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Chris Ford: The Lusk Papers and National's post-Key leadership Cold War - could it turn hot?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The Beehive's Ninth Floor struck out against Judith Collins and the National Party's Far Right faction over the weekend through the release of what have become known as the 'Lusk Papers.'

The papers, written by John Key's least favourite political strategist Simon Lusk, were leaked to a series of media outlets. They were mainly talked about on shows and in blogs read by political junkies such as Martyn Bradbury's The Daily Blog, TV3's The Nation and within the political pages of the New Zealand Herald.

Their distribution to a limited number of political outlets has meant that the papers have only excited the political commentariat rather than the general populace so far.

And that was probably John Key's intent in sanctioning the release of the papers. The PM wants to protect the position of his favoured successor, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce when the time comes for Key to step down. After all, it's been an open secret within the National Party that Key will probably step down during any possible third term for National. And given that Key has maintained a so-called 'centrist' positioning for his government (with more than occassional nods to the right with welfare reform, partial-privatisations, public sector job cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy), he would probably want his successor to maintain this positioning.

Indeed, National and John Key has placed great store on supposedly being centrist. It's rather corporate and charitable-tinged school breakfast policy announced last week resonated with large sections of the public but probably not with sections of his own party. As the Lusk papers illustrate, fiscal conservative and libertarian-inclined Nats have been feeling rather sickened by Key's and English's less than supposed emphasis on fiscal prudence. I didn't understand why, for example, Lusk prefers a National-led Government which would be more inclined towards supporting property development and mining interests as I think the Nats are pretty much doing the bidding of these sectors already!

All of these reasons lead me to think that the Nat's internal differences are not so much ideological but more personality based. Admittedly, there may be a slight difference in the philosophical positionings of Key and Joyce versus Collins in terms of, for example, the former believe in pragmatic government interventionism in favour of corporate interests whereas Collins and the fiscal conservatives would take a more hands off/libertarian approach to economic and social policy. In other words, if Collins had been PM last week and not Key, for example, there would have been no school breakfast policy at all whereas given the PM's state house upbringing, he has most likely been sympathetic to some form of targeted intervention. Also in personality terms, while the PM does have his abrasive side (as Russel Norman outlined over the weeknd), Collins comes across as a far more belligerent, less easy-going personality than Key does in clear imitation of her late heroine, Margaret Thatcher.  That personality difference alone means that any leadership change from Key to Collins would be noticed by the public but not in a way that would favour the Nat's electoral interests. In short, Collins is potential political poison for National and Key knows it.

These slight differences aside, I believe that what transpired over this long weekend was simply the Ninth Floor briefing against Lusk and the likes of Cameron (Whale Oil) Slater in order to forestall a possible palace coup in the not too distant future. Any such coup would have damaged the prospects of both Steven Joyce and possible running mate (and Bill English's favourite to succeed him as Deputy PM) Hekia Parata.* And as Key and friends on the ninth floor have realised, the Fiscal Conservatives had strong connections with Tea Party Republicans whom effectively scuttled the Republican bid for the White House in 2012. Essentially, the PM and his advisors didn't want the same scenario developing for National post-2014 (or pre that if they loose next year).

Given these factors, I would say that the National Party's leadership Cold War (as Bryce Edwards referred to it over the weekend) is not going to turn hot, at least not in the near future. It could have done so and soon if Lusk and Co had begun putting more of their lieutenants into safe, winnable National seats and list positions for next year. However, the Ninth Floor Brigade have spiked the guns of the Collinite Fiscal Conservatives. But we will only know for sure if they have done so if Joyce is ultimately victorious in taking the National Party leadership when Key goes. 

* Hekia Parata for National Party deputy you ask? I say this following her appearance on The Nation last weekend and her being asked about her leadership ambitions (which have been backed by Bill English). On this basis, I wouldn't rule out her standing as Joyce's 'running mate' when Key goes despite her obvious pitfalls. After all, Cameron Slater has been absolutely vicious in his condemnation of her at times and, more often than not, he is Collins attack dog-in-chief. Furthermore, English once referred in an email (published in Nicky Hager's The Hollow Men) to Collins as a primadonna. I understand that English's and Collins' mutual antipathy towards one another is a pretty longstanding one and hasn't gone away despite their being in Cabinet together. If Collins doesn't get the Nat leadership, I predict she could be a starter for leading a new libertarian vehicle to replace ACT, thus displacing the hapless and hopeless John Banks. 


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