The chortling from the left field of politics has extended from Wellington’s beltway now to the deep state of Washington DC with the apparent election of 77-year-old Joe Biden to the presidency of the United States. At this stage, I have to say “apparent” to guard against the long shot that incumbent Donald J Trump might succeed in his recourse to the courts of law to reverse an adverse count in Electoral College votes accorded Biden by the court of voting public opinion.

The chortles from left field in both countries are not being echoed by its socialist extremists. In the US, as figures stand at the time of writing, while the Democrats have retained a diminished majority in the House of Representatives, Trump’s Republican Party clings to a narrow lead in the Senate; the senior body of the US Congress without whose approval no senior cabinet appointments or significant changes of law can take place.

Here in New Zealand, signs are that reinstalled Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, while sufficiently emboldened by the high margin of her electoral victory to arrogate to herself the traditional right of a Labour caucus to choose cabinet membership, remains aware that she owes the scale of that margin to previous National Party voters who crossed over in what proved to be a fruitless attempt to deny parliamentary access to the Green Party. So most of the commentariat believe that Ardern will ensure that her government steers a moderate, even conservative, course over the next three years.

Such is Ardern’s command of the Labour cabinet and caucus that, to an extent probably not seen in that party since the cumulative ministries of Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser, the Prime Minister will well and truly rule the roost and introduce a self-imposed level of discipline that will keep ministers subservient to the 9th floor of the Beehive, and keep back bench disquiet to a minimum. It will be ”softly, softly, don’t scare the horses…er, voters, who we’ll need in 2023”.

Opposite in Parliament will be three main parties with very different problems: ACT with its newfound explosion in representation from one to ten, National down from 54 to a disheartened core of just 33, and a rejuvenated Maori Party of two, faced with three years of persuading iwi and hapu throughout the motu that they can do more for tangata whenua than be lapdogs of a majority left wing party.

Of those three, the most extreme heat, however, will be on National as it struggles to recover its mojo after what was undeniably the weakest election campaign of its history.

All we know at the time of writing this is that Judith Collins has been, as expected, re-elected as leader, with Dr Shane Reti uncontested as her deputy to replace Gerry Brownlee who had voluntarily stepped down. But Ms Collins has promised some surprises in the allocation of shadow portfolios.

What will be as vital for National as the identification of new portfolio holders will be immediate action in terms of updating both its constitutional organisation (especially in relation to candidate selection) and details of the policies on which it will campaign.

In some ways, the candidate selection issue takes us back to the changes made following the unsuccessful choice of Andrew Shand to replace his father, Hon Tom Shand, in the 1970 by-election following the untimely death of the latter, who had been MP for Marlborough for 26 years and a well-respected Minister of Labour. It had been expected that respect for the Shand name, and the tragic circumstances of Tom’s death would have seen Andrew as a shoo-in, but he was defeated by a previously unknown Labour candidate in what had become (and remains to this day) a “true blue” seat.

National admitted that misplaced emotion played too much of a role in Andrew’s selection, and amended its candidate selection process.

Since that 1970 experience, total reliance on local membership in an electorate to select its own candidate has been watered down, first by Head Office’s ability to rule out unacceptable aspirants, then the introduction of the pre-selection committee process to whittle down the final number going to final selection. Seasoned observers have come to complain that since the new “corporate” governance system was introduced after the 2002 electoral debacle, board surveillance of nominated candidates has proved on occasions not to have been as penetrating as it should have been, and the regional chair nominees, appointed to make up minimum numbers in electorates with insufficient membership, have had too much sway.

In the “good old days” it was acknowledged that two of the main attractions to active, paid membership of the National Party were: first, the opportunity to attend regional and national conferences and debate remits on a variety of policy directions, and second, election as a voting delegate to select or confirm your electorate’s candidate for Parliament. The watering down of both of these attractions in recent years is cited as a reason for the decline in membership strength, now measured in tens of thousands where, when I became involved in 1960, it was hundreds of thousands.

Whatever other amendments it may make to its constitution, National must, as a matter of urgency, repair its candidate selection process, so that in those electorates it has lost in 2020 and those it can win in 2023, candidates are selected in plenty of time to make themselves known to voters.

As for policy, the emphasis must be on practical, recognisable detail that strikes a popular and necessary chord, rather than the hazy generalities served up by both major parties in the recent election campaign, and continuing to be uttered by the Ardern Government. National must not be scared by the potential for Labour to steal any good new ideas. That’s a risk always in-built in politics, and the voting public are not fools, especially if they are constantly reminded of the original source of workable new policies. The public will know which new policies Labour have been shamed by National into bringing into effect.

Topical examples in this Covid environment:

Extension of work visas for immigrants: Too many small businesses, especially in the hospitality and related sectors, face the worry of retaining sufficient staff in jobs that Kiwis spurn but are gladly, and usually well exercised, by grateful long-term visitors on work permits. Not only is Immigration NZ niggardly in granting extensions; in some cases the agency doesn’t even answer the phone. National should call, again and again, for an immediate automatic extension of all such work visas for one year, while a longer term solution is found.

Bank Charges for Pay-wave: All businesses, but especially small businesses that can’t afford them are being persecuted by banks with excessive fees for contactless payment by credit cards, known as Pay-wave. Labour promised to address the issue, but so far nothing. C’mon, National! Shame them into it!

Zero Carbon Pseudo-science: National needs to research how many primary producing rural voters it lost by its failure to expose James Shaw’s “Zero Carbon” law for the non-physics it is, and for its economy-damaging and farm-killing intent. Whoever gets National’s shadow portfolio of climate change, must read Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, whose latest book “False Alarm” mentions New Zealand, and is reviewed here.

BFD commenters: I’m sure National will welcome other policy suggestions you might make in the comments below.

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Terry Dunleavy

Terry Dunleavy

Terry Dunleavy, 91 years young, was a journalist before his career took him into the wine industry as inaugural CEO of the Wine Institute of New Zealand and his leading role in the development of wine...