Monday, May 08, 2006

Editorial: National offers little inspiration

Indecisiveness continues to bedevil the National Party. Six months into its third consecutive term on the Opposition benches, it remains close to Labour in opinion polls but shows no sign of going ahead of a Government which until its decision on Telecom last week was becalmed - maintaining itself rather than advancing the country. National is an unconfident opposition against a tentative government. The resulting politics are stagnant.

National's stance on the future of the Maori seats in Parliament is an example of its dilemma. It campaigned last year to abolish the seats. After the election, that created difficulties with one of its possible allies in an unlikely bid to form a government, the Maori Party.

Last week, the deputy leader, Gerry Brownlee, seemed to suggest that the hardline commitment to abolish the seats ought to be reconsidered, given the long-term probability of a bigger Maori Party being a key player in coalition building. His leader, Don Brash, was publicly unmoved and reiterated the standing policy. No Maori seats. This, despite the absence of any popular mood for the seats' removal and the potential recognised by the public for a severe rupture with Maori which New Zealand just does not need.

In the same vein, Mr Brownlee wondered about the party's position on reducing the number of MPs from 120 to 100. Dr Brash came out later to restate National's support for the smaller number, despite Mr Brownlee's logic that his party's chances might be enhanced with the bigger House of Representatives. Again, if the case for 100 seats had traction, it seems to have faded in the public mind.

The disconnects are indicative of a broader problem for National: whether to stay wedded to so-called bottom lines in policy or to eliminate policies that may cause more harm than good in the long-term. The policies may be points of differentiation but, like that on nuclear ship visits which called for a vague referendum on the issue and opened National to attack politics from the left, they must go if the negatives are too high.

National's early performance this term suggests it has yet to work out how to markedly improve its appeal in areas in which it is weak: women, the young, those on modest incomes in urban areas. Looking after its own vote and that of the wider centre-right will not be enough. Even with big tax cuts and the resonance of its one-law-for-all race relations policy at the last election it came up short. Too often the party seems to be making small points well rather than developing something big to put before the public. MPs intent on felling Labour with a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy of mini controversies echo the failed thinking of the past six years.

When Labour finally did something telling this term and announced the unbundling of Telecom's local loop, National's response was a blast from the past in more ways than one. First, the man formerly known as Minister for Telecom, Maurice Williamson, showed no feeling at all for the public mood on Telecom's broadband failings and instead resorted to 1990s slogans. Second, while Dr Brash remained out of sight, the former leader Bill English took the fight to the Government on the weakest point of its Telecom bombshell, the leaking of what was a Budget secret. Television images of Mr English speaking on the steps of Parliament with the deputy leader at his shoulder were odd to say the least in the absence of Dr Brash.

In a contest of limited equals, in a climate increasingly unfavourable for an incumbent, National has little momentum. And it offers less inspiration than might have been anticipated with a greatly expanded caucus and Labour's ragtag coalition.

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