Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 11. 1967.
Credibility gap worries National leaders — Conference report
Credibility gap worries National leaders — Conference report
Of The National Party conferences I've attended since 1963 this year's was the most interesting and controversial. It was also the most right-wing and conservative. It represented a swing away from what "liberalism" the National Party may have retained, to a heavy anti-socialist conservatism reminiscent of the formative days of the National Party in 1936-37. There were remits on capital punishment, deportation of criminals, abolition of landtaxes and death duties, increasing military aid to Vietnam, abolishing sanctions against Southern Rhodesia, and decentralisation.
All of these were adopted by the conference, one or two slightly amended, and the deportation of criminals remit was only withdrawn after pressure.
Because of the economic situation, unemployment, the imminent visit of General Maxwell-Taylor to ask for more troops, the poor prospects for wool, and the American cut-back on imports of dairy produce, the conference was held at an important period. Delegates felt that perhaps the Government was in a quandary about what action to take, over the economy, trade and Vietnam, and that they were there to guide the Party. They felt the Government's "playing it by ear" policies had failed. They felt the Government had no co-ordinated overall plan for the future. They would like to think that the future was rosy, but realised it wasn't. There was an impatience with the Government for failing to act incisively and rapidly. On the whole there was loyalty to the Party, as a Party, but at this conference the leadership, specially Mr. Holyoake, lost ground and prestige.
One of the over-riding issues throughout the whole conference was a pre-occupation with what delegates thought was a rising crime rate. All remits dealing with criminals, police offences, even Rhodesia, somehow managed to provoke a number of speeches about the rape of young girls, and recent murders. Another predominant theme was unemployment. Mr. Holt the Party President, led off well with a speech which was only interesting for his now-famous statement that it would do "louts, beatniks and other lazy people" good not to have a job. This statement was acclaimed by the conference. Mr. Holyoake also thought it would do a lot of good to a number of people to have some sense knocked into them by not being employed. Only Mr. Shand took the unemployment seriously.
The leadership was straining to get the Party behind it once more. They were worried about the credibility gap. Mr. Holyoake was particularly concerned to clear his reputation and that of the Government. He spent at least half an hour of his main speech saying that it wasn't his fault the wool prices had fallen, and asking why, if others had known prices were going to fall, they hadn't told him. He apparently didn't read the Wool Board report on declining wool prices, presented in August, nor the recommendations of the monetary and Economic Council, nor the figures of the Institute of Economic Research on our overseas trade balance.
If Mr. Holyoake was trying to lessen the credibility gap, he in fact widened it in his speech. It was superficial, and full of half-statements. He said for instance that New Zealand was supporting international agencies, for example, "for three years we have contributed a Police contingent to the United Nations force in Cyprus."
To the listener it would appear that we were still contributing this, but Mr. Holyoake forgot to mention that this force had been withdrawn a month previously. His speech was full of similar omissions. Nothing in it was new, and it was obviously intended to be a general review of National Government policies. The future was bright, there was nothing to worry about. In saying this the Prime Minister cut his own throat, for the Party knew better.
Throughout the conference the Prime Minister and Mr. Marshall sat on the platform, in front of the delegates. If it was meant to help their image it didn't, because throughout Mr. Holyoake was a very unhappy man. He smiled rarely and acknowledged speakers even less. It was obvious he disliked the recurring attacks on his Government's policies.
On one notable occasion, when a remit calling for the abolition of the land tax was passed almost unanimously by the conference, the Party President turned to Mr. Holyoake and said jokingly "There's your answer Mr. Prime Minister." Mr. Holyoake only scowled at the meeting.
Ministers were placed in a rather embarrassing position in the remit committees of the conference. At previous conferences Ministers have spoken quite frequently at the remit committees, usually when called upon by the meeting, to explain Government policy or give information. However. this year Ministers often got to their feet and spoke without invitation. This was accepted by the meeting, but often what they had to say wasn't.
At Remit Committee One Mr. Shand, the Minister of Labour, spoke on three successive remits— dealing with grocery hours, Saturday trading and industrial stoppages. In each case he explained Government policy and informed the meeting that the Government was "making progress" on these matters. Every time, even though Mr. Shand argued plausibly and strongly, he was voted down by 75 per cent of the committee.
In remit Committee three Mr. Muldoon, the "doyen" of the Conference till that time, was voted down twice. The only Minister to come well out of the Remit Committees was the Minister of Health Mr. McKay. He argued against increasing the allowable earnings for widows. The Remit Committee agreed with him and voted the Remit down. But when it got to full conference, and Mr. McKay didn't speak, the Remit Committee decision was reversed.
This, I think, makes the point that in Remit Committees the conference delegates were prepared to take Ministers on. There was less respect for them than in previous years. The delegates had specific (usually parochial) projects in mind, and they were determined to pass them, whether the Minister agreed or not.
