark had been wearing a clinkingly impressive set of military service medals. Gerry Brownlee, your first job in Opposition will be to become Ron Mark’s new best friend.

Civil liberties. This is good. One advantage National enjoys is the booming size of its new caucus. In the coming months, Fletcher wrote carefully with his red marker, the caucus middle management (Chris Bishop, Todd Muller, Mark Mitchell!) should be put to work on schooling all the new National backbenchers on how to weaponise the private members ballot. Given how many Labour/Greens/ NZF MPs are in the executive branch, National now had the capacity to flood the members ballot with bills targeted at the existing pressure points between the Greens and NZF.

In other words, Parliament should start gearing itself up right now to expect a large number of members bills on hardline law and order/surveillance/random drug testing/harsher sentencing/extended gun licensing rights etc etc issues, as part of the centre-right’s overall efforts to extend the powers of the Police, Corrections and the security services. Then we’ll see, Fletcher muttered, just where New Zealand First sits on its pet issues.

Such bills would be hard for the older, more conservative NZF crowd to oppose – not to mention the likes of Greg O’Connor in the Labour caucus - while reliably raising the hackles of the Greens about the civil liberties implications. In fact, the Greens could be relied on to go totally apeshit! National’s positioning aim would be to move the debate rightwards not only on the economy and trade, but on civil liberties and security issues as well. Which…would be a good thing, right? Fletcher hesitated. So long as no-one started random drug testing him and his friends, things could still be OK. No personal risk here, surely.

The messenger. Plain sailing. Usefully for National, the mainstream media could always be relied on to be less tolerant of divisions and rank incompetence in a centre-left administration than when such failings were manifest in a centre-right one. For the right to err is to be humanly fallible, nothing much to see here, move on. But for the left to err while in government is to let loose the hounds of anarchy and chaos. Even better this time, the media will be actively hunting for signs of dissent and disarray. Fletcher rubbed his hands. Good.

This next bit would be… just SO easy. Even though the Greens’ confidence and supply deal allows them to criticise the government in areas outside their ministerial responsibilities, how many of the public grasp that fine distinction? Not many, if any. Soooo… any critical noises from the Greens will be taken by the media as a sign of rampant disunity. Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. On hot button topics like trade (especially over the TPP’s ISDS measures) and on diplomacy with Australia there will always be differences between Labour, NZF and the Greens. The media could be relied on to depict those differences as seismic. Good.

Hmmm. But maybe, Fletcher thought, nibbling at his nails, this line of attack COULD actually boomerang. After all, most of the influx of real talent to the Labour caucus (Kiri Allan, Deborah Russell etc) was still waiting in the wings. If the media heat goes onto the weak Ministers in the Labour ranks, this could (ironically) enable Jacinda Ardern to look authoritative and gain some brownie points by shuffling out her under-performers.

Gulp. Early on, hadn’t John Key won credibility points by ridding his ranks of the mediocre likes of Phil Heatley, Richard Willis and Pansy Wong? The same process of media-fed winnowing might (ironically!) create a stronger Labour line-up by 2020, provided Ardern herself wasn't tainted by association. No reason why she should. Key wasn’t tainted by the people he fired, or by those he didn’t (eg Hekia Parata.) Nor did English take much flak for his fidelity to a hopeless case like Nick Smith. Gosh. Was National stoking public outrage at ministerial incompetence likely to end up being a good thing or a bad thing? Confound that Jacinda Ardern and her likeable likeability!

True, one option for National could be to focus its fire on the weak NZF ministerial performers that lie further beyond Ardern’s reach. On the downside, this would be likely to create enduring resentment among the very same NZF players that National was trying to bring onside. This stuff was so much harder than it looked. You couldn't just rampage in and destroy everything in sight, although Fletcher was pretty sure a lot of National’s caucus were in the mood for three years of carpet bombing. Fletcher stepped away from the whiteboard. This wasn’t jelling. However he looked at it, this didn’t look like a one term fix. Could he afford to stand up and say that to Steven Joyce? Only in his dreams.

The galloping likelihood of an extended spell on the opposition benches should have implications for National, once Bill English departed the building, around mid 2018 at the latest. (Memo. Must remember to say somewhere in this draft : good old Bill.) But while this next bit went way beyond his brief, should National really afford to expend its best long term leadership prospect – the Simon Bridges/Amy Adams combo – by sending it off to almost certain defeat in 2020?

Arguably therefore, an interim solution was called for. Someone confident enough to lead the troops over the top, straight into the wire and the machine guns. Fletcher thought back to when he was still a choirboy. When Pope John Paul II died, the papal conclave had been blessed with all sorts of enticing change contenders – yet it also had one looming holdover from the previous papacy, in the shape of Cardinal Ratzinger, the deadly Mr Fixit for John Paul II. In the end, the conclave limply handed Ratzinger the top job, mainly because otherwise, he would have cast such a baleful shadow over anyone else they picked. This was all on the understanding that even while Ratzinger (aka Benedict XV) plainly didn’t have the human skills necessary for papal success, it would be just an interim solution.

In other words, let the worst option rule the roost during impossible times, to get rid of him/her. By the same infallible logic, Fletcher said to himself, either Steven Joyce or Judith Collins could be the kamikaze interim leader usefully expendable at election 2020, once Bill English had done the decent thing. They’d give it a good go. Then National would be free to pick Simon and Amy. Good. Very, very good. Steven wouldn’t even see the machine guns until it was too late.

Phew. Gosh, but it was a complicated picture, all right. Basically, a frontal attack on NZF as the weak link in this current arrangement might only humiliate and alienate the very people that National needs to win over to its side. Fletcher sighed. As his girlfriend Kat once said, it is really hard to publicly wreck a relationship, and then hope to date one of the survivors straight afterwards. Oh, Kat. When would he ever get out of this room and see her again?

Songs for the spurned

Talking about unlikely trios in which political diversity carries the seeds of its own downfall, there’s this number by an impossibly young Johnny Cash…

For anyone on the centre right still moping about the way things have turned out… quite a number of doowop songs convey a fetching sense of utter miserabilism. For example: this obscure 1955 cut from a group called the Sha Weez is arguably the most awesomely self-pitying song ever recorded, especially when the lead singer heads into the fadeout. Many thanks to the late Bob Hite of Canned Heat, who rescued “No One To Love Me” from oblivion…

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