Heather Roy

21 May 2020

People have been asking me what I think of the National Party leadership issue. To be frank I think the National Party Caucus is making a much bigger misstep than any leader Simon Bridges has been accused of making during COVID-19 times. This is no time to lose your bottle.

The Newshub/Reid Research poll released earlier this week had National at 30.6 per cent, meaning on current numbers 16 MPs would be out of a job after the election. Even worse for Bridges, the poll showed only 4.5 percent support for him as Prime Minister. National and Labour Party politicians always panic when party support gets anywhere close to 30 percent. Coupled with the struggle to gain traction in these strangest of times, the National party is noticeably twitchy about whether or not they have the right guy as leader. John Key’s comments on radio about political newcomer Christopher Luxon having the potential to be a great Prime Minister and Jim Bolger’s public support yesterday of Todd Muller haven’t helped Simon Bridges cause.

While Jacinda Ardern has had most of the limelight to herself since lockdown began, helped considerably by the never-ending National State of Emergency and a budget with more cash than you can shake a stick at can anyone really be surprised by that poll result? Jesus Christ himself would have struggled to beat Ardern’s popularity under these circumstances. World leaders are experiencing a surge in support, it being human nature to rally together in a time of external threat.

When you take a careful look at Simon Bridges performance during this period it is hard to say what else he could have done. He’s mostly said the right things (with the exception of commenting on any greys the PM might have been concerned about), tackled the government on COVID-19 responses and civil liberties breaches. He supported the government on a $50 million COVID relief package, recognising that Kiwis needed help, but was not invited to have any say in the way it was allocated.  The media have been harsh on him but he has been what, in normal times, we’d expect of the Leader of the Opposition. He is holding the government to account, even more important in times of crisis.

Now he is confronted with a leadership challenge, at a time when unity of the National Caucus has never been needed more. Four months out from an election a change is dangerous. The public dislikes and punishes disunity. Bridges is right to front foot the fracas and deal with it swiftly, a caucus vote being taken this Friday.

One thing National appears to have forgotten is opposition parties don’t win elections, governments lose them. Media are describing the time between now and the election as short, but time has become completely distorted due to COVID-19. It’s now days, not weeks, that are a long time in politics. There’s plenty of water go under the electioneering bridge yet before September 17 – election day. 10 weeks ago who would have thought we’d all have had our lives curtailed and National and Labour would have switched places in the polls so quickly. These are exceptional times and we should expect exceptional things to happen, many of them temporary. The 2020 election could be anyone’s yet.

So, if not Bridges, then who? The challenger team has been revealed as a Muller/Kaye ticket. Todd Muller by all accounts has made quite a mark, but is a relative unknown to the public.  Nikki Kaye is much better known, having impressed as Minister of Education in the Key government. She has also battled breast cancer and been admired for doing the Coast to Coast for a second time after receiving the all clear. She is capable, interesting, likeable and most impressively has beaten our popular Prime Minister twice in the Auckland Central electorate. If being telegenic is important to the voting public (and sadly it is) then Nikki Kaye should be standing for leader of the National Party in her own right, not standing in someone else’s shadow.

Many would relish an election campaign where the presidential style of politics the public favours focuses on two modern women battling it out for the top job.

If the National Party Caucus is determined to do the wrong thing and roll the leader a few months out from the election, the best choice for leader is the person who has defeated the enormously popular Prime Minister twice already and shown far more strength and resilience in her life.