When Ministers made set speeches from the floor one got the feeling that delegates weren't quite as "behind" the Cabinet or Government as they had been at previous conferences. There wasn't the same aura of admiration.
The only Minister who received a spontaneous standing ovation was Mr. Muldoon. Mr. Marshall didn't. Mr. Shand didn't and even after the Prime Minister finished his main speech on Saturday night, the meeting declined to stand. It wasn't until the vote of thanks and the prompting by Party President Holt that the meeting reluctantly got to its feet.
Set speeches were given to the conference by Mr. Muldoon—on our economic situation, by Mr. Marshall on our export trade, by the Prime Minlster—a general review of everything, and Mr. Shand on labour and unemployment.
Of the four only Mr. Shand was realistic and down-to-earth. Thepage 7
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People at the beginning of the conference who thought there was no possibility of a leadership change within the next year had changed their minds by the end. It is not now a question of "Will Mr. Holyoake go?" but rather "When will it be, and who will replace him?"
Mr. Holyoake is a very tired politician. His recent statements indicate that he isn't fully in control of the situation, internally or externally. He even gets upset when people quote his contradictory statements. The Parliamentary Press Gallery is increasingly concerned about the "credibility gap" between Government (especially the Prime Minister), the press and the public.
At General Maxwell Taylor's press conference Mr. Holyoake gave a good example when he was asked, "Was the contribution (of troops) New Zealand could make discussed in any detail?" Mr. Holyoake answered: "Do you mean the aetual shape of any further contribution New Zealand might give? This was not discussed in any way whatever—or in any detail."
If Mr. Holyoake can't improve his image and eliminate the credibility gap, then the National Party may find a quick and neat way of getting rid of him. There's a ready successor being created in the form of Mr. Muldoon. People admire him for his courageous acts (for which, incidentally, he had no responsibility).
National Party feeling seems to be against Mr. Marshall, for no apparent reason. They may have started to suspect that his paternal image is not all it seems to be.
In the case of a leadership change within the next year or so. next year's Party Conference should be interesting-either to see the decline and fall of Mr. Holyoake or the rise of a new leader. This conference was notable because it tried to assert some kind of control over the politicians. This move failed quite naturally because the Government has greater knowledge than the conference delegates and have had time to entrench their authority.
The conference move to re-establish some sort of control over politicians was quite probably unconscious. Not many people there believed that they had any power— and those who did were naive.
Some remits were withdrawn after it had been pointed out that the Government had already acted. Mr. Marshall knocked the conference very neatly when, after it had passed a remit on tariff protection for industries, he stood up and said that the Government had already implemented the proposal the conference wanted.
Not one of the delegates knew, and Mr. Marshall had let them discuss the issue for 30 minutes and vote before informing them.
Delegates realised that these were knock-backs and didn't like them.
The conference was successful organisationally. But as a conference to obtain unanimity and consensus it wasn't. There were large divisions of opinion over all the major remits. Delegates were confused with the rapidity with which the motion on capital punishment was passed. This, followed by the motion supporting the Government in any increase in troops to Vietnam, was a shock to many people.
The younger delegates were not so much concerned with the content of these resolutions, but what such cursory treatment meant for the National Party's public image. They noted the trend was towards the right, and therefore some of the younger delegates spoke out strongly against the motion calling for change in the Government's policies of sanctions against Rhodesia.
The motion on Rhodesia was probably the one which caused the largest split, especially between the older and younger generations. The older delegates used the "anti-Communism" spiel about Rhodesia and backed the resolution almost unanimously. The younger delegates on the whole were against this approach and supported the "rule of law." They voted against the resolution.
It was interesting that these younger delegates were the ones who promoted the Vietnam remit— one that gave rise to noticeable questioning of Government's policies. There was doubt over whether New Zealand should be involved. The value of military aid as opposed to economic aid was questioned. On the voices, about 25 or 30 people opposed the Vietnam remit.
On many other remits there were splits. Most of the rural-sectional remits were voted against by urban delegates, and there was little understanding of the issues on either side. This conference seemed to indicate a larger split between urban-rural voting trends than previous conferences, but this may have been because most of the remits were sectional.
With a possible leadership change, developing conservatism within the party and a Government not prepared to act decisively, the National Party could well swing further to the right. This year's conference was the start, and It was a very good start. It will be interesting to see whether the trend continues next year and what remits will be supported.
Of course, a party conference trend doesn't determine Government policy, but it will be interesting to see whether the Government is willing or prepared to try to resist mounting pressure from interests within the party for reform and for adherence to remits passed continuously at party conferences. In the past National Governments and caucus have neglected conference, but if they want full support in the future, they may not be able to do so.