Monday, August 18, 2008

That National Party list

I have never pretended to understand politics, least of all the internal workings of the National Party. The publication of National’s list for the 2008 election has done little to enhance my comprehension.

I was appalled in 2005 when Wairarapa candidate John Hayes was placed at 50 on the National list and Tau Henare, a carpetbagger from the disgraced Mauri Pacific party, was ranked 29. Hayes came to politics with a background as a distinguished and courageous diplomat who literally risked his life to broker a peace deal in Bougainville. And Henare’s achievements, other than being the leader of the swaggering Tight Five in the dismal last years of the Bolger-Shipley regime? Well, let’s just say National needed more brown faces and Henare, having tasted the good life, was desperately keen to get back into Parliament.

As it happened, Hayes didn’t need a high list placing. He won the Wairarapa seat and in the three years since, has established a reputation as a ferociously hard worker in a challenging electorate. So how has the party hierarchy rewarded him? Well, fancy that – he’s still at 50. And Henare? He’s been promoted three notches, to 26. What he has done in the past three years to earn that promotion isn’t immediately clear, but there you go. I did say National’s internal politics weren’t easy to figure out.

So Hayes will have to win his seat again, which he will almost certainly do because he’s an effective MP, and because the Labour Party makes a habit of selecting poor candidates in the Wairarapa. (On a previous occasion – I can’t recall whether it was 2002 or 2005 – Labour overlooked high-profile Masterton mayor and former international test rugby referee Bob Francis for a non-entity favoured by the party hierarchy and the unions, but virtually unknown in the electorate.)

I heard John Key on the radio today trying to justify Hayes’ low ranking by saying he would win the Wairarapa seat anyway, but you’ve got to wonder what sort of message it sends. I wonder too whether Hayes has ruffled feathers within the party, because for a former diplomat he can be undiplomatically blunt and he’s possibly not one to keep his head down and meekly toe the party line. But I stress that I’m speculating here.

I also note that Stephen Franks, former ACT MP and now National candidate for Wellington Central, has been given a clear message too: he’s ranked at 60, which can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a slight. Unlike Hayes, Franks will have a real battle on his hands to win his chosen constituency seat. I have a funny feeling the party hierarchy would be perfectly relaxed about him not getting into Parliament, because Franks is the sort of character the Nats aren’t very good at accommodating. He’s formidably bright and he has a strongly developed, coherent political philosophy which probably sits awkwardly with the prevailing pragmatism in the party. My guess – and again I stress it’s entirely a guess – is that the National hierarchy regards his intellect and uncompromising brand of free-enterprise, small-government politics as a potential embarrassment.

If I’m right, Franks is hardly the first person to be penalised because of National’s discomfort at having to make room for people who take a consistent, principled stand on issues rather than bow to cautious populism. Don Brash experienced it too, as he disclosed to the Sunday Star-Times a couple of months ago.

As Ruth Laugesen wrote when she interviewed Brash, he came into politics with a firm agenda for change that included sharply reduced taxes and superannuation reform, as well as restraints on the runaway Treaty industry. But his super-cautious minders, worried that he might startle the horses, persuaded him that he needed to be repackaged as a “mainstream” politician. It was almost painful to watch at the time, and Brash admitted to Laugesen that he now regretted not using the enormous surge in his popularity after the famous Orewa speech in 2004 to stamp his authority on the party more firmly.

The message, then as now, is that the National Party is frightened of people who come into politics with a clear vision and a mind of their own.

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