Opportunity knocks? National's hunt to find future partners

by Bevan Rapson / 11 September, 2018

Colin Clive, as Dr. Frankenstein, and Dwight Frye, as assistant Fritz prepare to bring their monster to life the 1931 movie version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Photo / Getty

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Is a revival of the Opportunities Party National’s main hope for a future partner, or could something new be assembled? 

On a remote, storm-lashed provincial hilltop – in a safe blue seat somewhere in the Wairarapa or rural Canterbury, perhaps – a centre-right millionaire scientist is hard at work in the laboratory of his forbidding gothic pile.

Reaching deep into a chest freezer, he fumbles around among its contents, before drawing forth another grisly item to add to those already assembled on his slab.

“Mmmm,” he moans appreciatively, holding the object to the light of a single, buzzing fluorescent tube. “Richard Prebble’s nerve. Now, that could be useful.”

He tosses the relic onto the pile, where it lands wetly amid an abundance of spleen. Now, the tricky bit: working out how this grim collection of rapidly thawing limbs and organs might be stitched together and – trickiest of all – invested with political life.

Collected from donors live and dead, some of this stuff goes a long way back: that toothy grin, for example, dates back to Tania Harris and her “Kiwis Care” march in 1981. Some has been imported: that red hair might have been donated by Queensland senator Pauline Hanson; the wagging finger has the feel of Ukip about it. And is that an eye of Newt Gingrich?

Could the awful creature he’s assembling be Christian? Oh, yes. Add a measure of preacher’s moral certainty: Graeme Lee’s, not Graham Capill’s, ideally.

Are any accoutrements to be salvaged from the Conservative Party corpse in the chiller? Please, no. Not unless Colin Craig’s billfold is still in the back pocket.

Any guesses on who that bow-tie is from? Oh. The ukulele must be the Maori Party’s. But the Dirty Dog sunglasses? Oh, right – Mauri Pacific.

National’s supporters really have no choice but to get a little creative in attempting to conceive of a plausible partner to assist our most popular party back into office. For now, the “no mates National” tag seems likely to stick. Which is why the recent resuscitation of The Opportunities Party (TOP) roused a little more interest than is usually generated by pip-squeak announcements from below the MMP threshold.

Here at least is an option for National that’s not just theoretical or, worse, a figment of someone’s imagination. With founder Gareth Morgan out front, TOP dragged in 2.4% of the vote in last year’s election. Compared to, say, the long-established Act Party’s 13,000 votes, its 63,260 votes might be considered pretty good going first time around, yet a disappointed Morgan and his board moved in July to cancel their party’s registration.

By August, however, it was back in play, with former deputy leader Geoff Simmons as leader and Morgan, who sank $2 million into that first electoral tilt, back chairing its policy committee. Once again it’s flying the flag for “evidence-based” reform in areas such as taxation, cannabis law, affordable housing and environmental protection.

It claims to have been deluged with appeals to keep going. National leader Simon Bridges was certainly among those who welcomed its return, and why wouldn’t he? His own party’s sustained high polling won’t count for anything in the next election unless it can find more friends than made it to Parliament last time around, when one-man band Act was returned as National’s only ally.

TOP certainly looks a better prospect than David Seymour’s outfit, which is a husk of the bristling small-government party that for a couple of terms boasted nine MPs and had ambitions for many more. Having tried Dancing with the Stars, Seymour’s most recent pitch focused limply on cutting the number of MPs and getting rid of the Maori seats. And, oh yes, there will be a “relaunch” next March, so we’ve all got that to look forward to.

Despite a generous money pipe from rich donors and National’s willingness to offer a repeated free run to Parliament in Epsom, Act seems incapable of regaining the traction it found around the turn of the century and soon after. Today, the party founded by Roger Douglas and Derek Quigley seems only a curious remnant of battles gone by.

A reminder of David Seymour's top five moments on Dancing with the Stars:

The other parliamentary party that could technically help National across the line next time is New Zealand First, but with the level of ongoing antagonism between Peters and his previous party it’s hard to see the scenario that brings that about, short of a full-scale implosion of the Labour-led coalition. In that event, would New Zealand First even make it back to Parliament itself?

In the meantime, even trying to reduce hostilities with New Zealand First might tempt one of Bridge’s leadership rivals to take up a more belligerent position with a view to undermining him. No wonder he was happy to see TOP back on the scene, cheerily claiming it gave National options and would give the Greens “a bit of a run for their money”.

It’s unclear, though, whether a party led by Wellington economist Simmons will have the populist appeal to complement a more mainstream partner. Morgan’s “lipstick on a pig” remark last election probably burned off a potential strand of liberal support, but having a cantankerous moneybags in charge also gave his party priceless name-recognition and visibility. How can Simmons get that cut-through?

Nor will the “evidence-based” approach attract the kind of voters who propelled Colin Craig’s Conservatives to nearly 4% of the vote in 2014 – an impressive result in an election when National polled over 47%. Back in May, Bridges suggested he was indeed looking at finding a replacement for the Conservatives, telling TVNZ he was “talking quietly to a number of players to just understand the landscape and what is out there”.

Identifying a new vehicle for that support, and helping hoist it past the pesky threshold with an electorate deal would seem on that 2014 result a more likely route back to power for National than might be offered by TOP. And it’s possible a conservative movement could be roused by something like Labour’s criminal justice reforms.

Might not the “victims’ rights” issue raised at the recent justice summit provide the seed for a law and order party? Awful though it is to contemplate, a sufficiently horrific criminal atrocity in the midst of the government’s liberalisation programme could be the kind of jolt required to spark life into a new political entity.

Do you think one of National’s own supposed hardliners – Judith Collins or Mark Mitchell, for example – could be quietly encouraged to take a lead, breaking away in supposed disappointment at Bridge’s response to a law and order “crisis”? Not a chance. They will still fancy their chances inside the National tent.

But Bridges and his party might sooner or later regret not working harder, earlier to resolve their friend deficit. So far, there is little real sign of them helping to engineer a prospective partner’s germination.

The risks of lending a hand are obvious. Making room for others could well see National’s own support ebb back. A possible partnership with a deeply conservative party might burn off some social-liberal support, for example. You can understand a new leader’s reluctance to take steps that could erode his party’s support, particularly when his personal polling has been slow to rise.

But for now, National’s church is so broad, it stifles its own prospective allies.

Despite what John Key’s National managed to achieve with the support of the Maori Party and other bit players, creating one all-dominant centre-right party is probably not a recipe for sustained success under MMP.

Imagining the perfect friend doesn’t help. Cultivating one just might.


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