The constructive tension that can make National strong

A major party cannot be a simple party. It must pull together different strands in a constructive tension. That is National’s challenge over the next two years.

Delegates to this weekend’s conference who look back over the party’s 70-year history will recall that its heyday was the third quarter of last century.

In part that was a lucky accident of prosperity, in part a huge membership that spread networks throughout society and furnished a large campaign army.

But it was also because National unlocked the secret of centre-right politics: to bring together liberals and conservatives in constructive tension in one force a bit right of centre.

This was not so much two programmes as two mentalities. A conservative mentality is to preserve the status quo except when the need for change is incontestable, or at least demonstrable. A liberal mentality is to promote change and reform on the basis of convincing evidence. The binding links are respect for the individual and limited government.

In the past 30 years, however, National has swung between “ordinary-bloke” populism and free-market radicalism.

Winston Peters, long out of the fold and now alongside Labour, represents the remnants of the populist era. Don Brash is from the radical era.

Jim Bolger tried to find a middle way but came to a sticky end with Peters. Bill English also tried but never got his head above water as the party sank.

Now English and others, including a reinvigorated Simon Power, a reviving Katherine Rich and new backbenchers Chris Finlayson and Tim Groser, are on the case.

Power was chief whip last year and now looks after support services for MPs, which keeps him in contact with all MPs, notably the new ones. Power is liberal on race and is starting to mark out a more liberal, though not wishy-washy, policy on crime. He explicitly talks of National’s “dual thread” marrying social conservatives and social liberals and “the economic ideologue with the pragmatist”.

English, who has best described himself in the past as a “new conservative”, is the caucus policy coordinator. Gradually he has cranked up a schedule of discussion papers to underpin policy redevelopment, drawing on people outside the caucus and the party as well as MPs.

This programme has yet to get the momentum a committed push from the leader would give it but by end-2006 there should be papers on the environment — on which National-sympathising liberals felt the party was out of line last year — innovation and business development and aged care. Education, English’s portfolio, is already well developed.

Treaty and race policy, another problem area last year for liberal MPs and National-sympathising liberals, will take longer. Finlayson, who acted for Ngai Tahu when a lawyer, is a contributor. A conspicuous gap is health — solving the rationing conundrum without frightening middle-ground voters defies simple analysis.

Next week a new ingredient will be tossed into the mix, a Blue Liberal “policy advisory group” which will aim to explore issues, bring in notable speakers, hold seminars and publish papers from a liberal perspective, a bit right of centre. Finlayson, former head of the party’s Wellington division and policy committee, has organised it. MPs involved are mostly backbenchers, with the exception of Wayne Mapp and Katherine Rich.

There is hardly a need for a corresponding “conservative” ginger group. Conservatism comes naturally to National, though during the populist and radical eras it was in eclipse. (A Christian group seems to have lapsed.)

Liberal, conservative — the old firm. But is it really back in business yet?

Until the discussion papers emerge their tone cannot be assessed. One test will be whether the caucus accepts the challenges posed, insiders say, by some elements of the environment paper. Nevertheless, the instinct of many in the expanded caucus is more centrist than right and the tone and content of the discussion papers is likely to reflect that — centrist and a little to the right.

That poses a difficulty. Brash is a radical and that is the tone voters now associate with him. Can he convincingly present a centrist policy?

The answer so far is no. He still lacks two vital ingredients which Helen Clark has in abundance: political instinct; and a broad general knowledge of all portfolio areas. Coupled with a personal ideology outside the liberal-conservative range, those disabilities make him an unlikely salesperson for the re-emerging centre-right party.

Will he get there? His solution hitherto has been to reach for advertising and marketing gimmicks — a sort of neo-populism. That cheapens him and doesn’t make him a compelling leader of a centre-right party.

That won’t bother delegates this weekend. Brash got them to 39 per cent and adulation is in order. But now the party must broaden its pitch to win in 2008 and, if it wants a long spell in office thereafter, and rebuild the once-invincible liberal-conservative marriage.