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Thursday, 22 February 2018

National Party Leadership Rumble: We rate the contenders

This is one of my last posts focusing on the National party for the time being but I am looking forward to watching this play out over the next week (and subsequent years).

I recently read Sue Allen’s recent article on Stuff which compared the contenders in the race for the leadership of National to particular makes of cars.

Of course it’s ridiculous to compare politicians to cars. Any leadership contest for a political party is nothing like shopping for a car and every political scientist worth their salt knows that if elections are the Olympics of politics then leadership challenges are the equivalent to the all-star royal rumbles found in professional wrestling.

And unlike many other commentators who rushed out their various articles and posts in the days immediately after Bill English was led sobbing from the podium (excuse me: when he “stepped down” from being the leader) I decided to bide my time, see what I could find out from the various people I know in Wellington and wait until all the contenders showed their hands.

So now Steven Joyce (or more likely the six meter long, intelligent tape worm, called Floyd, that lives in his stomach*) has announced his run for the top job, I have decided that the time was Right (pun fully intended) to write this post.

Ground Rules

There are a host of things you need to know when seeking to be the leader of a political party and its likely that many of our current crop of contenders have yet to take these into account so now is the perfect time to make sure they do.

And I fully admit that I am drawing much of this wisdom from the last nine years of Labour leadership and the previous generations of National internal wrangling, both of which provided a host of maxims.

It’s not a sprint it’s a marathon!

Just because you won this round of the leadership challenge does not mean that all other challengers are vanquished. For example if Judith Collins is not successful this time it’s unlikely that she will be extinguishing her obvious desire to be the boss so don’t spend all your political capital in one go, keep some in reserve and watch your back.

Just because the MPs like you does not mean they will vote for you.

Leadership challenges are one of the few time deadwood backbench MPs will get any attention from their more dynamic colleagues inside cabinet/caucus so it goes without saying that while flattered at the obvious, and sudden, attention; they are either going to use their head and vote strategically (ie whichever way the wind is blowing) or make sure you pay their price upfront. No MP worth their salt is going to peddle their ass for peanuts. It’s not personal, it’s just business.

Just because the MPs like you does not mean the public will.

Congratulations, you have managed to woo over sufficient numbers of MPs to your side and have gotten the top job but the public perception of you is so negative that you’re doing more damage than good by being the face/leader of the party. Labour repeated this mistake time and time again when supposedly popular MPs kept on trying to ram their hairy oversized feet into the glass slipper of public perception after becoming leader and failing miserably.

Just because the public likes you does not mean the MPs will.

Congratulations you’re the darling of the voters in your electorate but your fellow MPs treat you like you have a serious BO problem and stay upwind of you at all times. You’re going to have to get them on your side to swing the leadership vote then you had better start with a new and improved deodorant before figuring out if you have enough to pay the pipers when they come calling.

Context, context, context!

Being popular with the public and MPs alike may still not be enough if the situation surrounding you, and your party, is just not grooving and leadership in opposition is never a fun job. Right now National is on the downward slope of the electoral cycle and no matter who becomes leader they may be faced with declining vote share until the time is right and things start to come back round.

The Measures

As leadership challenges are similar to the antics of professional wrestling so it’s only appropriate that we assess the current crop of candidates along the same lines as wrestling with its hero’s (called Baby faces or Faces) and villains (known as Heels), scripted drama and assorted hijinks to jack up the crowd (think cage matches, Texas death matches, ladder matches etc).

And unlike boxing, with its tale of the tape that focuses on pure measurements like weight, length and height, wrestling focuses more on intangible factors like audience appeal, finishing moves, wrestling style (brawler, technician, outright loon) and acting ability; all of which are qualities similar to those which MPs need to operate in politics.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

So ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, liberals and conservatives without further ado welcome to the 2018 National leadership rumble. Allow me to introduce, in alphabetical order, your contenders:

Amy “The Quiet Achiever” Adams

Type - Face
Style - Technician
Finishing Move – The “Silent but deadly” sleeper hold
Appeal – mid to high
MP since – 2008

Word around the water cooler in Wellington is that Adams is a person who gets things done and this view was echoed by political rag the Trans-Tasman in 2016 when it gave her the title of best MP of the year in its annual review of NZ MPs and described her as someone who “gets the job done”.

She has held a range of ministerial portfolios when in government (Internal Affairs, Environment, Courts and Justice, Broadcasting as well as Communications and IT) and the general comments from those I spoke to about her echoed the sentiments noted above. No Minister is universally popular among civil servants but when I did hear something negative about Adams it was always caveated with a comment about her good work in her various roles as minister.

