14 Feb 2018

Nikki Kaye won’t be National’s next leader, but should she be?

3:36 pm on 14 February 2018

The hype must wait.


The fight to be National’s next leader looks likely to be a triple threat match.

Judith Collins was the first to raise her hand, this morning telling RNZ she has the toughness to go after Labour.

“I'm one of the few people in our caucus who's had any experience in opposition … this is going to be the fight of our lives for 2020 and I'm the person to do it.”

Former Minister of Justice Amy Adams announced her candidacy this afternoon and is a strong contender. As political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards told us a few months ago, she’s the “clear front-runner” among the party’s more senior MPs.

“She has a very low ‘negative-rating’ - she does not come with a lot of negative publicity and dislike. She really is the least controversial aspiring leader.”

And there’s the hot favourite, the slick Tauranga MP, Simon Bridges, whose theme song hit earlier today. The 41-year-old reckons he represents generational change and has plenty of support within National’s caucus.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Coleman, Steven Joyce and Mark Mitchell are acting coy, but no one’s paying much attention to them.

By the time Collins and Bridges had boasted their ambitions this morning, Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye had already withdrawn from the fight, despite being hotly tipped as a frontrunner.

She told reporters: “This stuff is without ego, it’s about who’s potentially right to lead the country.”

One can only speculate about the reasons for her reluctance.

Dr Edwards says her ongoing recovery from breast cancer could be significant. It’s also entirely possible, for now, that she lacks leadership ambitions.

And that’s too bad for National, as she would be their “best bet”, he says.

“Nikki Kaye’s major strengths are her strong communication skills and her likeability. In modern politics, these are two vital factors for a leader competing to be Prime Minister.

“And Jacinda Ardern has these attributes in spades.”

Kaye’s political career has been constantly compared to Ardern’s.

In 2011, The Listener published a feature about their rivalry, which was unfortunately dubbed “the battle of the babes.”

Ten years ago, at 28, both first entered parliament, and later contested the Auckland Central seat in 2011 and 2014 (Kaye won narrowly both times). Both have always been highly rated within their parties and have been given significant portfolios.

Dr Edwards says their similarities help make Kaye a potential leader.

“‘Identity politics’ is an incredibly important part of modern politics - in selecting a young woman to lead them, National would be able prove its progressive credentials and bat away suggestions it has failed to modernise and reflect contemporary New Zealand society.”

“Increasingly, the public expects our leaders to be ‘fresh’ rather than ‘experienced’. All over the world we are seeing outsider politicians being preferred over those who appear as statespeople or experts.”

Kaye is a liberal progressive, says Auckland University politics professor Jennifer Curtin.

Kaye voted for marriage equality, and actively pushed for funding for the Auckland Pride Festival. She has crossed party lines in criticising mining on conservation land, and has lobbied for marine protection on Great Barrier Island.

“She understands the importance of environmental issues and the Green vote, and has a strong sense of what Auckland’s issues are,” Curtin says.

“If National wants a leader who can work across the aisles and represent both attitudinal change on how to be an MMP Prime Minister, and talk constructively with the Greens while also representing generational change, then Nikki Kaye would be a better bet.”

Kaye and MPs from other parties supported a Euthanasia bill launched last year.

Kaye and MPs from other parties supported a Euthanasia bill launched last year. Photo: RNZ

As well as Ardern, Curtin sees parallels with Bridges, whom she agrees is the favourite.

Both Kaye and Bridges have Law degrees (Kaye also has a Science degree), have spent time working in the UK, and both became MPs in 2008 having previously been involved with the Young Nats.

Yet Curtin points out Kaye’s progression has been slower than Bridges’.

“While Bridges is credited with having explicit ambition and ‘mongrel’ - which are seen as strengths - these labels don’t always fit the public’s perception of what counts as strengths for women leaders,” she says.

“In Kaye’s case, her strengths are that she has a good head for policy, recognises the importance of the regions and local governments, and the significance of environmental factors for the economy.”

Dr Edwards says a stumbling block for Kaye could be lack of caucus support.

“Part of her problem is that a lot of her colleagues perceive her as too economically centrist, too green, and too socially liberal - i.e. she’s not a very traditional National Party MP,” he says.

“She simply isn’t ‘blue enough’ to be popular in a centre-right party. Some might even say she is in the wrong party.”

But he believes Kaye could still be the party’s long term answer.

“Although National is full of true-blue MPs, they are also motivated by actually winning elections, and ultimately the caucus focuses on that criteria the most when selecting a leader,” he says.

“They just want to know who can get the party vote up, and who can win the popularity and credibility contests.”