Back in the race: now for the real National party

A year ago Don Brash laid down a challenge to the National party at its conference: did it really mean to constrain the government’s role and spending? If it did, Brash stated, some tough consequences would follow.

Brash laid out eight goals in a sort of credo. Among them:

* Hold government spending to its present level per person in inflation-adjusted terms. Over 10 years that would cut spending as a proportion of GDP by at least 5 per cent.

* Reduce company tax and the top personal tax rate to 30 per cent.

* Reduce regulatory burdens on business, “most immediately by reforming the Resource Management Act and by making it easier for employers to end an employment relationship”.

* Sell “government-owned commercial enterprises which no longer need to be owned by the state”.

How is he doing?

Asset sales policy appears less firm than Brash implied but it is still being developed. Regulatory policy is also still being developed, notably for the Resource Management Act (Nick Smith) and for employment law and energy (Roger Sowry), but looks likely to go at least some way towards meeting business demands.

The 30 per cent tax goal is on the table for companies but has been pushed into the never-never for individuals. Instead, the focus, according to some who have been in private meetings recently with deputy finance spokesman John Key, is on pushing up the $38,000 and $60,000 tax thresholds.

The rhetoric now is about tax cuts for “hardworking New Zealanders”. (Does this mean armies of bureaucrats measuring who is hardworking and who is not? “I think turning up qualifies as hardworking in modern New Zealand,” was one National MP’s reply to this question.)

As for spending cuts, I listened in vain for Brash to restate last year’s goal in his Budget speech. His MPs do not relentlessly demand spending cuts; some of their statements imply the opposite. Brash himself on Sunday promised an open chequebook for more police and $1 billion for more prisons.

None of this matters much so far. Brash’s leadership has been stunningly successful in two important ways which will bathe this weekend’s conference in roses.

First, he rang the Treaty bell. This worked by combining Brash’s clarity, authority and decency with a Sir Robert Muldoon-style populist big idea: no special treatment for Maori based on race.

His second stunning success flowed from his first: members signing up in droves, money in bucketloads, prospective candidates circling seats, morale high, a light in party activists’ eyes. These factors alone will add seats in next year’s election.

So the conference will be a warm contrast with last year’s, wrecked by Maurice Williamson’s rogue remarks. The party, thanks to Brash, has at last emerged from its awful quarter-century of angst, division and changing directions triggered by Muldoon’s populism. There is now, thanks to Brash, a future — and a bright one, so bright that the top brass is putting much effort into keeping activists’ feet on the ground. Getting back in the race is no guarantee the race will be won.

Hence Sunday’s attempt at a second momentum-driving big idea, on law and order: abolish parole. That this delays rather than stops reoffending is irrelevant. It sounds tough. (The $1 billion on new prisons, by the way, is the same figure as the fiscal cap on Treaty settlements for Maori — who, you might note with irony, are a high proportion of the prison muster.)

Next comes welfare, probably in September. There is some difficulty distilling a big idea: blunt time limits on benefits, the obvious one, doesn’t jell with spokesperson Katherine Rich’s thoughtful approach. Some report a tense caucus argument last week in the runup to Rich’s keynote speech this weekend. Education is easier: plug the three Rs. Like Rich, spokesperson Bill English will be more subtle than that this weekend.

And they will thereby highlight a deeper question, which a few in the party are beginning to ask, sotto voce. Simplistic big ideas, coupled with hosing down any hotspots (hence the pusillanimous nuclear retreat), might well win the 2005 election. But will they set National up for decades in power, as did Sid Holland in 1949?

Put another way, what is now the party’s soul? Is it ACT in drag (Brash economics)? Or a swept-up New Zealand First populism (playing on fear or anger flowing from cultural and personal insecurity)? Or a modern version of the long-lived liberal-conservative government it was before Muldoon?

The answer to that question lies in another: who right now personifies the party as it will be in 2014 if it is by then a long-lived government?

Brash has rescued National from its lost Muldoon quarter-century and made it whole again. But for the liberal-conservative party of 2014 look perhaps to English, Key and Rich — and young Simon Power, who will introduce Brash’s keynote speech on Saturday. The Brash party will rightly be on show this weekend. But political cognoscenti will look for deeper currents.