Can National remake itself for the 2000s?

Three years ago, when the National party last gathered in conference at the Grand Chancellor Hotel in Christchurch as it will this weekend, leadership change was in the air. Jenny Shipley was stalking Jim Bolger.

He fell to her knife two months later, judged by his MPs as not enough a “nineties” man, which was an irony since it had been his wont to proclaim the nineties as the “golden decade”.

Mrs Shipley will not be stalked this weekend.

While her heart attack in June caused her to soul-search her purpose in politics, she has found an “angry” determination to reverse what she sees as a damaging policy direction, an anger she last felt in the goetterdaemerung last years of the Muldoon administration.

She plausibly dismisses as unrelated to her illness that she uncharacteristically read her five-minute speech in the free-wheeling weekly general debate last Wednesday and on Friday passed up a speech to a major gathering of business leaders in favour of attending National candidate Phil Raffils’ funeral. She is fit and back to full duties.

Her real test is whether she can make the leap from the “nineties” to the “noughties”.

Both main parties navigated the 1999 election campaign through the rear-view mirror.

Labour said National’s 1990s policies had taken us down a cul de sac and promised to back out – hence the Employment Relations Act (ERA), ACC renationalisation, the reincarnation of health boards and much, much else.

National promised to project the 1990s endlessly and soullessly into the future.

Voters chose the former. National’s challenge now, which Mrs Shipley well recognises, is to frame principles that re-cast it as a party of the 2000s, a party with a genuinely forward-looking programme that.

Mrs Shipley has been greatly helped by the clear and controversial policy markers Labour has staked. She will take into her conference success in messing up the transit through Parliament of the ERA and exposure of a highly contentious Treaty of Waitangi clause in the health bill and even more contentious treaty assertions in departmental briefing papers.

These and other enactments of Labour’s pre-election pledges have helped clarify a leaning towards National among large numbers of disconnected 1999 voters.

Mrs Shipley will emphasise “choice” as a fundamental value in her keynote conference speech on Saturday, focusing on superannuation and education. Those two topics, plus the constitution, will then be explored by three “taskforces”, which include non-party experts, to be announced at the conference.

She has got her “teams” of MPs developing restatements of values underpinning party principles and policies and will publish initial thoughts in a “simple” pamphlet at the conference. The five main team leaders are to travel and plug into foreign think tanks. By the end of next year she hopes to begin developing detailed post-2002 policy.

Which brings us to Bill English, who well before the 1999 election was talking of the need for National to stop re-fighting the ideological battles of the Rogernomics revolution and develop policy and rhetoric that resonated with an electorate weary of that dogma.

Mrs Shipley has yet to prove that besides asking the right questions, as she is, she can answer them – and that she can plug the gaping holes exposed last year in National’s support base, particularly among men, the young, and Maori and Pacific islanders.

If that proof does not materialise, it will be to Mr English the party turns. Yes, he flagged last year. Yes, this year he has shown only flashes of energy and has been offside with the caucus on some crucial votes. Yes, he is “low impact” in opposition, which would require a long familiarising lead-in to an election campaign.

But so did Helen Clark. And the next six or 12 months are likely to see Mr English return to the form that won him cover-boy status last year.

There is no coup in the air. But he remains the heir apparent, the most visible sign of the generational change to come in our politics.

* For those puzzling why last week I gave as 1297 the date of the Magna Carta, usually known as 1215, the original was reworked several times and it is the 1297 version that was incorporated into New Zealand law by the Imperial Laws Application Act 1988.