A new move to make National liberal-conservative again

From what you hear through the noise of political argument, what would you say the National party stands for?

Lots lower taxes. Lots more hospital operations. Lots of choice of school. Lots and lots more roads, some private. Lots more prisoners in lots more prisons for a lot longer. Lots faster resource consents (except when farmers object). Lots less political correctness, especially for iwi (versus Kiwi).

But what binds that admixture of populism and lures together?

This question is important because, while populism and lures might be enough to win in 2008 if Helen Clark’s ministers keep stumbling and the economy goes sour, they are not the basis for a long-run durable government.

For that a party needs a widely shared — automatic — understanding of its approach to issues of the day and decade.

That doesn’t require fancy textbook philosophy. Nor does it descend from a schedule of “values”, though that can be an indicative summary.

It requires a deep sense of and consonance with what makes most folk tick in this society, how they see the world and how they do their daily business, what they hope for and how much policy leadership they want and will tolerate.

Also, increasingly in this emerging nation it means validating those folks’ heritage, the midden which they and their forebears have laid down here and which, without fuss, they now coming to recognise as distinctly their own.

Enter Chris Finlayson, lawyer, arts buff, new MP, former chair of the party’s policy committee and a member of the taskforce which wrote the hastily junked report on getting on with the United States.

In his maiden speech Finlayson picked up Sir John Marshall’s characterisation of the party in its dominant 1950s and 1960s decades. Marshall started out a professed liberal, though a distinctly mid-twentieth century one with a social conscience. By the early 1970s, when he became Prime Minister, he had grafted on a conservative modifier.

He called himself and his party “liberal-conservative”.

That encompassed a wide span of policies and attitudes, from reverence for Queen-and-country to a conference resolution in 1970 to decriminalise homosexuality. But it also incorporated a balancing tension.

The conservative strand valued societal order and (British) heritage and was suspicious of change. The liberal strand proposed change but at a moderate pace conservatives could live with. The hyphen linking the two strands was a respect for individual liberty.

This construct didn’t survive the 1960s values revolution and the 1970s world economic shocks. Sir Robert Muldoon veered into populist conservatism, Ruth Richardson administered a lashing of libertarian radicalism and subsequent leaders could not restore the balance.

Don Brash’s low taxes and one-law-for-all rekindled rank and file enthusiasm and sucked in money and votes. But that was only half the job. Last year’s potholed policy hotchpotch — a few lines for telecommunications and nothing on science, for example — fell far short of the confident, encompassing, Marshallian statement of who and what it is to be “National”. As the party nears its seventieth birthday in May, it is time to fill that gap.

That is Finlayson’s aim. Last week he won approval from the party’s board to set up a new group — he is toying with calling it “liberal” or “liberal-conservative” — with a formal place in the party structure and a role in delineating broad policy parameters and directions.

Finlayson’s group succeeds an anaemic “classical liberal” group, which held a breakfast meeting at the 2004 conference but seemed unsure what it stood for. “Classical liberal” is more ACT’s style (it calls itself plain “liberal”) than National’s, except for ACT’s “tenth MP”, Brash, and a handful of other caucus survivors of the 1990s.

Expect “new conservative” Bill English, now influential behind the scenes on policy strategy, to be onside. Likewise liberal new MP Tim Groser. And most of the other new MPs, who are a generally centrist lot.

Expect the group to value, even celebrate, our emergent heritage and the arts, which in Marshall’s time were National territory but now are Clark’s.

Expect it to edge also into constitutional matters — there is support among some new MPs and even former leaders for a republic when the Queen goes. Indeed, if we are going republican, National will have to lead because republican Labour doesn’t dare.

Expect the group’s liberalism to be moderate, not libertarian and its conservatism to be measured and deeply rooted in sensible social order, not degraded into 2005-style populist tub-thumping.

Expect it to bring a fresh view on the Treaty, more along the English and John Key lines, more cognisant of the fact of resurgent “Maoriness” and with a strategic eye on the Maori party.

And expect it to be influential? That is an open question. If the party as a whole is ready for it, it will be. My guess is that the venerable septuagenarian might just about be ready.