Dunne Speaks: National's Reshuffle
Judith Collins' reshuffle of the remnant of National's MPs makes it clear there will no fairy-tale comeback for Simon Bridges. There had been speculation that he could be given the finance role to try to restore National's lost credibility in an area where it had long been dominant. Parallels were being drawn with another former leader, Sir Bill English, whom Sir John Key had made finance spokesperson when he became leader. English went on to be a very successful long term Finance Minister and was the last National Prime Minister.
But there has been no such resurrection in Bridges' case. Along with Todd Muller, another of National's leaders during 2020, he has been dropped down National's depleted Caucus rankings. This is a clear sign of Judith Collins' annoyance at their leadership wrangles which had such a negative impact on National's fortunes in 2020.
There have been reports that Bridges was actually offered the finance role, albeit in its now subordinated role to the new position of shadow Treasurer, but declined it because of that reduced scope. Either way, Bridges has not been offered a path to redemption by Collins, the way Key did to English.
It is now widely acknowledged that National's and Bridges' credibility began falling once Covid19 struck. Back in March, public fear and anxiety about what the pandemic might do to New Zealand immediately pushed people into the government's reassuring arms, and the rest is history.
The problem was that the more Bridges as leader tried to hold the government to account, the more he just angered a frightened public, that quite liked being embraced as the team of five million. This was despite the fact that many of his criticisms proved subsequently to be correct. To many New Zealanders he, and by association National, became so reviled that National's campaign was effectively destroyed by mid-year, while Labour just stood by quietly, metaphorically hugging the nation and sweeping up their votes in the process.
The short term and unfortunate interlude with Todd Muller as leader simply reconfirmed National's disarray to the public and that it could no longer compete effectively with Labour. Consequently, the election campaign was far less the contest of ideas it normally is, and far more just the mechanism for confirming Labour's crushing dominance.
National is now but a remnant of what it used to be. Not only are its numbers of MPs down substantially, but its funding and staffing numbers have also fallen heavily as well. Moreover, its rejuvenated ally on the right, ACT, is on the rise. For these reasons alone it will struggle to be an effective Opposition.
Collins’ reshuffle thus had two basic objectives. First, to establish a structure for organising National’s talents to greatest effect, and second, consistent with her comments ever since she has been leader, to show that disloyalty will not be tolerated. At first glance, her reshuffle appears to meet both objectives.
Nevertheless, the government’s numerical dominance in the House means that Labour will not be quaking at any of National’s new appointments, intriguing as some of them are, but Collins is too experienced a politician not to know that was ever going to be the case. National’s first task is to begin to look organised, with everyone singing from broadly the same song sheet.
Then, its challenge becomes one of relevance. Given the ongoing incidence of the pandemic and the public’s continuing love affair with the Prime Minister and her government, the blunt truth is that National is simply going to struggle to be even heard, let alone get its message across, at least for the foreseeable future. A sharp, focused, well-organised and co-ordinated team of shadow Ministers might make some positive impact, but without the proverbial little bit of luck in the form of a few major stumbles from the government, it is not going to be enough. Yet National has to start somewhere, and the Caucus reshuffle was probably the best place to begin.
The appointment of Dr Shane Reti as deputy leader, and the promotion of a new finance team in the form of Andrew Bayly and Michael Woodhouse in a move akin to the Australian Treasurer/Finance Minister split that has worked successfully over many years will arouse some positive interest. So too will the promotion of Louise Upston, Chris Bishop, Barbara Kuriger and Nicola Willis. The lower rankings given to Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith – long serving electorate MPs who lost their seats at the election, but returned via the party list – sends a barely disguised message they are expected to move on during the coming term.
But the bigger question of the party leadership remains. Judith Collins is likely to remain in the role for the time being, if only because there seems to be no obvious successor. However, this year’s experiences should be a telling reminder that it cannot go into the next election campaign with question marks over leadership.
This reshuffle is therefore the smallest of first steps in National’s quest to regain the trust and support of New Zealanders.