Governments under pressure love to unearth evidence of dissension in their opponents' ranks. When last week's Independent carried an article claiming there was a "crisis" in the National Party following Katherine Rich's extraordinary criticism of her leader over his Orewa speech, even the most humble Labour backbencher crowed. Always nice to find others suffering from the sort of thing all parties occasionally experience. Political elites try to hush dissension in the ranks, believing that voters are put off. In reality, this isn't always true. In 1984 the Labour opposition was deeply fractured. Party president Jim Anderton was regularly in the news attacking David Lange, or the Labour caucus, or anyone who wasn't a devotee of himself, which covered virtually everyone. Dissension didn't deter voters. They gave Lange a solid working majority. Signs of caucus dissent can be an indication that serious debates are taking place on major issues.
Is what is currently happening in the National caucus more serious than this? No and yes. No, because there are serious underlying questions that have to be faced up to with education and welfare reform, and it is good to see National wrestling with them. No, because Katherine Rich's sort of behaviour at the start of election year was preciously self-centred and would have angered any caucus, even Labour's in the early 1980s. Nothing gave her the right to believe she could determine National's policy on her own, and she probably deserved greater punishment than she received. If she's wise, she'll realise this and count herself lucky she still seems likely to be in the next Parliament. List MPs are more vulnerable than those with constituency backing. They should remember it.
National has a wider problem. In the early 1980s Robert Muldoon frequently conceded that Labour possessed enough good MPs to govern, given the chance. Right now, with an election only months away, there are few signs that National is intent on recruiting talents. Don Brash possesses the background and experience to be a good Prime Minister, as his interesting biography, superior in most ways to recent campaign biographies here as well as overseas, amply demonstrates. But as things stand, one struggles to find more than seven obvious candidates for a Brash ministry. Parties must always keep renewing their ranks with candidates who are potential ministers, or pay the consequence.
National's problem might very well be its arcane candidate selection process that gives so much power to the locals and too little to the leadership. Which is not to say party presidents aren't fallible as Labour showed with its post 1987 selections after Helen Clark's supporters had captured the party machine. Candidates can be selected on no other basis than that they support a leadership bid. This is why there have been so many passengers in Labour's caucuses in recent years. But greater leadership involvement in National's selections seems desperately needed. On current polling, the party stands to win another six or seven constituency seats, but the selection process to fill them has been scattershot, with little attention paid to the overall shape of the next caucus. And surely the party machine could encourage at least a couple of the mediocrities from the 1990s to accompany the two retiring MPs, thus opening further opportunities for talent?
There are precedents these days for people to enter Parliament on the list and go straight into a ministry. In the business and professional community there must be names that could be harnessed to the cause with a promise of an immediate cabinet position? If it doesn't work out, then they can retreat to the real world, the next list candidate filling the slot. Selection on merit for the greater good of the party could be a shot in the arm for National. Brash needs back-up from the sorts of people who would have cried out against last week's retreat on so many financial fronts, and who instinctively know how to sell to voters the promise of an even better performing economy. One thing is for sure: Labour fears only Brash himself, as they regularly demonstrate by trying to ridicule him, then slavishly following him when he attacks their vulnerable spots like race relations and the welfare catastrophe so closely associated with it. Elections are lost, not won, and the Labour Government is piling up inquiries into all their mistakes with reports expected after polling day. Brash needs people with the skills to expose this charade.