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Leader Judith Collins gave her set piece "State of the Nation" speech in Auckland on Tuesday, a date set in stone long before she could have known that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would be giving a drastically overshadowing post-Cabinet briefing on a Covid-19 crisis just two hours later.
With the Northland community case having already forced a relocation of National’s first caucus gathering of the year from Whangarei to Wellington, it has been a messy start to a year in which National desperately needs to put a neat and tidy appearance before the public.
Southern Nats are still trying to come to terms with the scale of how roundly the party was rebuffed in October’s election.
The numbers have been highlighted before, but bear repeating.
The party vote was lost in all Southern seats, the electorate of Invercargill was almost lost, and Joseph Mooney in Southland and Jacqui Dean in Waitaki were given a hell of a fright before holding on to their seats.
In Waitaki, National’s number of party votes fell by almost 10,000 from the 2017 election, and similar steep declines were recorded right across the South.
Party faithful are putting a brave face on things as 2021 begins, but there is only so long before the adrenaline of knowing your back is against the wall starts to fade and the reality of having to rebuild National’s traditional bedrock Southern support sinks in.
The scale of National’s defeat suggests people who might have voted for the party for decades deliberately chose, for whatever reason, to cast their party vote elsewhere in 2020.
The danger National faces is that it has been abandoned by lifelong supporters.
It needs to convince those people that their vote for Act New Zealand — or even, the very thought of it, for Labour — was a one-off aberration.
A clear symptom of National’s plight can be found in the photo archive of the Otago Daily Times.
Results of a search for photographs of its Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse threw up a photo of him beside current leader Judith Collins; right beside it was a photo of him with former Todd Muller, and then right beside that was a picture taken when the leader before that one, Simon Bridges, came to town.
If Covid-19 taught Labour anything it was the same lesson which National learnt from the Christchurch earthquake, that being the value of a united party and effective leadership.
While Jacinda Ardern was front and centre, National MPs were slicing and dicing each other in backrooms, and that disunity was duly punished.
National’s members have been been left bruised and angry by the shenanigans of its MPs, and the greatly depleted caucus it now has must focus on showing it is once more worthy of people’s support.
The party’s internal review of its 2020 campaign is not expected to make pleasant reading, but nor is it expected to contain many surprises.
The way forward is the more pressing and much less clear problem, with some southern Nats calling for a complete overhaul and others arguing what is needed is a simpler, more direct focus on the party’s core principles.
One thing all agree on is that the party’s MPs need to remember what their job is, and focus on representing the party and testing the Government rather than testing the leadership and representing themselves.
Some within National have taken some solace from the fact that party support tends to be cyclical, and that not too long ago Labour was in similar dire straits.
However, there is a reason why a famed local brewery builds its advertising campaigns around the theme of Southern brand loyalty.
It is a genuine phenomenon but, just quietly, some people simply don’t like their old brand any more.
National simply cannot assume that those people will return to the fold: it will need to give them a strong reason to come back, and not discover that they like their new choice better.
Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean stares up at one of the many weird and wonderful problems which can bedevil an electorate MP, the Oamaru gulls.
The MP has been called in to mediate between the locals — who are sick of being pooped on and dive bombed — and the beasts which are, as Mrs Dean well knows through her role as National conservation spokeswoman — an endangered species.
Good luck finding a mutually agreeable solution to that one.