As National Party weakens, Labour will be the casualty

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Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson

Auckland, September 17, 2021


Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins (Picture from The Conversation)

“Death spiral” was the phrase used by Matthew Hooton in Metro, “paranoid storms” by Judith Collins’ Ex-Press Secretary Janet Wilson in The Spinoff, and Newstalk ZB host Heather du Plessis-Allan proclaimed “Judith Collins must go.”

Everyone seems to be singing from the same songbook: the National Party is wounded right now, possibly terminally. This drumbeat of disintegration was confirmed by terrible poll results last week with a slump to 21.2%.

Ailing leadership

That is barely above their worst-ever electoral result of 20.93% almost 20 years ago.

While many insist leadership is the chief ill, philosophic questions of what the Party actually stands for, and an appetite for bigger government post-pandemic could also be to blame. Covid-19 has created identity crises for other centre-right parties, like Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

One thing is certain; when National is weak, the unexpected casualty is Labour.

You see, Labour’s vitality relies on a strong National Party. As depleted as National may be, with just 33 seats in the House, it remains the leading political Opposition Party. As such it plays a necessary part in the efficacy of governing.

Ours is a Westminster system where the winner takes all. But as Australian academic Bruce Stone has noted, this makes the Chamber a place where the next election is litigated. It is how future governments get themselves match-fit politically.

Competition breeds innovation

As in business, in politics competition produces innovation. The reverse is a danger of complacency, even arrogance, with the government taking its power and position for granted. And a diminished opposition will be electorally smaller.

As Stone notes, “A small opposition … weakens the government’s sense that it is under challenge and that it needs, as a result, to remain responsive to public concerns expressed by the parliamentary opposition.”

National’s size and strength ideally ensure a true contest of visions for our country.

There is an even more important loser: us, the voters. When opposition parties spend their days in civil war, they are distracted from core business: doing democracy’s dirty work of scrutinising the government.

“In Westminster-derived systems of parliamentary government…” writes Stone, “a persistently small opposition represents the removal of one of the few institutional checks on government.”

He adds that, where opposition parties do not have the potential to check the government through a second chamber, this exacerbates a “tendency to overbearing government.”

Moreover, “…oppositions which displace, or substantially displace, governments fairly regularly are arguably more conducive, other things being equal to governmental accountability.”

Accountability provides protection

While greater accountability might limit the amount of things that a government can do, it also restricts missteps and protects against unintended consequences. Those laws made, and policies created, are truly the best for our country.

So the next time you hear about drama in the National party, don’t just be concerned about a leader or an organisation; think of the wider context.

People (and governments) are best served by a loyal, strong, healthy opposition-without one, we’re less ourselves.

Tim Wilson is Executive Director of Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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