National Party's annual conference: Something old, something blue - but little new

6:41 am on 9 August 2021

Out with the old - in with the new?

Not the case for the National Party which still has in place the leadership team which oversaw last year's election drubbing.

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Judith Collins remains party leader and this weekend the board re-elected Peter Goodfellow as president.

Both are under enormous pressure to restore the party's fortunes but the burden of the 2020 loss is heavy. The 2023 election is "winnable", assured Collins in her speech, however that remains a distant dream, with her challenge first to fully reunite the caucus and re-engage the voting public.

One man convinced the party has taken a disastrous path keeping Goodfellow on as president is former MP, Cabinet minister and Speaker, David Carter, who broke ranks in a extraordinary manner.

After nine months on the board Carter quit in protest after unsuccessfully contesting the presidency; it was so abrupt Goodfellow had to announce his departure to a clearly surprised crowd in his own speech accepting the position. Carter was already on his way to the airport.

His reasons: "Zero" confidence in Goodfellow, the party will never rebuild under his watch, the board is run in a dysfunctional manner and the money is no longer flowing in.

Not sour grapes, insists Carter, he has plenty going on but won't "waste time" on a board when he has such a low opinion of the chair.

National Party members elect the board, the board elects the president, so is Goodfellow's re-election a full expression of support?

Former PM John Key thinks so. He worked with Goodfellow for years as leader when National was at its zenith; he won't be party president "forever", says Key, but generally board members pay close attention to the wishes of the membership in these matters.

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Peter Goodfellow's re-election as party president prompted his challenger David Carter to resign from the board. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

But Carter begs to disagree, saying in the hours between leaving the venue and landing in Canterbury he was inundated with messages from "40 to 50" members still at the conference, unhappy with the result.

His comments have put Goodfellow on notice as he prepares to lead the party wing for another term, alongside leader Judith Collins.

She is "very, very supportive" of Goodfellow and "very, very confident in the board", noting Carter had only been a member for a "matter of months" - but Collins has her own problems.

She works hard, is a canny politician and can crack a good joke - including at her own expense - but there was a decided lack of true warmth for her at the conference. Party members clapped and laughed but this weekend felt quite different to National in government. The grind of opposition can do that to a party.

A signature of her broader political persona is "off the cuff" and off-message quips that can land her in trouble. Furthermore, despite her liberal views on some issues, her willingness to mine the seam of populism when it suits her politically can appear inconsistent and gratuitous.

Collins will be as aware as anyone she does not have a fully loyal caucus but all are aware the scandals and own goals cannot continue. Her MPs are biding their time; she's digging in, as any leader under pressure must.

"No, I won't be rolled, I'm going to go into the next election and I'm going to win it, I'm absolutely, totally, focused on it ... as sure as I am as the sun comes up every day."

As the new board intake watched on, the supporting cast in the conference's final media event, both Collins and Goodfellow had to defend their quarter. The party leader on when her colleagues might roll her, and the president on the damning assessment which has cast a blight on his re-election.

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