A man at a party who is not Simon Bridges

Simon Bridges needs to make friends. But voters know bullshit when they smell it

National might be the largest polling party, but they’re sorely lacking any serious parliamentary sidekick. ACT clearly isn’t the solution, so how about contriving a new splinter-party? Good luck getting that past the electorate, writes Alex Braae 

Voters are a strange group of people to lump together. By and large they have little in common with each other; they have different class interests, education levels, incomes, religions, ideologies. Some follow politics intently, most don’t really pay attention to the day to day minutiae of parliament.

But one thing that voters as a mass have in common is a skill that can sometimes escape the most seasoned of political operators and commentators. Voters are very very good at spotting bullshit, and trashing it accordingly.

When Labour continually switched leaders during their long dark tenure of opposition, voters correctly saw their claims of being unified as bullshit. When National’s new leader Simon Bridges rocked up to Northland in the 2015 byelection and promised ten new bridges, the verdict from the voters was clear: bullshit. When the Internet Party claimed to be more than just a vehicle for Kim Dotcom’s vanity, voters were near unanimous in condemning the party as nothing but bullshit.

And now ACT, National’s trusty sidekick, is claiming to still be a real party, and not just a rort for Epsom voters to get a sweeter deal. The voters of Epsom don’t care – they know they win from this particular brand of bullshit. But the rest of the country doesn’t have any reason to buy into it, and are openly contemptuous of ACT. They got just 13,075 party votes in 2017, or for scale, about a third of the population of Whanganui. 

ACT have stood a candidate in the Northcote by-election, who has put forward absurd motorway plans that the NZ Herald’s Simon Wilson was far too impartial, professional and polite to accurately describe as bullshit. Former leader Jamie Whyte claimed Māori people were legally privileged, “like the pre–revolutionary French aristocracy”, which was more pure bullshit. In fact, so much do ACT swim in bullshit, that they once had a youth spokesman go on TV and claim that the scientific fact of climate change was, in and of itself, bullshit.

It has got to the point where National are now, by Simon Bridges’ own admission, having quiet chats about what the future political landscape of the right will look like. Because it isn’t ACT, and never will be. It could have been the Conservatives, who despite what people think about their former leader Colin Craig, were a real party, based on a real constituency. But despite winning almost 4% of the vote in 2014, they didn’t win any seats because of our bullshit electoral system.

One suggestion that keeps cropping up is that the National party will effectively support an MP leaving to set up a franchise operation. They would probably hold a safe electorate seat and have reasonable conservative credentials. Think Simon O’Connor in Tamaki, or Mark Mitchell in Rodney, who could hoover up any of the vote further off to the religious right that might be insufficiently inspired by National, and then be a reliable parliamentary vassal. The only problem with this analysis, is that it is also bullshit.

Only a few parties in New Zealand have ever succeeded after splitting off from a larger one. And in each case, the parties had something that a client party never could – they were real political movements. Winston Peters didn’t get a nod and a wink from National to set up New Zealand First, he was literally kicked out. Jim Anderton left Labour over his disgust at the Rogernomics reforms, and swept up a constituency of people who had been hit hard by them. Peter Dunne left Labour because he knew that under MMP there were plenty of voters in the middle who would want to walk the line between the two major parties.

But what about the nods and winks that could be given by a major party leader? By and large, they haven’t helped the party being winked at. When Helen Clark told Labour voters in Coromandel to back Jeanette Fitzsimons, the Greens had already proven themselves as being able to stand on their own two feet – it was just a matter of nudging them over the line.

And the counterpoint: by the time Jim Anderton had left the Alliance and formed the Progressives, a nod from Labour for the Wigram seat wasn’t enough to convince voters that the party was much more than a ministerial adjunct to Clark’s government. The same went for Peter Dunne and the Key government.

So if a party were to form based around an ex–National MP, there would have to be a real grievance, both among the MP or MPs leaving, and among a big enough chunk of the party’s base, that would make such a party independently viable. Such a split would likely have to come from the party’s more conservative wing, as that is the only available patch of political real estate left unfilled. There are likely to be a few significant social issues thrashed out this term – euthanasia, abortion, medicinal marijuana, – but because they’re social issues, if they require a vote it will probably be a conscience vote. So there’s little reason for an MP to take the risk and abandon the most powerful electoral machine in the country, at least while National is polling so well.

There is currently only one MP in New Zealand who has the standing and profile that Winston Peters had before setting up NZ First, or Jim Anderton had before New Labour. That MP has just started turning up in preferred prime minister rankings as well, and has had her leadership ambitions thwarted in the past. That MP is Judith Collins, but to date she’s shown absolutely no inclination that she has any interest in it.

So that leaves National with three choices. The first, set up a client party which voters will likely, and accurately, see as game playing political bullshit. The second, go through a messy and ugly split, that could leave the right and centre right wounded and damaged overall. And who knows, such a split could be so rough that the two parties refuse to work together after the election. 

Or third, they could just keep doing exactly what has basically worked for the last decade. Bring as many people as possible into a big tent, astutely manage the internal contradictions that comes with that, and run hard for a one–party parliamentary majority. At the moment, that remains their most likely path back to power.

One final thought for any new minor parties that are considering partnering up with National. Over the Key and English years, National gobbled every single party that worked with them, hollowing them out until they were no longer distinct enough entities for voters to bother with. And if you asked the supporters and activists of those parties what they think of the deals with National now, they’d probably say that at the end of the day, it was bullshit.


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