And there is little dirt out there on Adams either, with a general media sweep turning up little to really smear her with which is amazing when you consider how prolific members of National have been in the last decade at getting caught doing dirty and dodgy things.

But there is this one stain from 2014, and her time as environment minister, from The Standard and reaffirms my faith that even the cleanest in National still have some dirt in their souls.

Adams is a significant landowner in Canterbury and appears to have acted directly in her role as Environment minister in a decision to which she would have profited from (via her owning land). Still, compared to the out and out criminal behaviour of others in National, Adams still appears relatively untainted.

Amy does not immediately stand out as a possible PM but then again neither did John Key when he first entered politics. She is popular in her electorate and in the greater National Party space and has risen steadily on the party list since she started (52 to 7 in 10 years) so she ticks those boxes as well.

My own personal feeling is that Adams is an operator in the same mould as John Key in his heyday, and getting things done “quietly” sounds like a euphemism for the nickname Key had (the “smiling assassin”). Add in her legal background (and the majority of the leadership candidates have one) and you have a quiet but capable candidate with good popular appeal and no major flaws to exploit.

She also is part of the new blood of National but also has been around long enough and is experienced enough to know how to play the game so she could act as a contemporary, and foil, to Jacinda (who entered parliament at the same time). Best of all she is not one of the gang of Five (Collins, Brownlee, Joyce, Bennett and Smith) and therefore does not have any of the negative connotations that these rascals have.

Don’t expect her to fight her dirty in public, she is a face after all, and has already avoided the first public barrage by Judith Collins but don’t underestimate her either, a definite contender.

Simon “No” Bridges

Type - Heel
Style - Technician
Finishing Move – The “OIA Block” flying tackle
Appeal – mid to middling
MP since – 2008

I admit that Simon Bridges stayed off my radar for most of the last few years as he was always overshadowed by the Antics of Key and English et al, so when I started making enquiries about him I was rather surprised at the results I got.

At first many of the things said about him sounded like compliments, until the punchline was dropped and they were turned into compliments of the backhanded kind.

“Smart, very smart…” or “Clever…” were words first associated with Bridges but followed by gems like “too smart for his own good” or “that b*****d would sell a drowning man a life preserver” and my favourite “you know why sharks don’t attack lawyers? Professional courtesy!” which made no sense to me until it was pointed out that Bridges (like Adams and Collins) was a lawyer before entering politics.

So it seems that while no one doubts that Bridges knows his way around parliament there is a barrel load of doubt about his ethics, integrity and his ability to get the job done without leaving a mess.

His behavior as Transport Minister in the 2015 Northland By-Election (with the bridges scandal) helped hand the previously safe National seat to Winston Peters and in effect paved the way (pun definitely intended) for NZ First getting back into politics and thereby setting up the current coalition government**.

But that’s not all, his more recent attempts to block OIAs made about Kiwirail, his “accidentally” opening up a national park for oil and gas exploration and his links to dirty politics show that if Adams can keep her nose generally clean Bridges cannot and this puts him on the back foot as soon as his past record is on display where Adams has already had public (and professional if the Trans-Tasman is to be believed) praise for her work as a MP and Minister.

However let’s not write Bridges off just yet as it’s clear that he is being cast in the conservative media (like NBR via Bryce Edwards recent glamour piece on him) as something in the mold of a young lion, like an early John Key (with his down to earth and relaxed nature) who will lead National to Victory in 2020 if only his opponents would stop focusing on his “real” kiwi accent.

Bridges is an operator no doubt but he is also a political lightweight who folds under pressure from the media (as his previous and recent meltdowns show) and this is where the Key comparison ends with a hideous screech of brakes as Keys unflappability and blokey ways was what made him both popular and untouchable.

Bridges on the other hand is clearly comfortable within the rule bound confines of parliament or a court room (where he can score points on technical matters) but not so once out of these safe confines and that combined with his skid marked past means that he is a prime target for both the public and the media as anything thrown has a large chance of sticking.

Bridges, as leader, would be a short term win for him and any party clique which supports him but otherwise its little more than a bald faced attempt to replicate the Key magic a second time around and a bigger loss for the party and any genuine attempts at reform as Bridges would be a clear signal that nothing in National has changed.

However as Mark Hamill recently remarked lighting does not strike twice and if the party could not clone Key’s success via Bill English what makes them think they can compete against Jacinda with Bridges?

Judith “Crusher” Collins

Type - Heel (with a heart of gold?)
Style - Brawler
Finishing Move – “The Crusher” figure four leg lock
Appeal – All or nothing
MP since – 2002

If Simon Bridges has been off my political radar for most of his time in politics Judith Collins has most certainly been on it but not, as some might expect, for all the wrong reasons.

