NZ Election 2020: National's 'turbulent week' undermines team tagline, but still ways to increase support - political commentator

A chaotic week of resignations, demotions and ascendancies has hurt National's claim to be a strong team, but there are still ways it can increase its support ahead of the election, a commentator suggests.

Revelations last week that backbench National MP Hamish Walker had leaked personal COVID-19 data to the media unleashed mayhem for the centre-right party. 

Walker quickly stepped down and his informant, former National president Michelle Boag, resigned her membership. It later emerged that then-Health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse had also received information from Boag, which he never leaked, but also didn't inform authorities of. 

On Tuesday, leader Todd Muller resigned, citing health reasons, catapulting Judith Collins into the leadership and putting Gerry Brownlee into the deputy leader role, taking over from Muller loyalist Nikki Kaye. Woodhouse was quickly dropped from the health portfolio, while on Thursday, Kaye and Amy Adams announced their retirement. 

"This is the most turbulent week for a major political party in a long time. It probably even outstrips the ascension of Jacinda Ardern," right-leaning commentator and previous National Government staffer Ben Thomas told Newshub.

"Not only have you had a change in leadership after only two months of a new unexpected leader, but huge swathes of the frontbench have now retired or signalled they will retire at the election."

Before Kaye and Adams announced their decisions to step down - which they insist have nothing to do with Collins now being leader - the likes of Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley had also decided to leave. 

Thomas says the resignations and turbulence has hurt the party's claim to be a "great team". While he said each MP was individually justified to leave, "once you take them all out as a bloc, it really does leave National's shadow-Cabinet and positioning as a future Government looking a lot shakier than it previously did."

Muller had frequently pointed to the party's experience and commented that other than a few competent ministers, Ardern's Government was made up of mostly "empty seats". 

"The test for National will be how fast they can move on from this. Judith Collins has been talking about drawing a line under a lot of previous weeks' events, the messiness of leaks," Thomas said.

"At this point they need the public to stop thinking about the National Party internal affairs and start thinking about the election campaign."

He said National will hope for bungles from the Government ahead of the election.

"This election is the Government's to lose. They are in the driver's seat. If they can demonstrate that they are keeping New Zealand safe from COVID and that they are keeping the economy afloat, at least to some level, then they can win the election," he told Newshub.

"What National has to rely on is either bungles by the Government, by the economy turning south a bit worse than was expected and then they have to be able to present themselves as a coherent alternative to the Government.

"Obviously, the last week's events have made that a little more difficult. It is pretty hard to run the tagline 'a great team' when your team seems to be hiving off and fleeing into retirement and churning leaders at a great rate."

Thomas praised Collins as a "strong leader" and "ensured performer". 

"What they need to be able to do is show that they are on top of what the Government is doing, they are on top of any mistakes that get made and they need to be able to present a vision of what they would do in Government that would be different."

But this year will have an unusual election campaign due to COVID-19, that while contained in New Zealand, continues to rage overseas. Cases continue to be picked up at managed isolation and quarantine facilities. 

"Because of the ongoing health crisis, even if it is just at the border, and the economic crisis, there is not just an acceptance, but also an expectation, that the Government will govern right up until election day."

He said the Government would spray money around, referencing the about $20 billion it set aside to spend after the Budget.

So far, Ardern has yet to really comment on Collins' rise to power, saying on Thursday that what was happening in the National Party was matters for them. She has repeated the line that she is focused on New Zealand's COVID-19 recovery.

"Their strategy is to essentially demonstrate what they are doing and play off the election as mere politicking. That is very disingenuous of the Government," Thomas said.

"The election is not just politicking. The election is the fundamental cornerstone of our democracy and that is where the Government gets a mandate to do anything for the next three years.

"The Prime Minister, I think, is betting on the fact that the public has responded really well to her, pretty good response to the COVID crisis and so she wants to give National as little air time as possible, particularly now that they have a much stronger and confident leader."

The uphill battle for National has been stark for the last few months. Back in May, prior to Simon Bridges being rolled as leader, the Newshub-Reid Research poll had National polling at 30.6 percent, compared to Labour's 56.5 percent. A Roy Morgan poll out on Tuesday, released before Collins' election and conducted in June, put National at 27 percent to Labour's 54.5 percent. 

The election will be held on September 19.