3. Sachdeva: National's first conference out of power

Updated

Simon Bridges has won over leadership rivals for now, but some in National are keen to see him tweak his leadership approach. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

This weekend, the National Party is holding its first conference in opposition for almost a decade. Expect more robust debate than during the party’s time in government, along with patience - for now - as Simon Bridges continues to find his feet, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Comment: Freedom of speech is set to get a welcome shot in the arm in Auckland - just not the event, or the speakers, you’re probably thinking of.

When the National Party faithful gather at the SkyCity Convention Centre, delegates may feel liberated from the strictures of government.

Nine years in power turned National’s annual conferences into somewhat bloodless affairs, according to some, as as the need for stability and unity won out over a more spirited discussion.

Some in the National caucus likened life under John Key to a benevolent dictatorship: a leader exercising absolute political power over his people, with prosperity (in this case, electoral) the reward for a loss of autonomy.

MPs and the wider membership aren’t quite yearning for a revolution, but many are certainly keen for a more free and frank discussion of policy than in recent years.

Some robust debate is healthy, particularly as a party comes to terms with why it lost power and the road back to government.

Some of that has already been on display at the party’s regional conferences, with Stuff reporting on a polarising Northern remit to stand National Party candidates at next year’s Auckland Council elections.

Some robust debate is healthy, particularly as a party comes to terms with why it lost power and the road back to government.

The trick will be airing those different views and leaving all sides feeling satisfied, without wider divisions emerging - no easy task.

National leader Simon Bridges has talked about a “recalibration” of the party’s stance on social issues like education, health and the environment.

He has already warned he will be keeping his powder dry at this conference, holding back on any major announcements for closer to the next election, but will have to carefully strike a balance between the so-called “wets and drys” within the party as that policy development takes place.

Stick or twist?

Like a gambler at the blackjack table, Bridges sometimes seems unsure whether to stick or twist.

He’ll rail at the miscarriage of justice faced by Peter Ellis, but suggests that all these years on there’s nothing more to be done.

He calls the Government’s KiwiBuild programme “a Kiwi hoax”, but says National will keep it as long as it works.

At a public meeting in Te Atatu, he says banning fizzy drinks from school canteens and allowing only water is an idea with some merit - but quickly adds he’d struggle to get that past his caucus.

These aren’t logically inconsistent positions to take, but they give the impression of a leader still trying to decide how he wants to lead.

Importantly, Bridges appears to have won over the various leadership factions which emerged after Bill English stepped down, with all of the contenders - bar the departed Steven Joyce - given hefty portfolios and staying on-message in return.

That’s not unexpected for someone barely four months in the job; Bridges himself admits he has had to learn quickly, crediting a months-long roadshow around the regions with making him “much more confident” in himself and where he wants to take the party.

The community events have also shown some of his strengths, with Bridges appearing far more natural in front of a crowd than he can be in front of a camera.

Importantly, he appears to have won over the various leadership factions which emerged after Bill English stepped down, with all of the contenders - bar the departed Steven Joyce - given hefty portfolios and staying on-message in return.

Playing with house money

Bridges is playing with house money to some extent, with the mid-40s base provided by Key and English giving him room to find his feet and plan ahead without fears of an insurrection.

He can’t take those numbers as a given, and there are some in the party who would like him to be more statesmanlike, with the now-infamous Radio Hauraki interview providing fodder for that opinion.

Overall though, there’s a greater sense of patience than some would have you believe, and a sense that they are at least in the game for the next election (even if Bridges’ comparison of this coalition to the last one-term Government, before he was born, continues to conveniently overlook the fact of the popular Norman Kirk’s death).

Of course, National’s supporters would trade the freedom to speak their mind in a heartbeat for a return to government.

Whether Bridges can be their ace in the hole won’t be clear for some time.

If the party can make it through the weekend without healthy disagreement blowing up into bitterness and headlines, he’ll feel far more confident of the task ahead.