Can National be national?

Delegates to the National party’s conference early next month will be abuzz with anticipated victory. The excitement will obscure a sobering question: is National national?

In the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s when it siphoned many wage-workers off Labour National proclaimed itself, with cause, the national party. Labour, it said, was captive to the unions and therefore sectional.

Now it is National which looks sectional: wall to wall white. Last year, out of 600 conference delegates, only about 15 were non-white.

Labour’s conference, by contrast, is a United Nations of colour and ethnicity. Women and gays are there in numbers and influence. It even has space nowadays for out-of-the-closet, practising Christians.

But the polls tell us John Key is the great uniter.

Like Kevin Rudd in Australia last year, Key is killing policy differences from Labour that might lose or deter converts. He will keep the railways, a position near inconceivable a year or two back. He will keep compulsory employer contributions to KiwiSaver. He will not pare national superannuation.

He differs from Labour only when he discerns it to be out of step with the majority. The greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme is to wait a year, in deference to farmers, big emitters and car drivers. He implies Labour is soft on crime without offering a much tougher policy. He says he will give bigger tax cuts but not at the cost of public services — in fact, he implies he will deliver more health care.

And, by raising a more debt and doing deals with private financiers, he says he will deliver more broadband, more roads and more science.

The message to centrist voters is: “You are safe with me.” The state house boy is not a Don Brash throwback to the early 1990s. Key paints himself a man of the future, architect of a new prosperity.

Pre-election, it is all plausible. Post-election, there are two questionmarks.

One is deliverability. In a slowing economy will Key actually be able credibly to make bigger tax cuts than Michael Cullen promised in May without risking a return to persistent budget deficits, as in the United States?

Pre-election, Key can skate round this by promising to “restructure” the tax system — that is, take tax off in one place and add it in another. Reshaping or replacing Working for Families is one possibility but he doesn’t need to be too specific before polling day.

Moreover, unless the economy really goes to the pack and his government (if he is elected) wobbles as a result, Key can probably lay any failures or slow progress at Helen Clark’s door for a term or two.

But Key does not want just to mind the shop. He wants to be remembered as for engineering an economic step-change. He much admires Singapore and Ireland.

Locking himself into existing policy lines, with a bit more spent on infrastructure, standards and choice in education and a higher profile for science, is not an obvious route to a step-change.

A step-change will require risk and boldness. Both are in Key’s nature, so far suppressed but implied in, for example, his emphasis that asset selldowns and sell-offs are off the plate only for “the first term”.

But risk and boldness can lose votes. And, unless Labour plunges disastrously in this election, he is likely, if elected, to face a regenerating opposition with vigour and new ideas.

Which brings us to the second questionmark for happy conference delegates: is National national?

Some in National muse on winning this election outright. Most reckon they will need only ACT and United Future — at most, New Zealand First — with no need to pitch to the Maori party or the Greens.

But , if so, what about after the 2011 election? How does National lock into and lock up big brown and yellow votes? Can it convince enough greens and women to stay?

The party is selecting some promising women and non-white candidates. Nikki Kaye, a multi-disciplinary 28-year-old who could win Auckland Central off Judith Tizard, Sam Lotu-liga, 37, a high-achieving Samoan lawyer and city councillor, and Hekia Parata, a formidable figure in Maoridom, are examples.

The challenge is to make such people a commonplace and thereby give National a convincing claim to reach beyond the white male pale, to be broadly enough representative to claim long periods in office, as after 1949.

In short, Key’s real challenge is to make National a national party again.