Liam Hehir: Reforming the National Party

Liam Hehir: Reforming the National Party

The National Party is currently facing questions about the quality control processes in its candidate selection. Liam Hehir reports on his experience at the grass roots of the party, and puts forward some suggestions for reform.

 

On the question of whether the National Party has a culture problem, my answer would be yes. It would be naïve to think otherwise. There is a culture problem generally in society. The entertainment and music industries, big law firms, churches, the media, and even organisations like the Human Rights Commission have been found badly wanting.  

What about the National Party more particularly? Partisans will, of course, always be motivated to pounce. Given how decentralised and impenetrable political parties are it’s hard to know.  

I’ve been a member of the National Party for about thirteen years. I’ve been involved in three electorates. Formerly, I was quite active as a member. I volunteered for election campaigns and helped with the small-scale fundraising that parties do.  

I stepped back from that when I started writing about politics professionally. I tend to do things like speaking rather than anything actually useful for the party. I’ve remained a member because I think it is less hypocritical to do so rather than to pretend to be of no faction or clique.  

I’ve never been a top party official or a candidate. So I can’t speak to those experiences. I have lots of friends who have done those things. Personally, however, I’m just one of the rank and file.  

The people from the party I know and mix with here in its provincial heartland are just regular New Zealanders. They tend to be older because, frankly, it’s mostly older people that have the time and inclination to join and participate in things without much hope for personal reward. They’re well-meaning and honest – the type of people you would implicitly trust with money.  

My expectation is that the same is true of members of the Labour Party. And quite probably the Green, Act and Māori parties too.  

So from my, personally limited perspective, I can honestly say I’ve never seen or experienced a difficult culture within National. Things might be different at higher levels and in other regions, of course. We all know the problems with Wellington’s political culture.  

The Parliamentary wing is the party’s most important branch, of course, and represents the vast majority of National supporters who are not actually members. So it stands to reason that the candidate selection process is a key thing to get right. It does seem like the party should do more in this area beyond what the current candidate college and board approval process involves.   

It is, of course, difficult to identify and weed out toxic people from the outset. People don’t tend to self-disclose the depraved things that they get up to when they’re applying for a role. They also don’t tend to put down people who are likely to speak badly of them as references.  

I believe some form of basic psychometric testing would be a good idea. That kind of thing is hardly foolproof since skilled manipulators are unsurprisingly good at manipulating testing. Still, it would weed out enough bad eggs to be a worthwhile exercise.  

Personal patronage is also something that ought to be discouraged. It is a serious barrier to renewal when existing party heavyweights do things like drive their champions to candidate selections. Informal practices like expectations around ranking existing members of caucus above newcomers on the party list ought to go.  

When thumbs are placed in scales like that the result is a party which is ever more habituated to old problems.  

Lastly, the “star” system that was introduced in the early 2000s needs to go. The superficial attraction of high profile candidates is understandable but it often produces hard grift instead of hard graft. Reliable, known quantities should be preferred to flashy and ambitious people claiming glittering careers in industries that themselves are known to have toxic cultures.   

Don’t ban people from those worlds. As above, the problems with our culture are spread throughout all sectors of society. But a higher premium needs to be put on demonstrated decency than superficial plausibility as “the next John Key”.  

Political parties face a lot of challenges in this area. Some of them are quite different to those of other organisations in that the most influential players hold democratic mandates from the voting public. There is, however, quite a bit that can be done before things reach that stage.  

 

Liam Hehir lives in the small Manawatu village of Rongotea. He has been a conservative columnist since 2013. He is a practising Catholic and sympathises with the aims of the National Party, for which he formerly volunteered in a variety of low-level roles.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.