Thursday, June 10, 2010

New Zealand's Nationals: A lesson in near-oblivion status

Because of the current news cycle, I thought I might tell a little tale about a party which once had it all, was the consistent government, failed spectacularly, weathered fears about oblivion - and came roaring back.

I'm talking, of course, about New Zealand's National Party. Who else?

The National Party itself came out of a union between New Zealand's Liberals and Conservatives - the latter at the time known as the Reform Party - in response to the perceived threat coming from the left, namely the Labour Party, which won power in 1935. The party is therefore considered New Zealand's centre right party, though I'd personally label it more centrist, since there is a couple of other right-of-centre parties that put National to shame (ACT, and NZ First).

But, background aside, the Nationals have held power the majority of the time since the formation of the current spectrum in the 1935 election - 38 years to Labour's 30 (or there abouts). Like Canada's Liberals, they could be considered the "natural governing party," despite the fact that there has been quite a few dry spells for the party, including most recently, in which they stayed 9 years in Opposition.

The main era I want to draw your attention to is the National Party's state between 1997 and 2008. You might find a lot of similarities.

To start off, in 1997, the Nationals ended up with a new leader after their old one, the popular Jim Bolger, was ousted in a caucus coup, led by then-Transport Minister Jenny Shipley. This coup truly put Chretien's ouster to shame, as apparently Bolger was out of country, and when he came back, he found out he no longer had enough support to stay on as Prime Minister. He was then demoted to a junior cabinet position in the new Shipley government. The coup occurred because of an apparent lack of patience on the part of Shipley and the caucus. (See any similarities yet?)

But Bolger had the last laugh, in retrospect, because in 1996 he introduced the new Mixed-Member Proportional system, which had allowed many of the smaller parties to grain better traction and seats with the electorate. Just to make a point, compare the 1993 election - held under FPTP - to the 1996 election - held under MMP.

This, of course, presented a bad situation for Shipley, due to the fact that since the 1996 election, National had relied on support from Winston Peters' New Zealand First Party to govern, and while Bolger had good relations with Peters', Shipley did not. This ended up creating a rift in NZ First, leading to a near ouster, with some MPs voting with the government on a confidence matter, and others aren't, which lead to a nail-biting confidence vote, barely staving off defeat for the Shipley government. (Sound familiar?)

Shipley eventually called an election in 1999, which was a very bad decision. The Nationals, with Shipley in tow, lost government, though the smaller NZ First ended up losing more seats than them. Either way, what ended up was a fairly close election, with Shipley's Nationals only 10 seats behind Helen Clark's Labour Party, 49 to 39. The popular vote was about 38% to 30%. Clark then formed a centre-left government with the support of the left-wing Alliance (NDP on crack, seriously) and the newly arrived Green Party.

Shipley was eventually ousted as party leader, with former Minister of Finance Bill English gaining the support of the caucus to become the new Leader of the Opposition. Supporters hoped English would manage to reform the Libera- sorry, the Nationals, and help return them to government in the next election. English, of course, wasn't considered a very effective leader, nor did he turn out to be with gaffe after gaffe, leading the Nationals to their lowest share of the vote ever, ending up with only 27 seats, and 20% of the vote, in the 2002 elections. At the expense of the Nats, NZ First, the Greens, the family-oriented United Future, and others, all gained votes.

This was clearly not a good time for the Lib- er, Nationals.
To make matters worse, it was clear the party was facing oblivion if it could not reform itself. Then came along a new leader, a political outsider, and the man who wanted (and would) to change the face of the National Party - Don Brash.

Brash came in as a breath of fresh air for the Nationals, managing to give a speech in 2004 about race relations in New Zealand, to wide acclaim, which brought his party up 17 points in the polls. However, as time wore on, the Nationals continued a steady decline, put down to a lack of media exposure on Brash's part, despite the fact that he held numerous meetings and policy sessions across the country (who does this remind you of?). Some also accused him of being too vague, flip flopping, and not a very good leader (come on, this is easy to figure out!).

Clearly, the lack of Brash's absolute, ground-breaking leadership was a sign of continued deterioration for the Nationals. They would not end up being a threat to the continued dominance of the Labour Party. Helen Clark would reign forever. It was the end of the Nationals. Kaput. Nada.

Well... not quite. In the 2005 election, Brash managed quite an amazing feat, bringing the Nationals back from the dead with a series of powerful policies and good campaigning, as well as a clearly tired Labour government. In the end, Brash's Nationals ended up only two seats behind Labour, 50-48, and 2% behind in the popular vote, 41% to 39%. A very, very close result, with Brash managing to gain 21 seats and 19% over the Nat's 2002 results. A victory if there ever was one.

If it were not for the collapse of both NZ First and ACT, as well as the former's decision to ally themselves with Labour, Brash might've ended up as Prime Minister. However, that honour would go to his successor, John Key, who in 2008 managed to score an impressive victory over Labour, and formed a government with ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. Brash himself resigned soon after 2005, and went back to his banking job.

Now, the reason why I've written this long blog post must be pretty obvious by now. Except in the fine details, the National Party from 1997 to 2008 was pretty much like the situation we, the Canadian Liberals, are in right now. The history is almost exactly the same. The characters are different, but similar in many ways. Even the results mirror our own history, at least the elections of 1999 (our 2006) and 2001 (our 2008).

The key, of course, is the 2005 election, which is currently an unwritten part for us. Its clear that despite the doubts surrounding Brash's leadership, he managed an impressive comeback. He drove the rebuilding of National's decrepit organization, even though he never got much media exposure for it.

Ignatieff is doing the same. Canada 150, these upcoming policy events, his visits across the country - they may not be huge media stories, but they are helping us. Like Brash, he may not exactly be an experienced politician. He might even be way over his head. But something is getting done, and the whiners in this party need to realize that. Even more importantly, they need to get behind it, and help drive the process to rebuild this party. We aren't going to do it with mergers, coalitions or weird agreements - we need to this reform ourselves, internally, before anything else.

Harper will not disappear just because the "Liberal Democrats" arrive on the scene. He'll be beaten because we do something with the Liberal Party to make it appeal to people. Let the National Party be an inspiration for all members - because we might be down in the dumps, but we can sure as hell get back up.

And whether or not Ignatieff is the 23rd Prime Minister, we need to get behind him. Only a united front will fix this party. Not division and bickering.

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