Shuffling the deckchairs as an iceberg looms

Here’s a quiz: which one of these is the National party’s policy on Iraq?

a. The United States should not attack Iraq without a United Nations resolution supporting or justifying it.

b. We should stand alongside our traditional allies even though there is not a United Nations resolution justifying what they are doing.

c. We should have troops fighting alongside the United States because we desperately need a free trade agreement with that country.

d. We should have troops fighting alongside the United States not just because we need a free trade agreement but to underpin the whole web of connections we have with that country.

Here are some optional answers:

1. All of the above.

2. Some of the above.

3. One of the above.

4. It all depends.

5. What National thinks doesn’t matter.

To be fair to National, Iraq is a difficult, multilayered issue in which a party could easily lose its bearings. Helen Clark herself has shown that in the past two weeks.

Her gratuitous outbursts have made mincemeat of my assessment three weeks ago that up till then she had demonstrated skilful diplomacy in this affair. “Consummate,” I said then. “Hubris,” I would say now of the unwise and unnecessary offence she has given United States and Australians.

But she has enormous domestic leeway. Polls have her and her government miles clear of Bill English and the opposition parties of the right.

This weekend National will meet in conference to rearrange its constitutional deck chairs. It is useful therapy after last year’s catastrophic election defeat.

It is also a necessity. National needs a structure that enables efficient and coherent national election campaigns. Last year’s was a disgrace.

So some unelected middle layer operations — and some regional bosses’ patronage — might be stripped out, The unwieldy Auckland region is likely to be divided in two, north and south of the harbour, with Steven Joyce, joint author of the post-election review, maybe managing one of them.

A decade ago Jim McLay, another short-term opposition leader in 1984-86, proposed to strip out the whole middle management layer of regional offices. This was standard private sector management practice at the time but it trod on too many parochial toes.

Labour long ago got rid of regional power bases. Auckland was paralysingly riven by factions. That was fixed by a drastic fall in membership and money. Now the regions do little more than run regional conferences.

Driven from the centre, Labour runs an efficient, if now slightly dated, national election campaign — disciplined and on message with a blunt, red “Party Vote Labour”.

National was outcampaigned by ACT, New Zealand First, the Greens and even United Future, which at least understood the value of a cadre of proselytes.

In 2005 National has to do better or Labour might just bed in the Swedish model of long-run left-led governments. If rearranging some constitutional deckchairs helps steer National round that iceberg, Saturday’s secret confab will be useful.

But it isn’t a quick fix. And National’s jumpy MPs want a quick fix. And English isn’t a quick fix.

Nor was Helen Clark in the 1990s. It took five years before she looked a winner. Her problem: she thought too much, too deeply and too subtly.

So does English. So this year he has been trying to be less subtle — hence the tough Treaty talk.

But even on that he betrayed his inner subtlety, though few would have noticed.

At an elegant and little reported debate between himself and Treaty Negotiations Minister Margaret Wilson arranged by the Study of Parliament Group in February, English let slip his real agenda.

This is that if this country is redefining the Treaty for modern times — and it is — it would be sensible if both partners stated positions and a new agreed deal was reached after discussion and compromise.

What he was doing, English said, was offering a starting point for the pakeha position.

This is a truly subversive notion and one that could, if it got out, catch on among thinking folk — and even among those who don’t do too much thinking but yearn for some clarity in the Treaty fog.

But it is a bit too subtle. The imperative for National is to be an opposition and in opposition complex rhetoric is a disability. In a study a few years back political psychologist Jon Johansson noted that a party’s rhetoric loses complexity with length of time in opposition. The reason is obvious.

Hence the attraction to some of Don Brash’s uncluttered ideological clarity. National has this term grasped that it must first reconnect with its core vote if it is to recover as a serious force. The confident simplicity of a Brash is more attuned to that audience than the complexity of an English.

But a core vote is not the basis from which to lead a government. For that National must at some point construct a centre and occupy it. For that an English is more attuned than a Brash.

Now, what was your answer to the Iraq quiz? And does anyone care?