Jane Clifton: National Party conference a shot of anti-depressant

by Toby Manhire / 23 July, 2012
There's plenty for the Nats to be worried about, but at Sky City in Auckland they quaffed the medication.


Twist my arm a bit and I could give the weekend’s National Party conference a theme: the heroic power of serotonin reuptake inhibition.

There’s plenty for the Nats to be worried about – both externalities and existential issues - but they seem to have mastered futile anxiety and well-founded dread alike in a manner normally attributable to good anti-depressant medication, and a serious course of cognitive therapy.

You’d never have known, from the genial serenity of the gathering at Auckland’s Sky City, that the National Party is down to a no-better-than-even chance of forming the next government. Or that its headline policies are all either unpleasant medicine or unpopular vote-looseners.

Stage-managed as these conferences are, there’d be no preventing anger or anxiety about asset sales and other potential electoral missteps from bursting through – if delegates felt strongly enough about anything. But apparently not.

And even more peculiarly, the protest outside the conference was hardly worth the police’s time and effort. Hordes were expected but never eventuated. This caused confusion in media ranks, as it became more tricky counting the police numbers – they all looked the same in their high-visibility vests - than the ranks of protestors; not to mention the complication of having to discount for an initial contingent of Fallun Gong, who weren’t protesting against the Nats at all, but who like to have a presence at protests whenever possible.

The thick blue – actually bright yellow – line was in honour of last year’s highly successful protest, in which some shouty types actually broke into the conference venue. For reasons thus unexplained, this intrepidity was not replicated this year, and the expected numbers were a no-show, so the police had a very dull time.

Inside, delegates – some a little mifffed at so little protest attention - seemed content to be given the steer from senior MPs toward even more potentially controversial policies: notably a renewed drive to get New Zealanders to accept the benefits of mining, and a major push on irrigation to galvanise the farm sector, accepting that both will mean a tricky sales job on the environmental front.

The Government seems to have persuaded itself that there’s more sound than genuinely widespread fury in the environmentally-based opposition to mining and irrigation, and will press ahead. Its sales pitch: we can further exploit the land without vandalism, to unlock immense fiscal and economic benefits.

How to get the economy growing was a major preoccupation from the main stage, though not without caveats. Primary Production Minister David Carter said the new agricultural momentum would have to freight the right credentials on environmental management and animal welfare. We were not on a path to becoming a mass-market food producer, but one of high-quality produce commanding a premium price. Our produce would need to be backed with “integrity” in terms of farm practice.

Commerce Minister Craig Foss said New Zealand sold itself short on what this country could offer overseas investors. In his session on how to grow our capital markets, he said we “underpriced” benefits like the lack of corruption, the consistency of governance over things like food and safety standards, and the dependability of our justice system. If malfeasance occured in New Zealand, it could not be made to go away “because someone writes a cheque”.

He also argued that “we beat ourselves up unnecessarily” about the the lack of depth and breadth in our capital markets, as there was more investment power there than initially met the eye. Besides the sharemarket were big cooperatives like Fonterra and Foodstuffs, and a sizeable quantity of iwi settlement money looking for opportunities.

Finance Minister Bill English continued his Eeyorish but far from fatalistic trajectory about our chances of getting out of dangerous levels of indebtedness in both public and private sectors. He repeated a warning to trading banks, that they would not be permitted to counteract the downward trend in private borrowing. “We’ve learned from the last cycle that we don’t want to let the banks get carried away with large growth in lending. We’ve ....got the ability to (counteract that). Those tools are in place and will be used when required.”

A much-anticipated highlight was the Young Nationals’ triumph in having the conference pass a remit calling for equal rights for gay people wanting to adopt children. Though the floor remit debates were off-limits to the media – gratuitous caution, as such discussion is seldom even faintly newsworthy – I gleaned later that the Young Nats had prepared a cogent slate of speakers, and opponents were few and not terribly coherent.

Also off-limits to the media was the Saturday night dinner – a great pity, as this saw senior party figures giving what delegates could not stop gushing about as very superior comedy in the course of a fun debate.

The waspish observational humour of Attorney-General Chris Finlayson was the top crowd-pleaser, though delegates were also charmed by a taste of the habitual faux-one-up-manship English and Prime Minister John Key go in for. A senior Young Nat also ventured a killer impersonation of Key. The party members spent the evening happily lampooning one another, more traditional foes like Winston, Labour and the Greens all but forgotten for the evening.

All of which goes to show the value of good anti-depressive therapy as administered by a non-dag-rattling party conference. You can’t make life’s anxieties and adversaries go away, but it is possible to have a restorative time living in the moment.
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