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Christopher Luxon’s road home. Image: Tina Tiller
Christopher Luxon’s road home. Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 24, 2023

The potholes and pitfalls National needs to dodge in the next 50 days

Christopher Luxon’s road home. Image: Tina Tiller
Christopher Luxon’s road home. Image: Tina Tiller

Polling suggests Christopher Luxon is on track to become prime minister. National’s path to power is lined with roses. Their priority: don’t trip up, writes Toby Manhire.

In keeping with the theme of Grant Robertson’s road to Damascus on GST and fruit and veg, Labour this week had its come to Jesus moment. There was no point in spinning the message of the 1News/Verian poll on Monday night. They had fallen in every one of the surveys since January. National and Act were on track for a healthy majority. Hipkins’ party was, as he put it, the “underdog” and required, he told his supporters in an email, “a comeback”. 

It was at once an inarguable and astonishing admission from Hipkins when you think about it: from first ever single-party MMP majority government to underdog within three years. Its corollary is that National is the overdog, if that’s a thing? They’re in the box seat, certainly, and that means the spotlight rapidly swinging to assess the likely government-to-be. For Christopher Luxon, that is a good problem to have. But it will also steel strategists to avoid letting complacency set in, to resist measuring the curtains. 

In the 50 days of campaigning that remain, these are some of the pitfalls and potholes National will strive to avoid. Some are more within their power than others. 

Holy hell

One of the most important days in the next fortnight will be National’s unveiling of its tax policy. Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson have for some time been stalking their rivals’ financial plans. They will denounce the policy, obviously. But they will seek more than that, deploying every available calculator to interrogate the numbers. 

National, meanwhile, will be making a spreadsheet and checking it twice, especially after having to admit in 2020 that they had erred and missed $4 billion. In an election that both major parties agree is about who is best placed to steer an economy through choppy waters, scrupulous costings matter more than ever.

Luxon’s attempts to stay on message are, ahem, back on track. (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design: Archi Banal)

Back on track

In daily media standups across a couple of months and stump speech after stump speech, Q&A after Q&A in the Back on Track roadshow, Luxon has become noticeably more confident and fluent. Glorious oratory it is not. There is a lot of repetition. But there is an increasing assuredness about the material, about how to deal with curveballs. 

On Newstalk ZB this week, Labour campaign manager Megan Woods said, “Nicola Willis basically has to carry a cleaning kit around with her to do cleanups on what Christopher Luxon has said in the morning.” Which made me think: that certainly did feel to be the pattern a few months ago, but it hasn’t happened for some while.

Right on cue, however, Willis found herself yesterday acknowledging, yes, of course, gender was one of a number of factors that National’s list-setters considers in looking for diversity, something Luxon found impossible to say when asked six times on RNZ. A minor example of the genre, but still. There are 50 days to go. 

Debate school

There are at least a few former university debating savants in the National ranks, and they’ll be tasked with preparing their boss for four leader debates against a vastly more seasoned political rival. The ambition will be not to attempt haymakers or prize-winning zingers, but to cautiously effect as many scoreless draws as possible, while studiously avoiding being lured into any traps.

Christopher Luxon hasn’t yet disavowed Winston Peters, and perhaps he won’t need to. (Image: Archi Banal)

The Winston vortex

A month ago, I argued that Christopher Luxon ought to bite the bullet and declare, as John Key did twice, he wouldn’t be forming a government with New Zealand First. Luxon can point to this week’s poll, at least, as vindication for his decision not to do that. Winston Peters’ party was under 4%, and even had it been at 5% National would have been able to form a government without having to spring a third leg.  

Luxon has meanwhile been steadfast in his refusal to be dragged in to the desperate culture war mire, such as in Winston Peters’ determination to talk about toilets and transgender New Zealanders. Whether he rules him out or not, Luxon cannot afford to let Peters set the agenda.

The wagging tail

While Luxon has resisted the Winston vortex, you can’t say the same for Act. An attack ad featuring a grinning Peters that many mistook for a jolly NZ First billboard was the first clear sign they’re anxious about their vote being vulnerable to the Pied Piper of the disgruntled. David Seymour has since jumped into a debate about the so-called “radical trans agenda”.

Inevitably – as is implicit in National’s “coalition of chaos” coinage – in MMP elections the reputation of your likely partners rubs off on your own campaign. Such as in the appearance of (now former) Act candidates on the conspiracy fringe. And Seymour’s line about the Ministry of Pacific Peoples and his Guy Fawkes “fantasy”. Again, Luxon has been careful to disapprove and distance, while stressing that he can work constructively with his former nextdoor neighbour. At the same time, National could really do with the Act leader shelving for seven weeks his Bumper Book of Jokes for Best Man’s Speeches. I suspect Seymour may not take kindly to any attempt by Team Luxon to muzzle him, so this may be one best left to hope rather than persuasion.

The unknown unknown

Over the last decade or so, New Zealand elections have been reliably served up 11th-hour surprises, ranging from the teapot tapes to the Moment of Truth to Nicky Hager books. The Taxpayers’ Union expressed alarm the other day that Hager was about to publish a book about its activities – nah, he said, but who could say what might transpire over the coming weeks?

The key may be not to overreact. Steven Joyce, who directed five National campaigns, and had to lead the response to everything from Don Brash blurting about his links to the Exclusive Brethren, to Hager’s publication of Dirty Politics, told The Spinoff his advice for dealing with such calamities was this: “You just have to go: right, OK, here’s where we are, where do we go now? You just need to be able to reassure your team that this isn’t the end, there’ll be another thing along tomorrow. And politics, as my friend Wayne Eagleson [Key’s former chief of staff] says, is not a game of perfect.”

An erroneous reference in this article to Open Brethren has been corrected to Exclusive Brethren.

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