National MPs will now have two votes - one for a new leader and one for a deputy. It comes as Steven Joyce enters the fray and Labour hits a 15-year high in the polls. Bernard Hickey and Shane Cowlishaw report.
National’s deputy leader Paula Bennett will also have to rustle up votes to keep her job, with the party’s caucus set to vote on who they want in the position alongside the new leader.
Outgoing leader Bill English’s resignation has sparked a five-way battle for the position with Steven Joyce the latest to step up alongside Simon Bridges, Amy Adams, Mark Mitchell, and Judith Collins.
National MPs will vote on February 27 for the new leader, with party whip Jamie Lee Ross announcing there would also be a vote for the deputy position.
“Paula came to me last week and said she felt it was important there be a vote for deputy leader and the caucus has confirmed that.”
It means Bennett will have to lobby hard to retain her position, especially after her part in the failure to form a coalition with New Zealand First following the election.
While some candidates for the deputy position may declare their intentions publicly, there is also the strong likelihood that some standing for the leadership position may also want the position if they fail to grab the top job.
Earlier on Tuesday, Bennett was saying little about the process but confirmed she would be happy to be deputy under any of the five leadership candidates.
“It seems incredible it was only a week ago we were standing here and Bill was making his announcement and we’ve got another week to go so we’ll just play it out.”
National’s leadership process will have the Government smiling as it drags oxygen away from any attacks the opposition were planning.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters threw his support for National leader behind Joyce, tongue in cheek.
“We’d look forward to Steven Joyce leading the National Party...certain cowboys have said a man needs to know his limitations and Steven doesn’t know his.
“We’ve had three leaders now in 14 months and that’s seriously an unstable circumstance for a political party.”
ACT leader David Seymour said he didn’t care who got the position, as long as they were prepared to make a tangible difference.
“From an ACT point of view the only thing that matters is the new leader understands MMP. Bill English, frankly, didn’t.
“How many of [the candidates] have outlined what their policies are for a better New Zealand? They’re all talking about themselves, which is what they accused Jacinda Ardern of, and they’re all talking about taking the fight to the Government. Well, I’m interested in how we actually improve New Zealand.”
Candidates quiet on intentions
National MPs were all tight-lipped heading about who they would support heading into the party’s caucus meeting, with many refusing to comment.
English also refused to be drawn on who he would be supporting but said he was pleased with the civility of the leadership contest.
Mitchell, who announced his candidacy in Orewa on Monday, said he was happy with the support he was starting with, but would be starting a round of one-on-one meetings with his fellow MPs to drum up more votes.
He refused to be drawn into talk of divisions between new and veteran politicians.
“I don’t buy into this old guard, new guard stuff. I’ve always just believed in people’s own abilities and experience so it’s pretty simple for me.”
Joyce’s ‘fiscal hole’ his Achilles heel?
During the election campaign, Joyce claimed that Labour had an $11.7 billion hole in its budget, a call that was widely derided by economic commentators.
Before heading into the caucus meeting, Joyce’s competitors were asked what they made of the fiscal hole call and many were lukewarm on the decision.
Collins, who was the first to declare her candidacy for the leadership, was the most critical and described it as one that “worked on one level”.
“It was a ballsy call, is what I think.”
Adams was more diplomatic and offered support for the claim, although with the caveat that she had not run the numbers herself.
“I back Steven and I back his calculations - I wasn’t in a position to make the calculations myself but I certainly trust Steven Joyce’s assessment far more than Grant Robertson’s.”
At the same time, Bridges said he respected Joyce, but believed he would be a better leader.
“I think perhaps there’s a view among some that we can just stay with everything we’ve got and the voters of New Zealand will see the errors of their way and come back to us. I actually think we need to keep our strengths but also freshen up a bit and look like an alternative government in waiting.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was strongly critical of National’s decision to run with the fiscal hole claim during the election, said she wasn’t worried about the possibility of similar tactics being used if Joyce became leader.
“We will take on, in a robust way, any leader that is put up by the National Party.”
Joyce made the announcement on Newstalk ZB and Morning Report this morning, saying he had a lot of support from within and outside the caucus, and that the contest was more about the party than the individuals.
"I've had a huge amount of people from inside and outside caucus saying I should stand," Joyce told Guyon Espiner on RNZ.
His intervention raises the stakes significantly for National's old guard and threatens to break open a mostly civilised debate into a clash between a new generation of MPs frustrated by Joyce's control of the party and his determination to keep the old gang together.
"My view is it has always been about the National Party, it's not about me personally," Joyce told Mike Hosking on NewstalkZB.
Speaking to media later in Wellington, he said he was confident he had the skills to lead New Zealand forward and provide an alternative to the current government's policies that "take us back to the 70s".
“As I looked through and decided whether I was going to run or not, the thing that really drove me to stand was my passion for the future of this country and what’s possible.”
As the five candidates scrap for votes, Labour's leadership group will be rubbing its hands together for the next seven days of divisions and debate within a National caucus that is watching its polling drop as the contest goes on.
Labour at 15-year high in poll
Last night TVNZ broadcast the results of a Colmar Brunton poll taken from February 10 to 14. English announced on February 13 he would resign, which has opened up an already very open but mostly civil leadership contest (so far). Colmar Brunton confirmed just 25 percent of the polling was done after the announcement.
Labour surged nine points to a 15-year high of 48 percent in the poll of 1,000 voters, with 50 percent of the poll taken on landlines and 50 percent on mobiles.
Ardern has effectively doubled Labour's support in seven months to a level just below Labour's record post-MMP high of 51 percent set in July 2003 (when English was also the National leader).
National fell three points to 43 percent. Ardern's support as preferred Prime Minister rose four percent to 41 percent, while English's support fell eight points to 20 percent.
But it wasn't all good news for the Labour-led Government. Support for the Greens fell two points to five percent, while support for New Zealand First fell two points to three percent, which is below the threshold required for re-election. Support for Winston Peters as preferred Prime Minister fell one point to four percent.
The poll shows Ardern and her government have consolidated and strengthened their immediate post-election popularity, having completed their 100-day plan, successfully attended Waitangi Day events and delighted voters of all colours with a pregnancy. The economy is trucking along solidly too, as the latest consumer confidence survey showed.
The Colmar Brunton poll also found 37 percent of people expected the economy to get better, up one point from when the same question was asked in December. There were 33 percent who thought it would get worse, down three points from December.