Where has the big tough National party gone?

The once potent National party has fallen to this: cowering behind a curtain to talk policy. This month it has banned the media from such discussions at its regional conferences.

Such tremulousness in a party which pretends to run the country after September 2005! Even during the awful Muldoon years a quarter-century ago, when much of the party was in rebellion, it did not close its debates — and righteously scorned Labour’s periodic proclivity for privacy.

Why the clamp? In the wake of last election’s MP-driven policy inconsistencies, activists have demanded more say. They also want to be “free in what they say and might be nervous of what might appear” in the media, president Judy Kirk says.

The outbreak of headless chicken syndrome last month, the leadership spill that fired half-cock, hasn’t helped. Bill English says conference organisers feared that a “robust debate could be reported as dangerously divisive”.

And in case rank-and-filers hadn’t worked out for themselves the electoral cost of disunity, both English and Kirk impressed that point on the 80-odd delegates (far fewer than usual) at the first regional conference, that of the lower North Island, on Sunday.

Regional chair Chris Finlayson, a lawyer with a penchant for conversational Latin, lauded Kirk’s restoration of “civility” in the party’s affairs, by implication in contrast with the tough-talking 2001-02 president, Michelle Boag.

There wasn’t much civility among MPs in April. English dithers on policy, is infirm in his daily management and falls down tactical holes, restive MPs whispered about. He hasn’t lifted National in the polls (it is averaging 25 per cent, just above the election disaster).

The sudden media excitement wafted others (temporarily?) into this territory, either fearing to be left behind or seeing opportunity. Certainly, it made a confirmed challenger of Don Brash. The focus is on June.

What happens in June depends on to whom you talk. Either the botch in April (1) confronted waverers with the enormity of a hasty change and gave English time and room for manoeuvre and perhaps even firmed his leadership pro-tem or (2) reduced English to the status of a contender for a now in-effect vacant leadership, albeit with the advantages (and disadvantages) of incumbency.

Also depending on to whom you talk, this hiatus month while English huddles with his tender chooks in closed conferences either gives him room to go on improving his management or will confirm his incapacity for leadership.

Will Richard Long, long-time political journalist and subsequently Dominion editor, make a real difference as chief of staff? His management skills are, one insider delicately puts it, unknown.

Will English be able to wrest some secretarial funding off MPs and emulate United Future, which has made MPs share one secretary between two and spent the savings on researchers? English says he can but his track record is blank.

Brash becoming a contender has changed the dynamics. While there was no specified and creditable contender, doubters could only fret. It also, however, puts Brash in a very different frame from the Reserve Bank ex-governor who cuts it with Auckland business.

Now he is examined for signs or deficiencies of leadership. Can he quickly acquire depth in social policy, where he has been unimpressive and sometimes risible? Could he cut it in Parliament against Helen Clark and Michael Cullen? His greenhorn efforts there point to a need for a much longer apprenticeship.

And who is running Brash? Is this the future or the past? The English camp fingers Murray McCully and Maurice Williamson (plus, in a slightly different frame, Lockwood Smith), ageing men in a hurry who illustrate one of the party’s most serious disabilities: that it has many MPs who are chronologically young, or at least not old, but who are politically old — nineties men, unlikely to convince middling voters they are the future in the second half of the 2000s.

English has phased back some of the nineties crew and promoted a promising few of the 1999 election intake. One of those, Simon Power, is widely agreed to be a potential future leader (and has been touted by some as a possible deputy to Brash). National needs more Powers.

English is also, at long last, getting some policy foundations laid.

He has aptly focused on three policy areas which suffuse all policy: the economy, on which a base paper was issued in February; welfare, particularly the role of responsibility and reciprocality, on which a long paper is coming soon, possibly this week; and, of course, the Treaty of Waitangi, on which English himself has been vocal. On all three Labour has vulnerabilities. Education is also now to have some prominence but has less promise.

But to make something of Labour’s vulnerabilities, English has to get his caucus united and his policy ducks in a row and greatly lift his presentational impact. His next examination on all that may come as soon as June.