Analysis – The leaking has already begun from the National Party’s top-secret report on their disastrous 2020 election campaign. It’s a fraught issue, illustrating just how dysfunctional and divisive things still are inside National. Trust is low, and fingers are still being pointed – even by leader Judith Collins, who clearly doesn’t fully trust her caucus.
Top secrecy to keep the report from leaking
MP access to the report into their own party is colourfully described by Claire Trevett in the Herald: “The National Party’s determination to keep the juicy bits of the review into its abysmal election result secret has led it to Harry Potter lengths. MPs can enter the Room of Secrets, in an undisclosed location in Parliament, to read the report. They cannot take phones or other communication devices into the room. Presumably the Obliviate (forgetfulness spell) is then cast upon them before they exit again. This is all done in a bid to prevent leaks of the contents of the report. The irony of the party being fearful of leaks of a report which has blamed leaks for the party’s woes is not missed”.
Trevett likens the intrigue and secrecy to another colourful institution currently in turmoil: “There are some parallels between the Royal family and the National Party: not least that both are rather dysfunctional families.”
The problem is, Trevett reports in another article (National Party review points to ‘disunity, leaks and poor behaviour’), the review is said to be too “brutal” for MPs to handle: “The Herald was told that it was so unstinting that some did not want the caucus to see it – both because of the risk that it would be leaked and undermine the party’s attempts to rebuild as blame was apportioned… Another source said that nobody came out of it looking good, but it should be shown to party MPs or the lessons in it would not be learned.”
One way of dealing with potential leaks of the report, at a time when the party is trying to rebuild and project an image of unity, has been to produce two versions of the report – see Tova O’Brien’s National creates two versions of election review, one with ‘gory details taken out’.
O’Brien says there will be a “sanitised” version and “full report”. She colourfully relays the details: “The full report with all the gory details will be kept under lock and key and MPs will only be allowed to read it. The party won’t say under what circumstances – if MPs will be under surveillance, phones confiscated, or if the report will be in a steel briefcase handcuffed to leader Judith Collins’ wrist.”
Inside the party, there’s unhappiness with this process: “Newshub has been told the membership is frustrated with the closed process, that there is anger about how tightly held the report has been after everyone was asked to be open and share details during the actual review process.”
Collins defends the secrecy and points the finger
Judith Collins has defended not allowing MPs to receive copies of the report, saying on RNZ’s Morning Report that “We’re not going to have any of that sort of nonsense”, and explaining that the report is actually owned by the party’s board and not the MPs – see RNZ’s ‘A National Party board document’: Judith Collins trying to distance MPs from review.
In this interview, Collins says the party is being “very trusting” in allowing the MPs to read it, and that this is a “good concession by the board to the MPs”.
In other interviews the National leader has been rather provocative in continuing to point the finger at her colleagues about the review’s findings. Henry Cooke reports that she says some of the MPs guilty of “bad behaviour” are still in the caucus – see: Judith Collins says ‘confronting’ election review reveals bad behaviour of MPs still in her party.
In this interview Collins says “I also know that there is some bad behaviour that is called out in that report. That is going to be confronting for some people. And some of those people are not in caucus any more – some are. Maybe they are going to read that report and go ‘maybe that is me’.” In contrast to such bad behaviour, Collins says her mistakes were “honest”.
The leaks are already occurring
Writing on his subscriber-only website Liam Hehir jokes that National’s autopsy will remain confidential until it is leaked to Tova O’Brien. The National-aligned commentator argues that, although it’s understandable party bosses want to keep the document away from opponents, this is unrealistic. He believes factional competition will ensure that at least some of it leaks: “the human propensity for intrigue will ensure that internal rivals ensure that some or all of the criticisms of their opponents become known.”
In fact, National insiders are already talking about the contents of the report. For example, one National MP who has seen the report summary has told journalist Richard Harman that the analysis in it is “politically naïve”. Harman suggests this is down to a lack of experience in the review panel that wrote it. Stacked with figures from the corporate world, and with little obvious experience in the party, the report ignores some the key reasons for National’s failure.
The way National is dealing with the review is leading to anger and cynicism behind the scenes in the party according to Harman. There is a suspicion that “the board is doing this to protect itself and to keep its own role in the defeat hidden.” Harman argues that this enables the blame to be focused only the MPs rather than the party officials: “the draft of the review, which originally went to the party board, set the blame for the loss on both the caucus and the board. But in his public comments, Party President, has seemed to direct criticism only at the caucus.”
Other journalists also have access to leaks from National. Stuff’sThomas Coughlan reports that a “radical shake-up” of the party organisation is being recommended – see: National Party promises to implement recommendations of secretive election review.
Here’s the key point: “sources familiar with the reports have told Stuff its recommendations include a shake-up of the party’s board, including the implementation of term limits. That could spell an end to the presidency of president Peter Goodfellow, who has held the post since 2009. It’s understood the recommendations also include a prohibition on board members holding another party office, like regional or electorate chair.”
There are also noises that National might change the way it selects its leader. In her article today, Claire Trevett discusses how National hasn’t gone down the path of allowing non-MPs, such as party members, to have a say in the leader, but “there has been some talk about at least involving the board in leadership decisions in National.”
Other explanations for National’s demise
Richard Harman also puts forward some other explanations for National’s catastrophe in 2020 that might be missing from the report: “MPs might add to that the fact that the campaign was underfunded. Because of that, they could not hire top-flight talent, like the social media experts Topham Guerin, and the changes in leadership left the party without a coherent message or clear strategy. This was also the first election since 2008 that the Australian political consultants Crosby Textor had not worked with National.”
Yesterday’s New Zealand Herald editorial suggests another area that the report probably doesn’t properly explore – the party simply didn’t have a leader who could deal with the problems: “What was sorely lacking as the party lunged from blooper to bumble was leadership. A leader would have united the party, plugged the leaks and stamped out bad behaviour”.
It concludes: “Should National wish to avoid repeating the debacle of last year, then 2020 hindsight must focus on a leader who can unite a tight ship on which all behave.”
Leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury has a different take, focusing on the ideological element of National’s demise, suggesting the party was too out of sync with the public mood in terms of policy and orientation. He argues that the party is now in terminal decline, with David Seymour’s Act Party set to benefit from a more polarised ideological landscape.
Finally, with a focus on the National Party’s organisational problems, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture, especially in terms of the last time National dealt with a big defeat and an organisational rebuild. Back in November, writing after National’s AGM, Chris Trotter argued that National has become a dysfunctional oligarchy which is resistant to new talent or proper membership participation – see: “Goodfellas”: The Neoliberal National Party shows its ugly face.
*Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.