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Christopher Luxon having a nice time (Image: Tina Tiller)
Christopher Luxon having a nice time (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsMarch 10, 2023

The week that National seized back the initiative

Christopher Luxon having a nice time (Image: Tina Tiller)
Christopher Luxon having a nice time (Image: Tina Tiller)

For the first time in 2023, the political sun has shone on Christopher Luxon, writes Toby Manhire.

At a moment when the talk of the Thorndon end of town is refocus, reprioritise, re-just-about-anything, the National Party has had to do some recalibration of its own. After heading into Christmas confident it had plotted a course to overcome Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party in election year, the opposition watched, jaws dropped like the rest of us, as the guard suddenly changed. That was all anyone talked about for weeks. Then came a ruinous and deadly cyclone; National knew the only option, as far as party politics was concerned, was to zip it, sweetie.

When parliament got properly back into it, National stumbled. First were the climate change findings of the Pugh Research Centre. The same day, Christopher Luxon accused the new prime minister of delivering a speech that was prepared for Jacinda Ardern. Given Chris Hipkins’ speech majored on the Gabrielle response, it suggested instead that if any words were out of date, they were Luxon’s. It was about as odd as Willie Jackson’s suggestion this week that the binning of the media merger was somehow related to a cyclone that would happen in the future. 

As the calendar flicked into March, the pressure built to the point where murmurings of a potential leadership change – the very words of which are enough to trigger a painful flare-up – were being aired. On Sunday morning, Christopher Luxon’s task was simple and big: set out some meaningful, cogent policy, grasp an elusive chance to set the agenda and regain the momentum of 2022. That’s all. 

Childcare and consultants

As he stepped up for his twice-delayed state of the nation speech, following an effusive introduction from deputy Nicola Willis (together, the “two-horned bull” of National, according to the event MC), Luxon could hardly have hoped for it all to go as well as it did. Though it isn’t over yet, this is shaping up as the National Party’s best week – or at least most effective – of the 66 since Christopher Luxon became leader. 

The policy centrepiece, a tax rebate for lower- and middle-income parents with kids in early childhood education, planted a stake in Labour territory, recalling the 2014 surprise salvo by John Key, then prime minister, in pledging a teacher pay rise. 

Luxon awkwardly avoided a question asking if the rebate – which echoed and built upon, too, a Labour pledge of a few months ago – amounted to a feminist policy. But there is no doubt it is intended to consolidate women’s support for National, which, as several senior National figures bemoaned at the time, had cratered during the days of blue blood. Labour’s response was flat-footed. The Greens, for some reason – chary, perhaps of having a go at the government they support – decided not to damn both the big parties and get stuck into the large, profitable private sector players. 

And to pay for it, National had another brainwave. The first thing we do, let’s kill all the consultants. Who cares if there’s a whiff of non sequitur. (There was no “just transition” programme to redeploy public sector consultants into creches.) Luxon, Willis and the lieutenant colonel of the war on consultants, Simeon Brown, reckoned they could save $400 million by derailing the gravy train, and they were radiantly confident people were going to like it. 

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

It is much more complicated than that, of course: countless public sector contractors are in effect public servants who send invoices, human workarounds for a lid on staff budgets. Numerous reforms, not to mention the Covid response, would be near impossible without drafting in consultants and contractors. Luxon and co didn’t always have a full grasp on the numbers. But there was no risk of a public outcry.

The only serious downside for National is they can’t tap that particular spring again, however tempted they might be to, say, send chain gangs of consultants out to fix up potholes, or harvest their organs to pay for more cops. 

Next, the banks

Emboldened by the success of a different kind of beneficiary bashing, National turned its attention next to banks. Nicola Willis wrote to members of the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee urging a “short, sharp inquiry into any potential competition issues in New Zealand’s retail banking sector”. That sparked a debate about whether it should be a Commerce Commission inquiry instead, while Chlöe Swarbrick and David Seymour fired up from each side, respectively repeating demands for a windfall tax and to leave out the “xenophobic” references to Aussie banks.

Almost nobody said, however, that the big banks making more than $10bn pre-tax profit a year was fine, actually. National had pulled off something that consistently eludes oppositions. The noble task of holding governments to account can very easily fall into the categories of hating and wrecking (© Helen Clark), carping and moaning (© Gerry Brownlee), whingeing and moaning (© Chris Hipkins) or barking at every passing car (© the Little Book of Political Cliches). Here, for the second time in a week, instead of doing that, National, inarguably, had set the agenda. 

Public disservice

If it had stopped there, that would be considered a great week. But there was more. The hairpin turn on the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport gave National a brief gloating moment. Looming larger still through the week was the question of public service neutrality. From Rob Campbell to Steve Maharey to Ruth Dyson to whomever’s Pinterest profile is at this moment being scoured for spicy political takes, Chris Hipkins, fresh from five years as public services minister, was on the back foot through the week.

Maharey stayed because he responded to the discovery that he’d strayed from neutrality by committing to stop writing opinion pieces. Campbell, meanwhile, was a goner because he responded to the discovery that he’d strayed from neutrality by writing endless new opinion pieces, doubling, tripling down. Ruth Dyson looked foolish as she admitted she hadn’t read the two-page code of conduct. Maharey looked foolish as it became apparent almost nobody had read his op-eds.

But the whole episode confirmed the gods were smiling, this week at least, on Team Luxon. The first domino, after all, was Campbell thumping out a LinkedIn post reproaching Luxon’s alternative to three waters. Campbell had a point, even if he was not the right person to be making it. 

The policy, as Bernard Hickey observed, was at least as much a feat of magical thinking as Labour’s plan. The blinkered optimism that councils could join arms and work it out, and somehow do all that without raising rates, seemed unserious. Co-governance was more ignored than dealt with. Even the headline on the policy release was unpersuasive – “National will scrap Three Waters and deliver local water well” – conjuring up an image of somewhere in the town square you go to fill your bucket. 

The policy should and will get more scrutiny. But it was drowned out by the slighted, now departed Te Whatu Ora chair resolving to post his way out of Dodge. And as if serendipity weren't maxed out already, this was the week the public sector commissioner, Peter Hughes, happened to be scheduled to go before select committee, where he faced questions on subjects including, guess what, consultants and crown entity board neutrality. 

One swallow does not make a summer, and a strong week is not enough on its own to ensure the opposition turns around some unwelcome trajectories in both party polling and sentiment on who is best placed to deal with the most pressing issues. But it was the week National seized back the initiative, with a template on how to set the agenda. That it worked was obvious in Luxon himself, palpably more chipper in interviews this week than he has been for ages, enjoying the return of momentum and a shot of morale.

Keep going!