Steven Joyce: Good can yet come from National implosion


New Zealand politics is a target-rich environment right now for any Opposition.

We have a Government which is decidedly slow and reactive on the things people care about, while marching forwards on ideological policies the public don’t care for.

This week’s announcement on the border was another half-arsed bob each way non-announcement that drowns immediately in its own lack of logic. How come it is okay for Kiwis to come back from Australia on the 15th of January but not for Christmas? How is it okay for double-vaxxed Kiwis to come over but not double-vaxxed Aussies who present identical risk? Why are double-vaxxed Kiwis able to come from Australia but not from Singapore or London? What happens at the end of April and why is that date so special? None of it makes any sense.

And as for the traffic light system we are all about to be subject to, who really knows what’s allowed and not allowed? In my observation Aucklanders have largely binned it before it starts, consistent with most Australian states which are rapidly dropping their restrictions at similar levels of vaccination.

Ministers have taken to responding to questioning about their calls with that passive-arrogant reasoning “That’s the decision we made” as if that justifies the content of that decision. They are skating perilously close to “we’re in charge, so lump it”. Looking around Auckland, many people have told them to lump it.

Beyond Covid, the inexplicable policy adventures are piling up. There’s Three Waters, the health reforms, ballooning debt, rising inflation, and the light rail fantasy.

In case you missed it, this week the Government proposed a government-run employment insurance scheme which will increase taxes on workers and employers.

Meanwhile the wheels are coming off the government rail company. Everywhere there is evidence of Wellington running things poorly, just as the Government seeks to have Wellington run more things.

All this makes the National Party’s implosion all the more frustrating for centre-right supporters and anyone else questioning the competence of the Government. For them Thursday was a very gloomy day. But it might not be all bad.

The simple fact is Team Judith was not firing. She hadn’t captured the public’s imagination and they were getting impatient for another option. There needed to be change. The manner of her leaving will remain interesting for the political pundits, but the voters have already moved on to the important part, which is what comes next.

That’s what the National caucus will be grappling with this weekend. The rest of us can comment on it, but they are the ones who have to live with their decision. Their weekend will be spent grappling with the strengths and weaknesses of each possible aspirant, the deputy, and the make-up of the front bench.

I’m not going to offer a view about who should end up the leader but I do have some thoughts about what is required in the role.

First,the leader needs to be relatable. New Zealanders like to feel their leader is a good person who they would enjoy the company of, and who will have their back. Leaders need to be genuinely interested in the aspirations of ordinary Kiwis and what matters to them, in all parts of the country and from all walks of life.

Good leaders who last are always interested in what the people think.

Leaders need a real desire to serve the public. Seeking to become the leader is not an end in itself. It’s not something to stick on your CV. It’s a serious business at a time when what people thought they knew is being tipped on its head, either by Covid or by a self-described “transformational” Government.

People often highlight the importance of leaders being decisive, and that’s true. No one should step up for a leadership role without knowing where they want to steer the ship.

But leaders also need to be good listeners. They need to gather around them advice from all walks of life, and understand how they should weigh each piece of advice. They need to be constantly testing their views with their team and be prepared to change their own views if they are wrong.

As the contestants line up for the caucus next week, they’d be wise to remember not everyone can make it to the top of the greasy pole. Being the leader is not everything. The leader spends most of their time being the chief sales rep for the team.

That means a lot of talking and even more listening. It means doing media calls every hour of the day and night; and having cameras on you almost every waking moment. And it means Opposition hit squads going over every element of your past, seeking to find a flaw they can blow up and discredit you with.

It is often more satisfying to be a senior member of the team. You work hard, but the diary is not quite as relentless. You get to do more things yourself and you get to contribute to each decision.

I would never have been able to arrange the building of those new expressways, electrify the Auckland rail network, roll out ultra-fast broadband, champion the growth of international education and the tech sector, and all the other things I got to do, if I’d also had the responsibility of being the leader as well as a minister.

In any event it’s all irrelevant if you don’t get elected.

Unseemly scrapping over who the Opposition leader is and sniping from the sidelines to undermine the person with the role appears to the public to be the ultimate in self-interested self-indulgence. Which it is.

Whatever else happens over the next few days, National must emerge with a united team where all the key players accept the result and are visibly committed to performing their roles.

The front bench must be a genuine blend of perspectives from within the party and society. National began as a merger of the urban liberals and provincial conservatives, and has always been at its best when those broad coalitions and variations of them are successfully accommodated.

The new team needs to bounce out re-energised to take the fight to the Government on behalf of all the people increasingly concerned about the country’s direction. The rest is irrelevant, and irrelevance beckons if National doesn’t bring it all together. On the other hand, like I say, it’s a target-rich environment.

– Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.

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