Matthew Hooton on the Stockholm Syndrome inside National

Matthew Hooton writes at NBR:

Judith Collins is obviously the best candidate to lead National in opposition but she will be trounced on Tuesday.

Stockholm Syndrome afflicts the National caucus. For 10 years, its members have been kept in a straitjacket by a party leadership in total control. As an overwhelmingly popular prime minister, John Key could advance or end careers at will. Right until he quit, he seemed set to go on indefinitely.

Under Mr Key, a culture evolved where MPs would accept the leadership’s policy direction and political strategy without question.

Tuesday morning caucus meetings ceased being a forum for the backbench to challenge the frontbench, instead one where they would meekly receive Steven Joyce’s instructions for the week ahead.

In a bizarre inversion, caucus meetings were even used by the frontbench to denounce backbenchers believed to be at risk of deviation. This iron discipline helped maintain National’s poll ratings in government.

Caucus was ruled with an iron fist. Any dissension was brutally stubbed out. John Key would use ridicule and bombast to cow anyone who deviated and was not at all afraid to use proxies to smear opponents. Vocal people were cowed into silence with threats of job losses.

A brief insurrection arose when Mr Key abandoned ship. Jonathan Coleman and Simon Bridges initially refused to go along with the cute handover arranged by the top dogs – but, under enormous pressure, they folded before the matter even made it to the caucus room. Business as usual resumed.

Bill English promised the caucus there would be changes in how caucus was run, and like Pavlov’s dogs, they all voted to stay on the table. There were, of course, no changes and the threats and intimidation continued, the most evident being the smearing and hounding from parliament of Todd Barclay.

Consequently, MPs who entered Parliament after Mr Key’s accession in 2006 have never attended a caucus meeting where a frontbencher’s performance has come under serious criticism or a policy approach attacked.

It is this culture that explains how Nick Smith got away with such woeful performance in housing and Dr Coleman in mental health. Yet to be fair to Dr Smith and Dr Coleman, if their own backbenchers weren’t prepared to stand up in the privacy of the caucus room and say “you have this terribly wrong,” why would they think they needed to change course?

Post-2006 MPs are now the overwhelming majority of National MPs and most have no concept that true power lies not with the frontbench but with them.

On the leadership question, all too many are meekly awaiting instruction and Mr Key, Mr Joyce and Bill English are all too willing to provide it.

If Joyce is selected as the leader that behaviour will continue.

Mr Joyce’s line is basically that National won the last election thanks to his strategy, tax cut package and $11.7 billion fiscal hole. National’s post-election negotiating strategy was also sound and provided NZ First much-needed information about the flaws in its policies.

It was only the treachery of Winston Peters in not following “convention” that cheated National of a fourth term.

Consequently, it would only be divisive for the caucus or party board to formally review National’s election performance. Why review what was flawless anyway?

Steve Joyce was the architect of everything. If all those claims hold true then why is National in opposition? The buck stops at the top.

Since the election, the story goes, National has maintained its poll ratings and merely has to wait for the inevitable falling out between Labour and NZ First to regain power.

Consequently, National MPs generally remain smug about the polls, ignoring they are now a whopping 10 points behind the Labour-Green axis. National should put safety first in an effort to maintain their current poll rating. Continuity is their friend. Change represents danger.

In this world, Mr Joyce himself is the obvious candidate – or, failing him, Mark Mitchell who is publicly committed to leaving Mr Joyce’s power intact.

Sadly, Mark Mitchell fell under the spell of Steve Joyce, Murray McCully and Paula Bennett – formerly strong candidate who diminished himself by becoming a forelock-tugging functionary.

But Mr Joyce’s world is illusionary. With Labour-Green on 53%, National may as well be on 33% as 43%. A defensive strategy is ultimately pointless. National needs to disrupt the status quo.

They need a leader who can grab media, hold media and smash up the government in the same way that Ray Donovan uses the bat.

If National MPs are more than the eunuchs Mr Joyce takes them for, they will look to the other end of the continuity-change spectrum as they consider their options this weekend.

Compared with Mr Mitchell, Ms Adams is far less enamoured of Mr Joyce and is privately promising to clip his wings. Mr Bridges has been unimpressed with Mr Joyce since his appalling behaviour after the sinking of the Rena and he would not remain finance spokesman under the Tauranga MP. Under Ms Collins, Mr Joyce would be expected to leave Parliament altogether.

Instead of a decisive result, however, expect a compromise leadership team to emerge after a deal this weekend or a fourth ballot on Tuesday.

As with Labour’s Phil Goff after 2008, the new leader will have no independent mandate and will remain hostage to the previous top team.

A necessary civil war will ensue. It will continue until the remnants of Mr Key’s old guard finally accept it is time for them to leave the field.

National need a good clean-out from the top table down, including the board who became John Key’s other Pavlov’s dogs. There is a reason John Key retained Peter Goodfellow as president. The man was so bereft of his own ideas and lacked a spine to challenge the parliamentary wing, so he was perfect to lead the nodding heads of the board on their merry way, which is all well and good until you lose.

Sadly, I think Hooton is spot on.



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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

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