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Focus on substance — that is the clear message to National from respondents to this year’s Mood of the Boardroom survey.

National leader Simon Bridges announced a June shadow Cabinet reshuffle following the news that  MPs Amy Adams and Alastair Scott would retire from politics at the 2020 election.

The biggest winner in the reshuffle was Paul Goldsmith. He picked up the heavyweight finance spokesperson and infrastructure spokesperson roles and jumped from seventh to third in the party’s parliamentary rankings.

Chris Bishop was also a winner, picking up Goldsmith’s former roles in transport and regional development. He moved from being ranked 35th to 16th, overtaking several of his colleagues and clinching a spot in National’s shadow cabinet.

New Zealand’s top CEOs and directors seem to agree with the reshuffle, with a banking boss commenting: “Paul Goldsmith and Chris Bishop have great potential”.

But when asked what more Bridges needs to do to present a vigorous alternative to the Government at the 2020 election, it was substance — rather than individuals —  that received attention from respondents.

Many suggested National needs to identify and focus on key policy areas, rather than trying to do everything.

“Be smarter and more strategic in what it criticises the Government on,” says a public sector boss. “Focus on things that matter to Kiwis — not on personal politics that only capture the attention of the press gallery.”

Respondents also suggested that National spend more time focusing on how they would perform better than the Government, rather than negativity and time spent explaining what the Government is doing wrong.

“Cut out the negative comments, lead from the front,” said Ovato managing director Simon Ellis.

Mainfreight boss Don Braid was direct: “The negative nit-picking in opposition has been pathetic; shut up and develop credible policy.”

But other respondents say National should continue to highlight the strength and credibility of its team, compared to those on the Government benches.

“All that National has to do is point out Labour’s incompetence at running the Government and the country,” said a policy boss.

“It makes the contrast to National’s experienced and qualified front bench even stronger.”

Cooper and Company chief executive Matthew Cockram said: “National should reach out to those who have been so cruelly misled by Labour’s rhetoric and execution ineptitude. Show that just throwing money at issues does not solve them.”

But CEOs also want National to adopt new policies that can demonstrate how the party has moved on from the Key government.

“The world has moved on and going back to that is insufficient to become Government and the wrong thing for New Zealand.”

Adds an independent director: “It still feels like a return to more traditional National policies. I think they need to better read the mood of society and set out some new ideas that demonstrate a real change from the past on issues like climate, infrastructure and taxation policies.”

Mark Franklin, managing director of  Stevenson Group said:  “They must stop acting like they are entitled to be there and start rolling their sleeves up.”

The need for National to consider the long-term — including creating a prosperous New Zealand for all New Zealanders, being realistic about sustainability and equality challenges and addressing New Zealand’s under-performance in productivity — was also a message from respondents:

“National needs to provide a long-term vision for New Zealand as a country, in order to work its way up the OECD rankings rather than declining,” says MinterEllisonRuddWatts partner Lloyd Kavanagh.

Said the chief executive of an investment firm: “In order to win, National has to own middle New Zealand — and right now they don’t. They are not progressive enough to capture hearts and minds of the real big-picture long-run issues for the future.”

“Stay centrist and loud on how to address system changes for long term change,” advised a tourism boss.

National also needed to find a coalition partner.  “They will be hard-pressed to get an outright win,” advises an executive in the education sector.

Reiterated Barfoot & Thompson’s Peter Thompson:

“They aren’t going to win it alone so need to work closely with an alternative party to go into partnership with them before the election — so the public know before they vote.”

Though  most respondents say National’s strength is that it  has a credible cohort of talented performers, a few recommended National look to bring in new talent from the outside.

“…but definitely not Luxon!” pleaded an investment bank head.

A ‘credible alternative’

Two-thirds of business leaders — 66 per cent — say that National’s proposed policies are providing a credible alternative to the policies from the coalition government. Just 8 per cent say they do not; 26 per cent are unsure.

“National is insignificantly different to make a great difference to New Zealand,” says Mercury CEO Fraser Whineray. “Can we have a long-term vision and discussion about our place in the world?”

“Better than the Coalition? Certainly. But not good enough to lift our lousy productivity growth rate,” cautions ICBC chair Don Brash.

Last month, National launched its economic policy discussion document. Among commitments, Leader Simon Bridges said National would not introduce any new taxes in its first term, would reinstate the social investment approach, and would reintroduce targets in health, education and law and order.

The top three rated policies were:

  • Allowing Kiwisaver contributions to continue beyond the age of 65 for seniors who remain in the workforce (8.12/10)
  • Requiring all government agencies to pay their contractors on time and within 30 days (7.99/10)
  • Requiring Treasury to have greater focus on identifying wasteful spending (7.96/10)

The two lowest-rated proposed policies were:

  • Returning the brightline test to two years and remove ring fencing of losses (5.29/10)
  • Repealing the regional fuel tax in Auckland (5.12/10)

Deloitte CEO Thomas Pippos says Government policy is about deliberate choices that balance financial and non-financial outcomes.

Pippos says a challenge with the proposed economic policies that National released is that they look to appeal to the conservative wing of those that support National — which they “already have in the bag”.

“Key social issues around housing, poverty and inequality are not being overtly addressed,” he says.

“Similarly, there is no positive response to environmental issues. Putting to the side the challenges of MMP and the lack of coalition partners, National would be more successful if it transformed to being more progressive and appealing to the majority of voters who occupy the centre of NZ politics.”

Several of the respondents say the release of the economic policy discussion paper was a step in the right direction, but suggested National is not doing enough to move the needle.

“Some of their ideas are incredibly sensible but I don’t see a strategic plan in place yet,” adds a government relations firm head.

“There are some good ideas, but it’s all tinkering,” says Whineray. “The centralised dynamics are different to the rest of the world and effective oversight of expenditure absolutely beats the perception of scale economies.”

Don Brash added: “Some of what National proposes is a pale shadow of what it should be. For example, starting to raise the age of eligibility to 67 from 2037. Australia will get to 67 by 2023!”

Others suggest that National is struggling to resonate with the electorate, and put this down to a lack of ability to clearly communicate their policies. “They are still pretty unimpressive when it comes to developing and communicating their policies… maybe it’s still a secret?” questions Mark Franklin, managing director of Stevenson Group.

The proposed “regulations bonfire” – which has been compared to the Donald Trump playbook – promises to “repeal 100 regulations in our first six months in government and eliminate two old regulations for every new one we introduce.” It scored 6.25/10 and received the most commentary from respondents.

“A ‘regulations bonfire’ sounds good, but National’s own record in this area over nine years was very poor,” says a banker.

Michael Lorimer, Auckland managing director for Grant Samuel said: “This policy illustrates Bridges’ naivety.”

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