National needs to be a 'practical and sceptical' opposition

6:32 pm on 21 October 2017

Opinion - "Power corrupts," is an old piece of social and political wisdom for the ages.

What is occasionally overlooked is that the absence of power also often corrupts. Those on the outer, and seeking power, all too often corrupt their original purpose in desperate bids to get power again. That is something the National Party will need to watch as it goes into what, for some of its members, is a bit of an unexpected stint in opposition.

Apart from the ACT Party's one seat, National will be the sole party in opposition, with a large 56-seat minority.

Bill English makes a concession speech after Winston Peters said New Zealand First would side with the Labour Party.

Bill English makes a concession speech after Winston Peters said New Zealand First would side with the Labour Party. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A lot of people have concluded National is going to be a particularly formidable opposition. You can see why it might appear so - and those predictions may be right.

But I wouldn't take it for granted. There are plenty of potential pitfalls - and these are unusual times.

Usually when a party goes into opposition after a long stint in government it is not so much put there as flung there by angry or disillusioned voters.

This usually comes after one final Parliamentary term in which the party is shot full of bullet holes by attacks from the opposition, the media, and, not infrequently, their own side.

Ministers are exhausted - usually more so than they realise until the adrenaline of office vanishes. The party tends to be divided and demoralised. This is not one of those situations - not quite, anyway.

National is the largest party in Parliament. It will be resourced accordingly. Its members - most of them - did not expect defeat.

There is nowhere near the same demoralisation apparent in 1999 or in 1984 - or seen in Labour in 2008 and 1990.

National leader Bill English, who had appeared to be losing some of his interest in politics in 2016, was re-energised by taking over from John Key as prime minister. And unlike most of his front bench ministers, he had a good election campaign.

There is no shortage of those who might want to take over from him as leader, but equally there is no obvious successor. The candidates last time - Judith Collins, Jonathan Coleman and Simon Bridges - would all no doubt be interested, as would Amy Adams and, perhaps, current deputy Paula Bennett.

Most have substantial negative aspects, either with the public or their colleagues or both. Adams would be the least divisive internally, and would make an intriguing counterpoint to prime minister designate Jacinda Ardern: less prone to indulge in high flown fluff, more no-nonsense, matter of fact in style.

But will English go?

If you filter it through the conventional political operatives' lens, you would have to say, of course he will. He has been around for a long time, he has had two goes at the prime ministership, and he is not seen as the most charismatic of politicians.

But that is the kind of capital city insider, ultra-savvy but ultimately narrow view of politics which can at times verge on the myopic.

There has always been a touch of Australia's John Howard about English. Howard was his country's Treasurer in 1977, had a couple of goes at leading his party and didn't get to be prime minister until 1996.

Howard is a charisma-free zone - he looked and sounded like what he was, a suburban solicitor. And he ended up becoming Australia's second longest serving prime minister.

I don't think that is quite an option for English. But the presumption that it is all over now seems just that - presumptuous.

Finally, English has a sense of service.

And he also fits the tone National needs to strike right now: a common sense, practical and down to earth counterpoint to a Labour-New Zealand First-Green administration which has fired up expectations of its followers to unrealistic heights.

Whether it is English or someone else, the pitch National needs to strike is a mix of common sense and compassion, while making it clear it dropped the final "c" which overtook it in its final three to four years of office - complacency.

National needs to be the grown up in the room: practical and sceptical.

If its members can get their heads around that - and the realities and the uphill battles off opposition, something most have not had to face before - it will be the kind of formidable opposition some pundits are predicting.

*Rob Hosking is a freelance journalist specialising in economic, tax, financial and superannuation issues, and regulatory/legal matters. He is a regular contributor to NBR.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs