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Christopher Luxon delivers his state of the nation speech in Parnell, Auckland.
Christopher Luxon delivers his state of the nation speech in Parnell, Auckland.

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 6, 2023

Christopher Luxon just launched a raid behind Labour lines

Christopher Luxon delivers his state of the nation speech in Parnell, Auckland.
Christopher Luxon delivers his state of the nation speech in Parnell, Auckland.

The National leader finally had the spotlight and he used it to pledge childcare tax rebate to lower and middle income parents – and declare a war on public service consultants.

A mix of political and actual weather dealt the National Party a difficult start to 2023. 

Christopher Luxon delivered a strong scene-setting speech at the caucus retreat in Napier on January 19, but hardly anyone heard about it, thanks to a gazumping down the road, in the form of Jacinda Ardern’s resignation announcement. In the weeks that followed, the transition to a new Labour leader and therefore prime minister soaked up most of the attention. 

A state of the nation address on Sunday February 12 got bumped as the first gusts of Cyclone Gabrielle whistled across the top of the North Island. The devastations of the storm and the focus on the emergency response meant National had to taihoa on political hostilities. 

Following the first, delayed inter-Chris exchanges in parliament, yesterday brought the first chance for Luxon to have the stage to himself. “State of the nation” speeches have become de rigueur across the last decade or so, and sometimes amount more to exercises in form than substance. This one had more riding on it – not just because of the impediments mentioned above, but because National really needed to crack on with rolling out policy in election year. 

There was a clue to what was coming emblazoned across the podium for Luxon’s late morning speech at the Parnell Hotel: FAMILYBOOST. And when the policy was detailed – well, you could be mistaken for thinking it was the other Chris, Hipkins of Labour, that was speaking. 

“The FamilyBoost childcare tax rebate … will specifically target lower and middle-income families, to make their lives a bit easier,” said Luxon. “[It] will help 130,000 low-and-middle-income families keep more of what they earn, with up to $75 more in their after-tax pay each week. That’s $3,900 every year, depending on their income … So, a young teacher and a plumber earning, say, $135,000 between them who are spending $300 a week on childcare would receive a weekly rebate of $75, paid fortnightly by IRD to the parents’ bank account.”

The full whack of the rebate would go to households earning no more than $140,000 a year, with a lesser sum for those bringing in up to $180,000. Luxon referred directly to the “squeezed middle” – the same Ed Miliband’s coinage that went on high-rotate during the budget last year, with its cost of living payment centrepiece. 

Simeon Brown, Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis speak to media following the state of the nation speech. Photo: Toby Manhire

Luxon won some of his biggest cheers from the National faithful yesterday with the blue meat of tax cuts, boot camps and sanctions for those who seek a “free ride” on benefits. But the policy headline was designed for a much wider audience, including many who lean Labour. With its unmistakable echoes of Jacinda Ardern’s conference promise just a few months ago, which will see increased childcare subsidies kick in from April (and which National says will not be reversed), this was a clever bit of triangulation, an attempt to eat Chris Hipkins’ lunch – bread and butter, naturally. 

And in the great bread and butter battle of 2023, the not insubstantial challenge is to lay out new policy while persuading that it will not have any substantial inflationary impact; that your bright and shiny cost of living measure will not increase the, you know, cost of living. To square this circle, Christopher Luxon and his deputy Nicola Willis – the pair introduced by the local party chair as the “two-horned bull” of the National leadership – have said they will cover the $249-million-a-year the policy wholly by compelling the public sector to slash spending on consultants and contractors.

It doesn’t hurt that Luxon can take a swipe at the other Chris along the way, delighting, as he had already in the first parliamentary question time, in the fact that Hipkins had pledged to cut the consultancy quotient when state services minister, only to oversee what Luxon called a “blow-out in wasteful spending”. As Hipkins could tell you, it’s easier said than done. How would National ensure its $400 million cutbacks actually happened? A firm edict – and quarterly reporting to detail progress, was about all Simeon Brown, National’s consultant-assassin-in-chief, could offer.

Luxon could hardly have looked more confident, however, that targeting the “gravy train”, making consultants the whipping boys, is a winner. Just as it is nonsense to imagine that all those contracted to the state are chancers and charlatans, it’s difficult to weep for people that had been earning, say, $9,000 a week working on the now buried public media merger. 

Spending on consultants was “bloated” and “perverse”, said Luxon. Asked by media about the prospect of a quarter of public service consultants losing their jobs, he said, beaming, “I feel very good about that. Big-time, big partners at consulting firms up and down New Zealand, thank you very much, but your money is going away, and we’re giving it to hardworking families.”

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