When Shane Reti replaced Judith Collins as head of the New Zealand National Party today, he became the fifth national leader that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has faced. When Reti, who ranks first as a goalkeeper, steps down next week, that number will drop to six. In four years.
For New Zealand’s most successful electoral party in the post-war era, this is a time of unprecedented turmoil.
The departure of Collins hardly surprises anyone. Dissatisfaction with his leadership has been boiling within the National Party family for some time. When it came to Simon Bridges’ demotion last night, it felt like the end was near.
The former leader’s continued association with right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, his criticism of prominent microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, his role in forcing the resignation of former party leader Todd Muller and veteran MP Nick Smith – these and other tactical choices had long since undermined his authority. in sections of the caucus and the larger party organization.
When the family feud first broke into the public domain a few weeks ago, things spiked up several notches. As party insiders such as former Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Collins’ former press secretary began to question his suitability for duty, you felt the tide was running out on Collins.
Leadership cuts all over the place
Ultimately, however, it was the polls that did. Bill English led National to 44.4% of the vote in 2017. Three years and a few leaders later, Collins brought the party to 25.6%, his worst election performance since 2002.
Things never really picked up, the pressure mounts as an anemic poll follows one another. The steady growth in support for the ACT party has made matters worse. In the world of National, David Seymour’s party is supposed to be the act of support, but ACT is now pushing National to headline.
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And so Collins went. But there is more to this than his own performance. In an age of hyper-personalized politics, the obsession of party leaders obscures other critical aspects of a successful political party. There is much more to politics than having a competent leader – lieutenants matter, as do infantry. Politics matters, the old-fashioned parts of the political party “pie” matter.
In other words, the boss of the parliamentary wing of the party is not the only one to have to present himself. Leadership must also come from those who control the wider party organization, and public criticism from party insiders suggests that the issues within National extend far beyond caucus leadership.
For example, the National Party’s board of directors plays a vital role in the selection of candidates, and it hasn’t covered itself in glory lately. There was a string of poor candidates (usually young, male and Pākehā), and after the 2020 election the party managed to end up with a caucus that looked more like 1950s New Zealand than it did in the years. 2020.
A divided party
Collins’ departure will not correct these systemic flaws. Nor will he tackle the most pressing problem National faces – deciding what kind of political party he wants to be.
Historically, National has been a broad political church, welcoming a heterodox mix of economic liberals and social conservatives, city dwellers and rural dwellers. And he’s been very successful in gaining and retaining power, ruling 47 of the 76 years since the end of WWII.
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But the party seems distracted for the moment, the split between its socially liberal and religiously conservative wings obvious to all. The party (at least under Collins) has apparently been more interested in culture war skirmishes than in solving material problems, especially the growing rent and housing crisis.
Beyond that, if National is to regain power in 2023, it must bring back into the fold the voters who decamped to Jacinda Ardern’s Labor Party in 2020. The brilliance has started to be felt in both Ardern and her government as the pandemic continues and people start to flex, offering National a number of lines of attack that would appeal to those looking for a reason to return. But Collins’ attention was too often elsewhere.
The democratic deficit
In a way, Judith Collins lost her job because she wasn’t John Key. National has been on a mission to find The Next John Key since the original stepped down as a leader in 2016 (although, and it’s unlikely to be a coincidence, he’s recently started popping up here and there as a sort of act of political heritage).
Five leadership changes later (and with another looming next week), the search continues. But the installation of the fifth new leader (six if you count Nikki Kaye’s hours at the helm after Todd Muller’s departure) since Key’s time will not be a panacea for the party’s problems. National’s problems run much deeper than that.
Meanwhile, whoever becomes the next leader can expect to lead a torn caucus, surrounded by three former leaders lurking – one clearly biding his time and one who, one suspects, won’t take this (or whatever. or else) lying down.
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The ACT is turning right, while on the left, Ardern has led the country to high vaccination rates and is on the verge of opening up the country. To say that the next National chief has his work cut out for him would be an extreme political understatement.
For the most successful New Zealand party after the war, the chaotic events of the past 24 hours are just the latest episode in a period of unprecedented turmoil. So there is that. But beyond the implications of the current bloodshed for individuals and parties, there is another larger dimension to the ongoing mess within National.
Representative democracies need functioning governments, but they also need strong oppositions. At the moment New Zealand has one of these things but not the other. This cannot continue – and yet it does.