Given the factions within National’s own caucus, anyone picked as the new leader of the National Party will struggle to unify their own troops, let alone to convince the electorate that National is a coherent government-in-waiting. Even all of that aside, no new leader – Judith Collins? Amy Adams? – seems likely to have the time or the inclination to change the party’s political messaging about Covid-19. That’s really unfortunate. In an alternative political universe, National might have been far better advised to have played the patriotism card during the pandemic, and thrown its bi-partisan support behind the government at this time of national crisis.
Arguably, it would have been somewhat easier then to communicate National’s claim to be a better manager – ie, if National had sacrificed the cheap point scoring for the greater good and if its leadership was making its electoral pitch via positive messaging that allayed public anxiety rather than avidly seeking to exploit that same public anxiety for political gain. If it had chosen that route, National could have patronised the government with faint praise and signalled how National could have done much the same, but even better. Instead, National chose to mount an all out attack on government competence, at a time when the government is being widely seen to be doing the important things rather well, overall. .
After all… Surely, he lesson from Simon Bridges’ downfall should have been that the public had precious little patience with nitpicking negativism and with the inflating of minor security lapses into national calamities. Meanwhile, the global media has been showing the terrible carnage the virus is causing, everywhere else but here. To put that another way : so far not a single New Zealander has even fallen sick- let alone died – as a result of the security lapses here that National has been trumpeting.
Tellingly though, the advent of a less abrasive leader in Todd Muller did not led to any change at all in Nationl’s pandemic messaging. The Chicken Licken language of “ botch-ups” and “ fiascos” and demands for overnight solutions to intractable problems continued, as if Bridges had not left the wheelhouse. Meanwhile, New Zealand continued to be the world’s safest place to be, largely thanks to how its government has handled the threat from Covid-19. Basicalyly…there has been serious cognitive dissonance between National’s chosen messaging, and the actual experience of the New Zealand public.
That mistake is still being perpetuated. Evidently, National thought that all it had to do was to change the messenger, when the more serious problem lay with its message. As a consequence, Muller always looked more like the captive of the caucus hierarchy than like someone with the vision and ability to chart a fresh direction for the party. (Muller always looked and acted like a middle manager in over his head.) That sense of Muller being the prisoner of the personnel and the course settings he inherited was brought sharply into focus by the privacy breach scandal.
Fatally, National’s addiction to negative messaging was such that if it wouldn’t find a quarantine security lapse, it would manufacture one itself. The Gang of Four who hatched the privacy leak and promoted it loudly to the public (Michelle Boag, Michael Woodhouse, Hamish Walker and Muller himself) ended up trying to depict their efforts as the product of a rogue operation, despite ample evidence of shared guilt. In the grisly tradition of 19th century shipwrecks, it was the cabin boy in the lifeboat (Walker) who got sacrificed at the outset, so that his elders (Woodhouse and Muller) might have a better chance of survival. It proved too much for Muller, who resigned after failing his first real challenge.
One almost felt sorry for Nikki Kaye, who got sent out to defend the indefensible on the weekend after Muller ducked an invitation from the Q & A programme, to come on and explain his role in the privacy scandal, and to defend his handling of it overall. Yet in a sign of the poisonous atmosphere that exists inside National at the moment….Kaye then got slagged on social media for not offering a better smokescreen of political spin when confronted by Jack Tame with evidence of the apparent lies last Wednesday by Muller (that no other MP had received private information from Boag), and the hypocrisy by Woodhouse, who had blamed Labour for a privacy breach he knew beforehand had been created by National itself. Kaye did her best to deny the sins of her leader and of her Health spokesperson, but this was a suicide mission. Yet at least Kaye showed the courage to front. By contrast, Muller’s decision not to appear on Q&A suggested that he somewhat lacked the backbone for real leadership, especially when under fire over events to which he had significantly contributed.
The caucus will meet tonight. However, the cupboard of potential leaders is bare. Simon Bridges and Judith Collins are damaged goods, and both are sharply divisive figures within caucus and amongst the public at large. For my five cents, Amy Adams would be a way of saving some of the caucus furniture, and without her necessarily having long term ambitions – given the temporary retirement she had announced, and then retracted, at the time when Muller won the top job.
Obviously though, Adams would have to present herself to the electorate as keen for the job and happy to serve out a three year term. That would require her to explain her resignation/retraction turnabout. If Bridges was the reasn she initially chose to bail (and that perception is inescapable) then Adams would seem to be an unlikely unifying figure for the caucus. Mark Mitchell would be another gamble with a relative unknown. So…all roads finally, lead back to Collins. If chosen, Collins would offer the added advantage to National of sealing the fate of New Zealand First, whose reactionaries would love her.
Footnote: Can we please dial back the Todd Muller ‘too nice a nice guy’ verdict that’s already being bandied about? …It seems a bit early to rewrite the history of last week’s events, to fully exonerate the dear departed. Boag and Walker did not act alone. We have Woodhouse’s admission that he had received several batches of privileged health information from Boag well before he chose to go out publicly and blame Labour for the leak. In his RNZ interview, Woodhouse also confessed to deleting the email evidence, around the same time that Labour announced an investigation by Michael Heron QC.
Similarly, it defies belief that Muller was out of the loop, given how he and Woodhouse chimed in together with attacks on Labour for what National had caused. If Woodhouse hadn’t told Muller (unlikely) then he was at the very least, making Muller complicit in his deception. Subsequently, between last Monday until Thursday, Muller was (a) indecisive about what to do next (b) kept the public in the dark (c) heaped all of the blame on a junior MP (s) failed to criticise the role played by Woodhouse, (e misled the media and public on Wednesday, and finally as mentioned (f) left Nikki Kaye to face the music when it was surely his job to explain his actions. Call me hard-hearted, but this is not the track record of ” Mr. Nice Guy”. Niceness or weakness? Of one thing we can be sure: if Collins succeeds to the leadership tonight, the weak will go to the wall.