2. Edwards: “No mates National” seeks companion

With leader Simon Bridges' low personal approval rate and the Act party on life support, National is desperately looking for a new potential coalition partner. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The National Party essentially has “no mates” at the moment – a lack of obvious coalition partners, which contributed to its loss of power in 2017. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University examines National’s potential coalition options for 2020.

Simon Bridges’ confirmation this week that the National Party is ‘quietly talking to a number of players’ regarding possibilities for future coalition partners is an admission of what pretty much anyone who can count in politics figured out quite a while ago. That is, National desperately needs a potential coalition partner and its cupboards right now are looking pretty bare.

Act don’t bring anything the table and are effectively politically irrelevant now. They survive on political life support from National, and that is likely to be switched off.

There is no indication that either New Zealand First or the Greens are in any way options in the future and, if New Zealand First was, its future post-Peters must be in doubt anyway.

It’s also very clear that National are unlikely to get fifty percent of the vote. While their polling has held up remarkably well, it has never got to a majority on their own, even at John Key’s height. And Bridges is a long way from that point as a leader.

The Maori Party looks very unlikely to make a comeback, especially given the strength of Labour’s Maori caucus. Should they make it back into parliament, it’s likely to be a few elections down the track. Even then, given that its relationship with the National Party was the primary cause of its downfall, the Maori party couldn’t be relied upon as coalition partners in the future.

The bottom line is there will have to be a new party. But it’s no good having a one-seat-wonder like Act. It’s going to have to be a party that can pull three per cent plus.

Of course, any less than five percent, and a party will need an electorate seat to get over the threshold as it is, and that will involve National doing a deal. But that creates the biggest contradiction of all.

On the one hand, a party that is going to get three percent or more is going to have to establish itself as an independent political party of the centre, as there is no point establishing another rightwing party, like Act, which will simply take votes off National. But if a new party’s very survival is dependent on National for an electorate seat (as is the situation with Act), then it will be only too easy for Labour and its coalition partners to paint a new party as a sham movement designed to put National back into power. Voters don’t like the idea that they’re being manipulated.

There are some key options and constituencies around which a party could be formed:

1) Conservative Christian parties. Such parties have been able to get close to the threshold in the past, but the nature and failings of the leadership have proven a fatal flaw in a number of cases. Certainly, with the arrival of the three big issues of cannabis, euthanasia, and abortion law reform onto the political agenda, the next two years could be very ripe for a conservative party to launch and prosper.

But National will also be very wary that an alliance with such a party could cost it dearly in its battle with Labour over urban liberal votes. It could easily lose more than the two to three percent it might gain if it was seen to be aligned with a homophobic or anti-women agenda.

2) Maori. But despite the Maori Party’s record that remains a highly problematic constituency for National.

3) Ethnic minority parties. There have been a number of attempts to establish parties around ethnic minorities, but none have been able to make any significant showing in polls or elections, and the idea that people will vote as a bloc simply because they are of the same ethnicity is fundamentally flawed. The reality is that ethnicities vote across political parties and, if they do tend towards one party or another, it’s because of policies. These parties often spring from aspiring politicians looking to use their leadership in ethnic communities as a way into a political career for themselves. Such leaders are inclined to grossly overstate the level of consensus amongst those communities.

4) A women’s party. Some sort of feminist party would be a very interesting possibility, particularly given recent controversies. There are certainly some key issues which many women feel strongly about, and no shortage of high-profile potential leaders. Of course, such a party would have the same weaknesses as other potential party bases. Economically, in particular, women’s interests cover a huge range from the wealthy elite to the most poverty-stricken and exploited communities. A potential National Party coalition would, by necessity, be focused at the professional, liberal end but would need to be much broader than just the small business elite and gather support from professional groups such as nurses, academic and teachers who traditionally have been strongly Labour.

While there is no precedent in New Zealand for this, such a party would have the potential to drag support away from Labour and towards National, which is the fundamental need that Simon Bridges and the National Party has. It doesn’t need to be huge – three to five percent would do. And in fact, no major party wants a coalition partner in too strong a position.

5) The Opportunities Party. Gareth Morgan has committed to step down as leader, and Lance O’Sullivan has been in discussions with the party about taking over. He would have a very good chance of building on TOP’s 2.4 per cent of the vote won in 2017. Tellingly, O’Sullivan also talked to National about joining them, and they suggested he go elsewhere – which might turn out to have been quite strategically smart on their part if it results in a National-friendly TOP getting into Parliament.

6) The “No mates” option. There is also some chance of National getting into power “without mates”. After all, National’s polling has stayed rock-solid at about 45 per cent, regardless of who has led the party. Therefore, National might well hope of winning a few more percent if the Labour-led government runs into trouble over the next two years. For example, in National’s view it’s quite likely that KiwiBuild will not produce the number of houses promised, that the one billion trees won’t get planted, that poverty isn’t reduced, and that the Provincial Development Fund runs into all sorts of problems. And coalition splits and frictions might also bring down the popularity of not just Labour, but also New Zealand First and the Greens.

There’s also a strong chance that New Zealand First will not make it back into the next Parliament. This again makes National’s “no mates” strategy more plausible. And in fact, the survival of the Greens in 2020 is far from assured too. If both these coalition partners died at the election, then the race could end up being a straight two-party contest between Labour and National, and those coalition parties might cease to matter.

National’s “B Team” balancing act

National has an extremely delicate balancing ahead if it is active in fostering a new party. On the one hand, ensuring a new party is politically viable and, on the other, having it perceived as a credible, independent centre party. Any perceived support from National towards such a party will provide a huge target for the government parties to fire at and should be easy for them to undermine.

The history of new parties is littered with many failed attempts and many, many millions of dollars in wasted in funding. But National simply has little choice. It needs a new party and simply hoping that one emerges before the next election is not an option.