Claire Trevett: Is Act outflanking National in the shifting sands of Opposition?


The responses of National and Act to Green MP Ricardo Mendendez March’s recent trip to Mexico told something of a story about the new dynamic in Opposition.

Having said National would not get distracted by “bait”, the party proceeded to set the bait itself and wade in.

After it emerged the Green MP was in managed isolation after a visit to Mexico, National leader Judith Collins went into a diatribe about the evils of an MP travelling overseas at such a time. She said it “reeked of disconnection” with other New Zealanders, who could not visit their families.

Act leader David Seymour bested her with just one sentence, saying it was not his place to judge without knowing the full story – “we should always leave room for a bit of humanity there.”

It transpired Menendez-March had gone to see his step-mother who has terminal breast cancer, and his father who had had major surgery.

It is not the only time Seymour has seemed like the grown-up of late, as National tries to adjust to the new balance in Opposition.

It is as much a competition to be the dominant Opposition voice as it is against the Government. Māori wards, resource management reforms are all set for a turf war.

National was used to having all the muscle that its 2017-2020 caucus of 54 gave it.

Act was a pipsqueak with one MP, the subject of derision for being totally reliant on National and Epsom.

Now National has just 33, while Act has 10 and got those 10 on its own (or at least on Seymour’s own) merits.

The Speaker is no longer as duty-bound to put on the appearance of taking National seriously.

Its MPs get fewer questions and have a lot less clout in select committees.

They are only due a quarter of the questions – but Oppositions should get more for the simple reason that they are the opposition: a government has to be tested and, if it does not want to look arrogant, it has to be seen to be tested.

Overall, things are reminiscent of the 2011-2017 years in which Labour was weak and the Green Party relatively strong.

The Greens were agile and quick. They knew what they wanted to say and got it out quickly.

Labour was bogged down by internal problems. It was too small to be able to command respect, but too large to be as agile.

Act and National are in the same position. As with Labour then, the added complication for National now is the constant question mark hanging over the leadership.

Leadership questions very rarely afflict smaller parties in the same way they do the large parties. Nor will it abate completely for some time.

It’s an adjustment National is finding harder to get used to than Act. Those years of solitude proved a valuable boot camp for Seymour, who learned how to hustle.

But there is one area where National seem to be happy to let Seymour make the loudest noise: the Government’s handling of Covid-19, and, in particular, the lockdowns.

National’s charge has been led mainly by Chris Bishop, the Covid-19 spokesman.

He has wisely opted for the forensics over the fireworks in his approach.

His criticism is not of the big calls: the decision to go into lockdown, nor of the Government or Ardern directly.

As long as people are afraid of Covid-19, there will be something of a better safe than sorry attitude which politically justifies the “abundance of caution” approach the Government has taken.

The public also made it more than clear what they thought about the Government’s handling when they handed Ardern a majority in the election. It is too soon for them to have changed their mind about that yet.

So rather than go for the tub-thumping, Bishop has knuckled into the details.

Both Act and National are competing to lead the charge over the Government’s reticence to use saliva testing.

Bishop has probed on why mandatory regular testing was not extended to those working close to the border, even if not in direct contact with travellers, such as a woman who did laundry from the planes.He has probed on the Pullman cases, and whether managed isolation was up to scratch.

National is also, rightfully, frustrated at the cynicism in some of the Government’s actions: not least the very tardy, pre-Christmas release of the Simpson-Roche report, after Parliament wound up for the year. Probing into the failings identified in that report has also been high on Bishop’s list – and securing the report on the Pullman Hotel.

Neither have yet properly started prosecuting the handling of the latest outbreak: in particular why it was taking more than three days to test the close and casual contacts of the people infected when the Government’s strategy relies so heavily on fast contact tracing and testing.

The more nuanced approach may pay off in the longer run.

Re-litigating past failings rapidly becomes redundant as people’s minds turn properly to the future.

That is already happening as the vaccines start to arrive – and with them the hope of a return to such delights as international travel again.

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