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Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images
Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsSeptember 25, 2023

What lies behind Luxon’s change of heart on NZ First?

Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images
Winston Peters returns to the stage. Photo: Getty Images

The 11th-hour decision to rule in Winston Peters if necessary leaves the National leader looking slow and expedient.

When Chris Hipkins declared last week that National’s polling was beyond its peak, it seemed born more of hope than data. It is hard to avoid concluding, however, that Christopher Luxon has this morning confirmed that analysis, as he finally put an end to months of equivocation about New Zealand First. 

In a video posted on social media – as well as an email sent to supporters – the National leader announced: “If New Zealand First is returned to parliament, and I need to pick up the phone to Mr Peters to keep Labour and the Coalition of Chaos out, I will make that call.” 

Luxon had previously refused to be drawn on the question. It was mere hypothesis, he said, and there was little to suggest that Winston Peters would be back in parliament. Poll after poll raised a heavy eyebrow at that line, and it is safe to assume National’s internal figures now paint a picture of the 78-year-old returning for yet another rodeo. A Newshub poll out tonight, for what it’s worth, is being trailed as “a game changer”.

Even if, as some recent polls suggest, National and Act could govern despite NZ First winning seats in parliament, that circumstance would likely leave Luxon and Seymour a majority of just a couple of seats or so. In such a scenario it would be foolish not to seek the ballast of NZ First, in whatever form that might take.

Meanwhile, the leaders of NZ First hoovered up every crumb of the electorate they could see, railing against “the insidious woke agenda being driven by an elite cabal of social and ideological engineers”, pouncing on trans rights issues and “WHO guinea pigs”, placing a conspiracy theorist 11th on their party list.  

Luxon chose to hope the wider question would all go away, until it was obvious to everyone it wouldn’t. As, for example, Mike Hosking became increasingly exasperated at Luxon’s refusal to say either way, as the refusal to say became with every passing day an implicit “we’ll work with him if necessary”, as a poll showed 82% wanting a clear statement from National on the question, and as the Patrick Gower grilling in Wednesday’s debate drew closer, he at last resolved: might as well just come out and bloody say it.

David Seymour, Marama Davidson, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Winston Peters at the Powerbrokers debate. Photo: Toby Manhire

Even David Seymour, who radiates antipathy for Winston Peters (“the least trustworthy person in New Zealand politics”, as he put it this morning), has been clear. In a tense exchange a fortnight ago he told me it was “obviously true” that Act may need to be involved in a governing arrangement with NZ First. “If you need to make a government work, then you make it work,” he said, adding: “But I just make the point that we’re not going to sit around the cabinet table with this clown.” 

That sentiment was echoed at the Newshub Nation debate last week. Both Seymour and Peters answered through gritted teeth, but answered nonetheless, the question Luxon refused to; they accepted the mathematics may oblige them to find an accommodation in the cause of a change of government. As for the “coalition of chaos”, that debate offered a striking tableau: Peters and Seymour a coalition of contempt; Marama Davidson and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer a coalition of cuddles. 

Luxon missed the opportunity to look decisive and leaderly. Instead he looks slow and expedient. His strategic error has pumped fresh air into his opponents’ sagging sails, eviscerated the “coalition of chaos” epithet for ever, and, in the week the first votes in election 2023 are cast, propelled him to front pages and bulletin leads in the arms of Winston Peters. Two months ago, Luxon was warning of the “inherently, incredibly unstable” prospect of a “three-headed monster” on the other side. Today he has one of his own.

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