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Monday, February 26, 2018

Send in the clowns

The NZ National Party is in the final hours of its campaign to choose a new leader after the resignation of Bill English a couple weeks ago. While mildly interesting to us politics nerds, history shows it’s not going to matter. That’s fantastic news.

Whoever the National Party MPs pick tomorrow, they’re virtually certain to lose the 2020 election. That’s because New Zealanders like to give a government a fair shot at making a difference, and that means National faces very long odds—especially when the past three governments each won three terms.

So, the question isn’t about which candidate stands a theoretical chance of winning, it’s about who will lose the least badly. That question is impossible to answer because all of them are problematic:

Amy Adams, MP for Selwyn. Adams was often seen on the news, so some voters are familiar with her—and they don’t necessarily like her. She calls herself a fiscal conservative, which will appeal to the National base, but she recently ducked a chance to call herself a “social issues liberal”, as most New Zealanders are, preferring to say she’s “pragmatic” (she backed marriage equality and the recent death with dignity bill). Will that kind of “bob each way” work with New Zealand voters?

Pros: Second youngest of the contenders. Represents a South Island constituency (important to National’s base). Seen as strong and decisive by some. She can be very nice when she wants to. Not from Auckland—much of the Party base hates Auckland.

Cons: Not from Auckland—that’s where elections are won or lost. Can come across as arrogant and condescending. Lingering questions about whether she personally benefited from National deposing the democratically elected government in Canterbury so it could give more water rights to dairy farmers.

Judith Collins, MP for Papakura. To call her “abrasive” would be kind, and calling her “disliked” would be mild. The reality is that New Zealanders don’t like her. She’s the oldest candidate in the contest (about a month younger than me).

Pros: Favoured by the right wing of the party. Tough and hard, which appeals to some in the party. Not willing to compromise (hardliners love that). From Auckland—that’s where elections are won or lost.

Cons: Tainted by allegations of corruption, and although she has never been charged with a crime, the belief she “must be corrupt” is widespread. She was close friends with, and an ongoing source for, the National Party’s (“un”)official attack blogger. This tainted her with the party’s sleazy “dirty politics” efforts. She comes across as arrogant and condescending. From Auckland—much of the Party base hates Auckland.

Simon Bridges, MP for Tauranga. He comes across as a lightweight, partly because of his speech patterns, which became a topic on its own [see also: “Simon Bridges has the accent of New Zealand’s future. Get used to it”]. To me, his phrasing echoes ex-PM John Key, for better or worse.

Pros: Youngest of the contenders (though him talking about his “youth” at age 41 seems like a stretch, and it says a LOT about how old Party members’ average age must be). He represents Tauranga, a fast growing part of the country, rural enough to appeal to the Party’s base and urban enough to not scare off independents. He raised huge money in the last campaign. A social conservative (he voted against marriage equality, for example) in a party that hasn’t valued those for the past nine years. Not from Auckland—much of the Party base hates Auckland.

Cons: Not from Auckland—that’s where elections are won or lost. A social conservative in a country that thinks those people are mostly tossers. He comes across as smarmy and condescending, and often arrogant. Sometimes doesn’t answer questions or seem to fully grasp what he’s talking about.

Mark Mitchell, MP for Rodney. He’s so unknown that pretty much every Kiwi asked “WHO?!” when he was floated as a leader candidate. Funny story about that: He was Minister of Defence in Bill English’s defeated government, and no one seems to have noticed. Okay, so he was only in the position May to October 2017, but he’d been a minister since December of 2016. No one noticed that, either. He’s smack in the middle of he ages of the contestants.

Pros: Um… well, um… Okay, he’s from greater Auckland, where elections are won or lost. Most people know nothing about him and he can sell his version of his story.

Cons: No one knows him. He’s from greater Auckland—much of the Party base hates Auckland. The “international business experience” he constantly touts is as a “security consultant”, the marketing spin for what most of us would call a mercenary—that’s unlikely to play well a country that tries to stay out of other countries’ wars (NZ never sent troops to Iraq, where Mitchell made his money). Being a “gun for hire” would be a pretty hard sell. [see “Why aspiring National leader Mark Mitchell’s war-for-profit past matters”, "Dear Mark Mitchell: New Zealand deserves answers, not insults, on war for profit", and "National leader hopeful Mark Mitchell on defence contractors, his military past and 'war for profit'"].

Steven Joyce, National List. Second oldest of the candidates, he was Finance Minister under Bill English, and that got him into a bit of trouble. During the 2017 campaign, he claimed he’d found an $11.7 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s figures for its campaign promises, but no economist agreed with him. In fact, they determined he’d made a fundamental error in reading the financial documents Labour released, documents he should have understood as Finance Minister. Even so, he stuck by his claims.

Of course, Joyce is probably most famous for having a dildo thrown at him at Waitangi in 2016. Hey, no news is bad news, right?

Pros: From Auckland—that’s where elections are won or lost. He’s an experienced minister. He is from the more moderate wing of the Party (John Key’s wing). He’s not hated.

Cons: He’s from Auckland—much of the Party base hates Auckland. He wasn’t necessarily seen as an effective minister—the “fiscal hole” debacle, for example. He can be arrogant and condescending. He was National’s campaign manager, which means he’s partly responsible for National’s loss. He’s also tainted by “dirty politics”: It seems improbable that he didn’t know what was going on.

Those are the official candidates. Northcote MP and ex-Health Minister Jonathan Coleman took himself out of the race for some reason. I’d like to think it was because once the true extent of how much he and National decimated the health system in New Zealand, he’d become a liability, but he probably just councted and realised he stood zero chance of winning.

Who will win? One News thinks that Simon Bridges is the frontrunner, with Amy Adams in second place. The Spinoff points out it’s a little more complicated. The truth is, NO ONE knows: The “progressive voting system” National will use (the lowest vote getter will be eliminated until someone has a majority) means there are too many variables.

Who I might prefer is complicated. On the one hand, not one of them could ever entice me to vote for National—always a nearly impossible task, but especially so with this lot. Many on the left—Leftward side of Left in particular—want Collins because they think she’ll be be the easiest to defeat, whereas someone more tolerable might be harder to beat. I absolutely HATE that logic: It gives you some orange guy with a massive combover.

If I had to choose one of those candidates, it would probably be Amy Adams, because she’s the least odiferous of awful contestants. Collins is the worst, sure, but she’s actually tied with Bridges for the Truly Awful Tory award. Mitchell is a total non-entity, though a potentially horrible one, and Joyce isn’t a contender.

I don’t care all that much who wins their leadership contest: Not my circus, not my monkeys. Whoever wins could be rolled before the next election so they can have a leader who has a better chance of winning. Or, not (among other things, ambitious Nats may conclude it’s best to let the party leader fail and then move, however, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern proves there’s a viable counter-narrative).

We’ll know who the Leader and Deputy Leader are tomorrow. I promise you, I absolutely CAN wait.

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