In Wellington there is a surprisingly high amount of genuine praise (not just backhanded compliments like Bridges gets) for Collins abilities as a Minister, no matter her portfolio.

Over time I have heard her described as “able to get things done”, “knows what is going on” and “she may not make a decision you like but she will make a decision”. All of these, and others, show a definite level of loyalty among some civil servants and staff in her previous offices towards Judith as a Crown Minister, which, like Peter Dunne in his time, goes a long way in certain circles.

However what also goes a long way is the other side of Collins reputation which is accurately reflected in comments like “the b***h has balls” or “she walked into the room, said nothing to no-one, gave her speech and walked out without saying a thing” and this rather personal observation from a previous Ministerial office staffer; “when the scandal [Orivida] was going on she never once too it out on us [her staff] but she sure took it out on other people, never get in her way!”

Collins is a bully, a brawler and a beast. She takes no prisoners and asks for no quarter which has made her very effective in her role as attack dog for National under John Key.

Even after the Orivida scandal broke and the rumors of Judith’s attempt to get Key’s job were circulating JK never got rid of her as all that would have done is cut her loose and give her every reason to stir up trouble. Instead he banished her for just enough time for the public to forget and then brought her back, which, as I noted at the time is because “you keep your friends close and your enemies closer”. In the immortal words of Tyler Durden, Judith Collins is “a predator posing as a house pet”.

Collin’s links to dirty politics via Cameron Slater and numerous scandals are just a Google search away and I have linked them so many times I am not going to do it again but Judith has spent her 16 years in politics actively caught up in dodgy dealings and while she may thirst for the role of PM she would have so many targets on her back and weak links in her armour that electing her as leader would be gifting the opposition with all the free runs they can handle.

Also, let’s address the incredible nonsense drifting round in the media that Judith Collins as leader, and the subsequent lurch to the Right that her appointment would represent, is the best bet for National in its time in opposition.

Collins as the face of National for the next three, six or nine years, in opposition would be confirming all the negative things the public knows about National and the idea that her “attack dog” approach to Labour would be just the tonic for “holding Labour to account” or wooing Winston away from the Coalition is scorched earth thinking at best and Gotterdammerung bunker mentality at worst.

All it would confirm is that National, bitter from its election loss, can’t be bothered to fix its problems and would be willing to let its baser instincts take over in an angry orgy of atavistic political violence such as to give Trump a run for this money.

It’s well known that the more right wing elements of the party have never been down with the moderate bent of Key and his disciples and they want Collins as the no nonsense face of their planed return to power under the mechanism of FukYoo politics, just as Trump did, and blitzkrieg the opposition via angry and emotive appeals to those who feel that NZ is no longer theirs (read the Hobsons Pledge crowd).

Judith Collins, for all her ministerial strengths, is not leading lady material. Casting her in the role of PM is like casting daffy duck as the serious romantic lead in the next 50 shades of Grey movie, its wrong on so many levels.

However if Judith somehow does get the job you will have a clear indication of what faction is in charge of National and it would send a very clear message to the “compassionate conservatives” in National that now might be the time to form their own party or join NZ First.

Steven “Dildo” Joyce

Type - Vanilla Midget
Style - creepy crawly
Finishing Move – The Tape Worm sneak 
Appeal – None whatsoever
MP since – 2008

Many people I spoke to did not have much to say about Steven, to be fair, but those who did had little to say outside of things like “good at catching dildos” or “kinda creepy” and “a bit like Gollum from Lord of the Rings” which was apparently in reference to their unbridled thirst for power (their “precious”) and not their similar visages.

In wrestling terms Joyce is a Vanilla Midget (or Lemon) wrestler, too small and boring to succeed in the main event but useful as filler to provide fodder for the real superstars.

For example Joyce is credited as the “mastermind” behind Nationals successful 2008, 2011 and 2011 election campaigns which is ignoring outright the fandabulous personal popularity of John Key as well as Joyce’s blunders, with the National Party theme song in 2014 (that lead to the National Party being sued and losing in court for copyright infringement) springing to mind first.

Also the fact that Joyce clearly had a hand in the failed hit job on Winston Peters over his superannuation, a decision that is more than likely is the crux of why Winston chose not to go into coalition with National, as the single dumbest thing in an election campaign filled with dumb moves and colossal blunders.

