Whoever wins, National is going conservative

Claire Trevett at the Herald has a piece up examining the five National Party leadership candidates’ views and voting records on various social issues. It’s interesting reading. And the conclusion I draw is that whoever’s on top when the dust settles will take the party screaming back into good old-fashioned conservatism.

To summarise:

Adams: anti-general decrim of marijuana; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Bridges: anti-decrim of marijuana; voted against marriage equality; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Collins: opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; voted for drinking age of 20

Joyce: anti-decrim of marijuana; opposed first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill; supported drinking age of 18

Mitchell: voted against marriage equality; supported first reading of Seymour’s assisted dying bill

Trevett notes that Mark Mitchell “in hindsight … would now support [marriage equality].” This should be a black mark against him whether you agree or disagree. It’s impossible to put trust in politicians who pander to reactionaries when it actually matters, but turn around later and insist “I would totally vote for equality and basic human rights now, if I had the chance.” There’s no high democratic principle in place: it’s an overriding instinct to cover your ass and please whoever you’re currently talking to. (God, he’s sounding more and more plausible as “New Zealand’s Trump” every day.)

All five candidates are against abortion law reform, even though Simon Bridges’ favourite Bill Clinton quote specifies abortion should be safe, rare and legal. (Abortion is still covered by the Crimes Act in New Zealand, Simon, and its safety is reduced by the bureaucratic hoops pregnant people have to jump through, delaying their access to safer procedures. Something to think about?)

Family First’s ever-ironically helpful Vote Your Values website also has a guide to the contenders. Judith Collins … certainly has a voting record.

The others are more of a mixed bag, and it might seem premature to assume that all five would drag the party back into the dark ages. John Key’s own voting record was hardly a clean sweep of decency and compassion. But the thing about Key was not that he was tremendously socially liberal, nor conservative: he was simply pragmatic. He let the dice fall where they may, and when he did look like being on the wrong side of history, he had an incredibly slick media strategy and no compunction about rewriting that history to make himself the hero.

It worked for him. It did not work for English. It is not going to work for self-proclaimed scrappers like Collins or Joyce. Bridges doesn’t have the panache to carry it off (his infamous Campbell Live interview shows what happens when he’s not given the easy ride he thinks he’s due.)

Nobody except Simon Lusk wants to have a beer with Mark Mitchell, and although Amy Adams comes to many voters as a relative unknown, that’s really a weakness when you’ve been in Parliament for nearly a decade and a Minister for two-thirds of that time. (Nanaia Mahuta took this criticism a lot in the 2014 Labour leadership election, albeit mostly from Pākehā who never pay attention.)

So the best-case scenario is National gets a new leader who can’t/won’t articulate a strong position on social issues, either to conservatism or liberalism, and who lacks Key’s ability to make that work. And we know that more conservative, religious candidates started to come up through the National ranks the minute Bill English became leader. Is there a big chunk of socially judgey National supporters, who were simply biding their time while things were going well under Key, now ready to push the party back towards its “real” values? Buggered if I know. But if there is, are any of the leadership contenders willing to take those guys on and keep them mum until the party can Labour Lite its way back into the Beehive? Mitchell will fold. Bridges and Adams will weasel. And Joyce, of course, stands on a strong record of fixing things.

The worst-case scenario is National gets a leader who can articulate a strong social position, and it’s Judith Collins and her position is strongly terrifying.

And the real winner may be David Seymour. More than anything he and his funders are capable of doing, National swerving into the judgemental daddy-state ditch could deliver a lot of “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” votes back to the yellow clown car.

Labour could benefit too: but it’s going to take more than sitting back and reaching for the popcorn. They have to seize the opportunity to drive one hell of a wedge between National’s new conservatism and the progressive values most New Zealanders hold. That means being active and unapologetic on drug and abortion law reform, and unequivocally rejecting the kneejerk law-and-order frame.

I hope they can do this.

2 Replies to “Whoever wins, National is going conservative”

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