Power Play: Pressure at the top - National's annual conference

6:58 am on 6 August 2021

Power Play - Covid-19 has not been kind to National.

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National Party leader Judith Collins. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

First it turned the political landscape upside down, taking out leader Simon Bridges and the party's popularity with it.

Then there was a false start to the 2020 election campaign - Labour squeaked in and was able to hold a high octane election campaign launch but National's was reduced to an awkward online event, starring leader Judith Collins.

This weekend is her second chance to take the podium at a full party conference, with about 700 delegates expected to turn up.

It won't be a triumphant address though; she's leading a caucus still nursing the wounds of 2020, and fronting to a membership wanting obvious signs MPs have learned their lesson.

Much of National's election loss was due to a series of self-inflicted scandals and the caucus turning on itself in a very public and very destructive way. Everyone's making the right noises but the caucus is far from a happy house. There's little love for Collins as leader but at the least there's grudging recognition she's (very slowly) increasing support, and doing the graft.

When asked whether she'll still be leader come 2023, Collins has her stock response: she'll carry on doing the job and focusing on the issues that matter to New Zealanders - anything else is up to the caucus. She'll be as aware as anyone the caucus is biding its time, but there's no immediate risk of her being rolled. It's an unpredictable business though and political polls are always high on MPs minds; one said any dip below 25 percent could put her into the danger zone.

Collins hasn't been shy about addressing the myriad problems that led to the 2020 loss and this weekend will want to make sure members feel that's been acknowledged and owned by the parliamentary wing, while setting out a convincing path forward.

Annual conferences are an opportunity to create a bit of good PR for the leader, a chance to showcase their story and lay out the plan to retake lost political ground; these events are highly stage managed to minimise any possible risk but this is a crucial showing for Collins. She can't afford any stupid distractions, like making comments about people wanting to "bottle" a government minister, exactly what she's warned her own MPs against.

She's not the only one in the leadership team looking over their shoulder.

Peter Goodfellow has been president since 2009 - through the golden years of the Key administration and more recently, the not-so-golden years. The scandals are too many to name, but he's being held at least partly responsible for the election loss, for the selection process that resulted in disgraced MPs Hamish Walker and Andrew Falloon ending up in Parliament, and the candidacy of Jake Bezzant, described by Collins as a "fantasist and possibly sociopath".

Goodfellow was asked repeatedly about a possible challenge ahead of this week's caucus meeting at Parliament, whether he'd heard any "whispers".

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National Party president Peter Goodfellow. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"I'm not hearing whispers, I'm having people tell me directly that there are a small number of people [who want me gone]", he declared to reporters.

First there will be a vote on party rule changes; that outcome will dictate in part what the new board looks like, and in turn what support remains for Goodfellow. Potentially waiting in the wings is former MP, Cabinet minister and Speaker of the House David Carter, who will no doubt be watching closely how that will all play out.

Looking further into the future, there are other potential problems for Goodfellow once the trial involving former MP Jami-Lee Ross and three businessmen goes to the High Court over donations to National. That will give a fascinating glimpse into the party's backroom fundraising practices and as President at the time, Goodfellow can expect to come under further political scrutiny as a result.

National already has an uphill battle against Labour and will want to neutralise any possible risks.

It must be in a position to capitalise on any waning of support for the government and to do that, will have to have the right people at the top.

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