Analysis - "There can be only one" - Usually that quote from the movie Highlander is about an intense battle for a great prize. Such as, immortality. Or being Leader of the Opposition. Leading the National Party, in the footsteps of political heavyweights such as Keith Holyoake, Sid Holland and Robert Muldoon. That's an immortality of sorts.
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone
But when the latest 1News Colmar Brunton poll was released, the most telling part of the result for me was that there's no intense battle for the National Party. No fight for the grand prize. Quite the opposite, in fact.
For the third Colmar Brunton poll in a row, National is sitting in the 20s. And it's been the same over in the Newshub-Reid Research polls. And Judith Collins' support in the Preferred Prime Minister poll? A miserable 5 percent. Call her a caretaker leader or simply toast, she's shown no ability to connect with a significant section of voters or look like a leader-in-waiting.
So when I say "there can be only one", I mean there can be only one reason she's still National Party leader. And it's just about the worst one you can imagine: No-one else wants the job. At least, not yet.
No-one in their right mind who wants to take on a majority government under Jacinda Ardern at the next election wants to waste the next two years throwing themselves against the wall of pandemic politics and Ardern's popularity. Better to let someone else do that and time your run later in the term, for minimum damage to self and maximum impact on others.
That's Politics 101: Timing matters. But in all honesty it's worse than that for National. There's no heir apparent. No bubbling mix of new talent coming to a boil in the background. The main contenders are the guy who wasn't popular enough last time (Simon Bridges) and a guy who is only considered a contender because he was a CEO and because Sir John Key likes him, not for a single political achievement (Christopher Luxon). By 2023 you might toss in the effective Chris Bishop. But the truth is, it's not just timing, it's a lack of likely looking talent.
So voters looking for an alternative to Labour are sizing up ACT (14 percent) and David Seymour (11 percent and ahead of Collins, as Preferred Prime Minister). They're giving him the sniff test and checking out the cut of his jib. It'll be intriguing to see what they've decided a year from now. National might need to be careful about how long they're going to let him eat their lunch.
Still, there's nothing especially unusual about National falling into this slump after its' nine years in power under Key and Bill English. If you go back to the same place in the previous political cycle - spring 2012, a year into the Key administration's second term - you'll see incredibly similar numbers.
In the second half of 2012, Labour sat between 29 and 35 percent in the polls (there were more polls back then). The Greens between 10 and 15 percent. So the Opposition now mirrors what it was then.
ACT will be delighted it has reached the levels of The Greens, on 14 percent. After a decade of effort it now has a shot at being a reliable right-wing partner to National, rather than an after-thought. This is no minor change to the political landscape. National's strategy has long been to vacuum up as many centre and right votes as it can each election and eat its allies in the process. The rise of ACT, if Seymour can make it stick, may require a more nuanced approach by National, just as Labour had to adjust its message to make room for the Greens as an acknowledged partner. The calculus of coalitions could be changing.
But while it may be normal for National to be at a low ebb at this stage in the cycle, that can be no comfort to Collins & Co. The telling point from that 2012 comparison is that Labour stayed in Opposition for another five years. It rolled through leaders. If you take Collins as National's equivalent to Phil Goff and David Shearer combined, well, you only have to look at how their quest to be prime minister went to figure out the odds on Collins turning this thing around. Look, nothing's impossible. But images of snowballs and hell spring to mind.
You might say that there was at least a queue at Labour's leadership door, a fight for the top job, a sense of ambition, even if that ambition often seemed to be more for self than for New Zealand and its people. But all that's noticeably missing this time. National's famed internal discipline is starting to look more like a listless lack of hope and ambition. It's a party cut adrift. A party doing what it's doing because it doesn't know what else to do.
In mid-2012 Labour was enjoying its brief spike under Shearer. That 34-35 percent combined with the Greens' 11-13 percent had them on the verge of being able to form a new government. In this poll the centre-right can muster only 40 percent combined, compared to the centre-left's 57 percent. It's not even close. And when you think of the cries of woe and endless 'Labour in crisis' coverage nine years ago - so ably fed by constant leaks from inside the party - it must be hard for anyone in National to find much comfort.
Perhaps they can look to Labour's slip into the mid-low 40s? The survey this weekend showing that Aucklanders are less lockdown-loyal than the rest of the country? Labour's failure to make tangible, vote-winning progress on its non-Covid-19 policies? It's slim pickings.
The only thing National can likely look to with any confidence at the moment is that Judith Collins won't be leader come the next election campaign. So the key question becomes whether there's anyone in National's ranks who can build from where the party is whenever it is that someone chooses to roll her.
*Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ.
- This article was originally published in Pundit.
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