John Armstrong's opinion: Christian parties are of little assistance to the centre-right

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Alfred who? Mention the name Alfred Ngaro and you will get blank and puzzled looks in return. 

If pressed, most people would more than likely say they have never heard of him. 

That is not surprising. There is no reason why they should know who he is. He has never given them much need to find out.

Ngaro is not alone. There is always a large number of MPs in any Parliament who retain a degree of anonymity and invisibility.

They do not shun the limelight. It is just that the limelight shuns them. 

Ngaro is in that category. His eight years in the House have been remarkable for being unremarkable. 

Still, the West Auckland-based list MP made it to Cabinet level — no mean feat on his part and indication aplenty that the National Party hierarchy regarded him as someone with talent and, crucially, someone reliable.

No-one, however, would be able to tell you what he achieved in his roles as Minister for the Voluntary Sector, Minister for Pacific Peoples, Associate Minister for Children and Associate Minister for Social Housing.

Those jobs hardly provided easy fodder for generating positive headlines. But Ngaro has never given much hint that worried him.

That will have to change if — and it still seems to be a very big if — he opts to sever his ties with National and instead pours his energy into something very different— the creation of a new Christian-based political party.

The news that Ngaro, whose personal views veer heavily towards the fundamentalist side of the moral ledger, has been taking soundings on the potential viability of such a vehicle was gobsmacking. 

Ngaro fits no-one’s image of a caucus rebel. It begged questions as to who was really driving this quite astonishing development on the centre-right of the political spectrum.

Was it Simon Bridges? Was National’s leader trying to engineer a solution to a crisis which is bigger than the one which encompasses his failings as his party’s leader? National’s big fear is that the party will find itself fighting next year’s general election without a viable coalition partner. A Christian party could be the answer.

Such a party could also be a mechanism for expanding the centre-right’s share of the party vote by forming a party that can tap into voter catchments  which National simply cannot reach, whether for moral or ideological reasons  or whatever.

That sounds good in theory. In practice, things can turn out very differently.

Ngaro has good reason to think about jumping ship, however.  He is ranked at no.13 in National’s caucus. It is likely to be a high-water mark. Were National’s backing in the party vote stakes to slump below 40 per cent, Ngaro would be gone from Parliament.

Ngaro is also vulnerable to forces within the caucus. Every political party has to regenerate in order to rejuvenate if it is to survive. That process demands there be losers in order for there to be winners. Ngaro is a likely victim simply because he will have served three terms by the election. He is thus at risk of being pushed down National’s list.

The risk for Ngaro is the vessel he is seeking to jump aboard might well be unseaworthy.

The big doubt must be whether Ngaro has wherewithal and power of personality to create a new Christian party out of nothing and build it into a force capable of busting through the 5 per cent threshold

That is the stuff of fantasy.

To expect him to do that within the tightest of timetables —the 2020 election campaign is little more than a year away from kickoff— is to enter the realm of the seriously deluded.

No disrespect to Ngaro, but he wouldn’t have a dog’s show of making it back to Parliament under a Christian label.

MMP was supposed to give life to minor parties. It has been the death of them — especially those of a Christian variety.

Let’s list them for Ngaro’s benefit. The following are now the fallen: Christian Heritage, Christian Democrats, Christian Coalition, Future New Zealand, United New Zealand,Destiny New Zealand, the Kiwi Party, the Family Party and the Conservative Party.

There are another three such parties which will be similarly pole-axed and most likely sooner than later: the New Conservative party, Coalition New Zealand — Brian Tamaki’s new venture unveiled this week — plus whatever emerges from Ngaro’s exploration of what is very barren territory.

Nevertheless, a Christian party based on so-called “family values” and holding the balance of power in Parliament is attractive to many who think that in terms of morality that the country is headed for hell.

The perfect Christian partIy is also — as others have noted — very much a mirage.

There is a tendency to over-estimate the actual size of the target audience for such a party. A lot of New Zealanders label themselves as “Christian”. But they don’t like religion and politics being mixed together.

They are also generally apathetic rather than activist. That activism thus tends to be confined to evangelical or more fundamentalist denominations. 

The result is that Christian parties attract extremists. Their members are  uncompromising.  They end up arguing amongst themselves — rather than with their opponents. Unity and cohesion disappear. The party splinters

By example, take Destiny New Zealand—Tamaki’s previous attempt to break into national politics. The party secured the grand total of 14,210 votes at the 2005 election. To beat the threshold and make it into Parliament requires the capture of around 160,000 votes.

Tamaki’s new venture will do no better at 2020’s  contest than the 0.62 per cent that Destiny New Zealand registered back in 2005. It might even do worse.

New political parties are frequently trapped in a particularly vicious vortex from the instant they are launched.

To have any chance of winning seats in Parliament, they need to rate close to 5 per cent in opinion polls. If they are polling at just 2 to 3 per cent, voters are reluctant to back them for fear of casting a wasted vote.

In National’s case, a wasted vote for any Ngaro-instigated party would effectively be one less vote for National.

That is the crucial equation operating here.

The latest round in the ongoing argument about the political pluses and minuses of having a Christian party in the electoral mix contains a fresh ingredient, however.

Should he somehow manage to get a such a party up and running, Ngaro would want to capitalise on the unique trifecta of a revamp in abortion law, the referendum on the recreational use of cannabis and a likely referendum on euthanasia. 

Tantalising as that combination of issues might seem, they might well not be as beneficial to a Christian party as might be assumed. 

Should Ngaro become leader of such an outfit, those issues would offer considerable assistance in raising his profile.

Whether that would translate into votes is another matter.

The resort to referendums and the use of conscience votes effectively quarantines both the governing and Opposition parties from the outcome of such ballots.

It would make it more difficult for Ngaro to pin any blame for the results on Jacinda Ardern or Bridges.

Moreover, given the love exhibited by parties on the right for referendums as ideally being binding instruments of decision-making, Ngaro could not go into the election promising to overturn a majority “yes” vote for the personal use of cannabis, for example.

The same logic applies to any referendum on euthanasia which may yet  emerge from the argument in Parliament over David Seymour’s End of Life Bill.

Add it all up and there is only one conclusion. Christian parties are of little assistance to the centre-right. They tend to succeed in only stripping votes off their supposed coalition partner. They scare centrist voters into the ever-welcoming arms of the centre-left.

On balance, the message from Bridges to Ngaro ought to be short and blunt: thanks, but no thanks.