Then from failing eight out of 11 economics papers while at university (while getting a degree in Zoolology) Joyce managed to overcome that setback to become Minister of Finance (when Bill stepped up to be PM) and simultaneously found himself in opposition to every economist in New Zealand due to his idiotic comments of about Labours budget “hole”.

Unlike his contemporaries, who have proven popularity on the hustings, Joyce has been on the party-list from day one and has shown no charisma, charm or leadership ability when compared to all other contenders.

Joyce’s political career is a stellar promotion for the idea that you can flunk and fail your way in almost every area and still get by if you happen to have a million dollars to help clean up the mess.

So why is he running for leader? My theory is that Joyce is either acting as a spoiler candidate to suck votes away from another candidate and/or aiming to lose the race but get the number two spot as deputy. Joyce’s star is fading in the wake of the election loss, and he knows it, so he is aiming to shore up support before the knives come out.

Joyce getting the top job would only confirm one thing; that Floyd (the intelligent tape worm that lives inside him) has the incredible ability to charm and manipulate people, situations and events to such a stupendous degree that it has carried Joyce all the way to the threshold of absolute political power in NZ.

Meanwhile, inside the fleshy shell that Floyd manipulates the real Steven Joyce is scratching at the walls of his mind and screaming in abstract terror.

Mark “The Merc” Mitchell

Type – Gimmick
Style – Shoot first, ask questions after payment
Finishing Move – The “cluster-bomb” elbow drop
Appeal – “Classic” conservative
MP since – 2011

Much has been made in the media of Mark Mitchell’s lack of public profile as being a good thing in the current leadership battle, which doesn’t make any sense until you realise the almost entirely negative perception that most of the other candidates, and the National party has from their dodgy past.

So yes, in that sense Mitchell’s relative unknown status does serve him well but it’s also serves to distract from some rather concerning things about Mitchel himself.

First up is the fact that Mitchell turns out to have the stain of Dirty Politics on him as he has previous links to political operative Simon Lusk and blogger Cameron Slater but even worse is that Mitchell owned and operated his own mercenary company (more politely known as a PMC or Private Military Contractor) in Iraq and was made Minister of Defence after Bumbler Brownlee got demoted to Foreign Affairs.

And I am not the only one who is seeing the obvious and extremely concerning conflict of interest that having a man who owns a mercenary company in charge of NZ’s defense poses. Forget Mitchell’s police background and instead focus on the fact that this is a person who, as the Spinoff notes, “pulled the trigger for profit”.

Mark, like Steven Joyce, is another extremely rich individual who has bought their way into NZ politics and as threats to democracy go that’s pretty high. Here is a man that has gotten rich from war running for the highest office in the land in a country with a proud military tradition and indigenous warrior culture. Think about that for a minute, yeah it doesn’t look good at all, does it.

But in focusing on the leadership bid, Mitchel has little to add except the fact that almost every media article about him focuses on his police background, his “hostage negotiation skills” and his lack of experience in government (three minor ministerial posts in a year, no bills or legislation to his name and his vote against gay marriage).

Mark’s star only started rising after John Key left in December 2016 and try as I might there was no word on the street about him in Wellington so I can only assume that Mitchel was not popular with Key as its only when Bill took over that he started getting ministerial posts and moved up the party list (42 in 2014 to 21 in 2017).

And given that the media started talking about Mitchel being in the race well before he actually announced it smells like some carefully orchestrated media manipulation (not that the media is difficult to manipulate these days) on his part to get some free PR and talk his chances up by spinning out his negatives into positives.

If Amy Adams has been a quiet contender and gotten things done while maintaining a low public profile then Mark Mitchel is the exact opposite, a non-performer who has a low public profile because he has done nothing.

In wrestling terms Mitchel is Gimmick, using props and his non-political background to pad out his otherwise lackluster political career. As a leadership candidate he is likely to get side-lined by the more dynamic contenders unless he decides to support one of the bigger fish (like Joyce playing for the deputy position).


So there are your contenders in this potentially multi stage leadership rumble: A mix of good and bad operators all trying to be the first to drink from the poisoned chalice.

I'm not going to give my preference for any candidate but do you think this is how it will turn out? 

NOTE: What I left out was all the possible combinations of challengers that could permeate, the deputy contest and all the other details which could take up another whole post (hey what a great idea!). Also I could not find any good pictures of Mark Mitchell so I went with him and his dog (please let me know if there you know of anything suitable out there).
*-Floyd was identified by Joyce’s proctologist last year after a lengthy rectal examination
**-Ironically Bridges was the person to unseat Winston from his old electorate in Tauranga in 2008 which means that he is responsible for both the death and rebirth of Winston Peters, sheesh!

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