National: some big questions in the air

Imagine this coming weekend’s National party conference without John Key, Bill English, Steven Joyce and Murray McCully.

Few, maybe no, delegates will. The party is buoyant, flush with funds and set on a fourth term. The short-term outlook is sunny.

But out in the world there is wind and rain: Britain’s “little England” Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s rampage and many other signs of reactions against Europe’s and the United States’ elites and their conduct of public affairs over the past 30 years.

Key, English, Joyce (and McCully in the back room) for now hold that at bay, helped by booming immigration and tourism. But what will National and broader politics look like when they have gone?

Key is no Trump. But, like Trump, his pre-politics career was in elite business circles and yet to some extent, like Trump, he soaks up anti-elite sentiment.

He soothes and glosses.

When Motu Research’s rigorous economists found two weeks back that the 2009 90-day sack-new-workers-at-will law didn’t build jobs as he had said it would, he said he had anecdotes to the contrary. He didn’t say how anecdotes fit English’s demand for testable research evidence for policy.

When last week the Ombudsman exposed serious flaws in Dame Paula Rebstock’s inquiry into Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) restructuring leaks and said the victim must be compensated, Key dismissed that as just one error by her and didn’t rule her out of more fat government contracts.

His firm limit in 2015 to the Iraq military deployment turned out last week not to be firm but circumstances change.

The present rules.

If he loses in 2017 Key will not stick around to present an opposition. If he wins, he will not likely find compelling fulfilment if he has to run a complicated fourth-term cabinet with Winston Peters.

When he goes National will sorely miss him. He is arguably its most warmly regarded leader in its 80 years.

Joyce is the project manager who gets things done — lots. Project managers eventually run out of projects or want a different set. Nine cabinet years of 18-hour days leave more problem-projects than opportunity-projects.

Will business entrepreneur Joyce want to fight Paula Bennett to lead an opposition or complicated government post 2017?

McCully has been more than 40 years in politics, often a behind-scenes schemer. The MFAT turmoil and witchhunt and the Saudi sheep slinter were on his watch. In 1999 he resigned as Tourism Minister on governance issues.

Since his cancer operation last December he looks drawn. He is not contesting his electorate in 2017, which points towards exit unless Key insists he stays.

Unlike those three, English has a medium-term focus: fiscal stability, actuarial-based “social investment”, backing the Land and Water Forum to get a water settlement. He has been the standout enabler of policy innovation, esteemed by business at home and in several countries abroad.

Like McCully, English is steeped in the party. But In 2017 he will have been an MP 27 years and be aged 55, a good time to move on if he wants (as some say) a new challenge to his intellect and energy and not just an after-life on boards. “Time is short,” he has occasionally said, though whether that is time before he goes or before the 2017 election is moot.

And, for all English’s innovative approach, the Treasury has begun to move beyond him in its exploration of new ways of thinking about social, natural resources, economic and monetary policy. In 2009 he was pushing the Treasury.

This role reversal exemplifies the bigger question hanging over National’s buoyant conference: its readiness for what’s coming down the track.

National was good at most medium-term stuff in its first term and at add-ons and problem-fixes in its second term.

It is now starting to look stingy (refugees, hospital meals) and exhibit signs of third-term-itis: Bennett’s $5000 to leave Auckland to get a state house and her office’s leak on the Te Puea marae leader, Michael Woodhouse’s quickly falsified denial that the 90-day law was to build jobs and Local Government Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga’s roasting by rural and provincial mayors last week.

National’s poll average has slid this year from 48.0% to 45.6%. If that goes on, Key won’t get his fourth term.

But that’s short-term. The party’s longer-term risk is to get marooned on a political island of 1970s-2010s policy orthodoxy as social and economic change and anti-elite reactions require different politics and political innovations to address complex tensions and avoid political fragmentation.

The United States Republican and British Conservative parties are riven, the Canadian Conservatives were trounced last year and a factionalised Liberal party in Australia has lost ground to independents in polls.

Last year’s Northland by-election fiasco apart, Key, English and Joyce still make National look a model of continuity. But what happens when they go?

That is this weekend’s big question. Not that many will ask it.