Gwynn Compton: National needs a clean slate

With the National Party at rock bottom in terms of public support and internal morale, it seems pretty clear that things can’t go on the way they have been. So, unless things are turned around smartly, a leadership change will be an ever-present talking point. Should that happen, the new leader will have an opportunity that should have been taken after the 2020 election disaster: hitting the big blue reset button on everything.

And I really do mean everything.

This is going to require serious work

The Canadian Conservatives aside, there are few international examples of contemporary counterparts that they can look to for inspiration. This is something they’ll need to come up with for themselves.

The required reset will be significantly easier if the new leader is someone who wasn’t a minister in the previous Key-English Government, but not impossible. Without rejecting the work and achievements of the previous government, they need to be clear that the past is a different country. A reinvention of what it means to be a centre-right political party is required for National to appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate in the 2020s.

The party’s values must be retained. But figuring out how they should be applied in 2021 will be crucial to building a vision and portfolio of policies that can win the next election. That means listening carefully to what has put voters off since 2017. It also means coming to terms with the fact that so many voters support Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and learning to respect that reality.

Rebalancing capability and internal politics

The next leader’s first task will be to sort out the shadow cabinet. No doubt there’ll have been deals done to secure support for the leadership that will need to be honoured. That’s just politics.

Nevertheless, high performers need to have the most important portfolios no matter who they have supported for the leadership. Areas like finance, education, health, infrastructure, transport, housing, and the COVID-19 response all need competent, hardworking MPs who will be firing on all cylinders. They need to be relied upon not just to hold the Government to account but to lead policy development also.

Doing more with less on the staffing front

Next will be hiring a team to staff their office. Recent departures should offer an opportunity to revisit the structure of how the leader’s office works. This is especially the case in a world of greatly reduced Parliamentary funding and difficulty in retaining, let alone hiring new staff in a fiercely competitive employment market.

They’ll need a chief of staff who’s prepared to do things differently and can use what resources they do have to their greatest effect. They also need someone who can be a sounding board and trusted adviser like Wayne Eagleson was for John Key. They need to be able and willing to talk the leader back from the edge if things are being pushed out too far.

Timing is everything

If change is coming you would want it to happen before Christmas. That gives the new leader the opportunity to put all the pieces in place to hit the ground running in 2022. That includes space for the leader to iron out any issues with their own presentation to the nation, especially in terms of their media appearances.

In what time they do have left this year, you would expect them to be getting through a relentless schedule of events and public meetings. It would almost be like a miniature election campaign. The aim being to get the new leader in front of as many members of the public and party members as possible.

A leadership change creates a short window of opportunity to pick up some low hanging fruit. For National that means appealing to voters who have left to ACT as well as those who drifted across the centre line. They need to seize that chance with both hands with a compelling narrative that somehow appeals to both.

Don’t overdo it on policy right away. Lay the groundwork for later.

A new leader does not need to have all the answers in terms of alternative policies right out of the gate. The focus on resetting things means they’re out there listening first and foremost. The new leader needs to evince an openness to all the ideas on how to do things differently to meet the challenges the country is facing.

Throughout these early stages work needs to be done on putting together a representative group of innovative people to help shape the policy direction National for this election cycle. In opposition with so few MPs, National needs to think creatively about mitigating reduced Parliamentary resources for policy development. An external sounding board will help to plug this gap while keeping the party centered.

It’s all about the personal brand

Whoever the next leader is, they need to establish a personal brand in the minds of voters. A lot of how that’s to be done will depend on who exactly that new leader is - and whether they have a clean slate or personal baggage already in tow.

As a rule of thumb, however, they probably won’t go too far wrong by thinking, “what would Judith have done?” - and then doing the complete opposite of that.


Gwynn Compton is an elected councillor for Kapiti Coast District Council and a former communications adviser to Sir John Key and Sir Bill English.
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