Understanding the National Party's current predicament requires some knowledge of its history. Of foremost importance is the fact that the Twentieth Century everywhere belonged to the left. Their glorification of state activity set political agendas from Russia, through Europe, Britain, its former colonies, and Asia. Except in communist countries and Sweden, they didn't hold office so much as threaten to. During the century Labour occupied New Zealand's Treasury benches for only 26 years. However, it was Labour's ideology that all other politicians reacted to. National struggled to keep up with its opponent's promises in health, education, welfare and housing. Interventionism everywhere became a fact of life. National usually played the ball from the back foot, but succeeded often in tripping Labour with fear campaigns about communist/union influence, or outbidding them at their own game. Active advancement of National's core values was rare.
Robert Muldoon caused much of the National Party's current hapless state. Important economic reforms were lost behind his constant side-shows about HART, CARE, the SUP, nuclear ship visits and the Springbok tour. Moreover, Muldoon saddled us with New Zealand's biggest ever election bribe - the 1975 promise of National Superannuation. His ministry became a Rocky Horror show in slow motion. He overwhelmed National's principles, and supporters grew unsure of the party's philosophy. To be fair, Muldoon didn't do all the damage himself. I've recently been leafing through the political papers of Sid Holland and Keith Holyoake who, between them, governed for nearly twenty years. Far from following market principles, they were big-time interventionists. They maintained import controls, tariffs and price controls, and financed industrial giants like Tasman Pulp and Paper and New Zealand Steel. Yet the state's share of the economy stayed within the parameters they'd inherited from Peter Fraser and Walter Nash (26-30% of GDP). This allowed for considerable private sector opportunities. National's supporters learned how to turn regulations and subsidies to their advantage. They creamed off a growing share of the benefits and privileges of Labour's welfare state. A diminishing number still hankers after those days.
Muldoon went beyond his mentors. He met the 1970s decline in world commodity prices and growth by ratcheting up state activity. He tolerated rapidly increasing welfare rolls and mushrooming ACC claims, piling National Superannuation on top. Then came the ten billion dollar Think Big, mounting overseas debt, galloping inflation and eventually a wage-price freeze. The state's share of economic activity hit 42% in 1982, crowding out private initiative and stifling growth. National's free enterprisers no longer knew where to go until Bob Jones, and later Roger Douglas, provided them with temporary vehicles.
Ruth Richardson was not my favourite politician. But to be fair, she stood for something. Once she'd gone, greyness descended over much of Jim Bolger's ministry. Philosophical schizophrenia was best handled by doing little. Despite Jenny Shipley's more vigorous interlude, modern National still confronts this ideological illness. It believes in free enterprise and growth, but passed many conflicting messages before last week's tax package. There's a raft of private initiatives in health, education and welfare that could provide humane choices for people, supplement the public system, lift burdens off taxpayers, and stimulate growth. Some options such as a clearly-focused review of public school syllabuses and teaching standards could enthuse many anxious parents, and cost little. But Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith and Murray McCully contrive to sound as though they are either attacking this Labour-led government from the left, or want simply to catch it preaching one thing, while doing another. Since the latter happens so often, it's no novelty to hear about it. Extra spending isn't what this country needs, and smart-alecky tactics hold little appeal.
Elsewhere in the world, conservatives have done best in modern times when identified with a clear brand. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl enjoyed long spells in office by aggressively putting top of their agendas growth, and the policies to ensure it. Lesser lights like John Howard and Canada's Jean Chretien have turned their predictable styles into vote winners. They have reduced debt, reformed welfare, and promoted enduring family values. Bumbling around with a sop here, and a concession there, never works, as Labour found with Bill Rowling between 1975-83.
Yes, Helen Clark is a formidable foe. A superb political trapeze artist, she bemuses her opponents. But her government is exposed on many fronts. It likes the poor so much its policies create more of them. It is ridiculously politically correct and makes bad appointments. Such silliness would be gleefully exploited by red-blooded conservatives elsewhere. While it's true that some cloyingly sycophantic journalists give Labour an armchair ride, that would change in a trice if National stopped being a "me too" party. Despite some recent stumbles by Labour, it looks as though another defeat must occur before National sets any credible agenda for the Twenty-first century.
Historian and author Michael Bassett devoted chapters to National in his The State in New Zealand, 1840-1984.