The freshly sworn-in prime minister was hoping not to spend his first few days stooped in a defensive crouch.
Christopher Luxon doesn’t seem like the kind of fellow that is visited much by nightmares. But if he were, last night’s would situate him at the cabinet table, arranging his papers, looking down to see a carpet of soil, as the circular room transformed into a dusty, sepia arena, patrolled by a weathered, handsome man on a white horse – this is not our first rodeo. The dream would morph, as dreams do, into a weird, antique advertisement for cigarettes. Winston 20s, probably.
As political honeymoons go, the Luxon government’s has been brutishly short. At the official unveiling of the coalition agreements last week, Luxon sounded like a chuffed CEO at an AGM. David Seymour sounded like the CFO. Winston Peters sounded like a comments thread. Instead of heralding the NZ First wins in policy or personnel, he chose to rail at the “mathematical morons” who had foolishly calculated the negotiation time from the election, rather than from the reveal of special votes, before launching into a slanging match with members of the press gallery.
Fast forward a few days to Monday and the next glittery setpiece, this time at Government House. Within minutes of the ceremony’s completion, the gravitas and glow were extinguished. The comments thread in a cowboy hat was back. Peters declared the media had been bribed by the Public Interest Journalism Fund and all but instructed the independent, state-owned broadcasters RNZ and TVNZ to stop using te reo.
The siege of thunder didn’t stop there. A day later, at the traditional, usually anodyne photo-op for the newly sworn cabinet, Peters, deputy prime minister (for another 548 days) and leader of the third biggest of three coalition parties, said to reporters: “Tell the public what you signed up to to get the money.” A minute earlier, Luxon had been asked about his new bedfellow’s “bribery” remarks. “Didn’t see those comments,” he said, preposterously.
Luxon might not do nightmares but there’s no doubt he’s long dreamed about the day he might become prime minister. What he couldn’t have imagined was those hallowed moments being hijacked by a deputy and his deafening mix of mischief and high dudgeon. Who could then forgive him for thinking: I am done with this domestic obsession over Peters and his bluster; I wonder how my coronation is getting covered by the wiser, more measured international press?
From the BBC to CNN, from the FT to the New York Times, all they seemed interested in was the ditching of the smokefree target – a change demanded not by National but its coalition partners. There was, said Luxon of the coverage generally, a fair bit of “disingenuousness in how it’s been presented”. The boost to the tax coffers from more excise (and therefore more tobacco products being sold) was a “byproduct” not a “motivation” for a decision driven by concerns around black markets and making a small number of outlets a thief’s mecca.
Luxon made those remarks at his post-cabinet press conference late yesterday afternoon. It was another important first for the new PM, at that familiar podium. Given the clouds that had gathered so quickly over his early-days parade, which in the Beehive theatrette took the form of half a dozen questions from reporters about the smokefree reversal and a full dozen about the statements by Winston Peters, he managed capably.
“Winston is allowed to make his remarks in the way that he chooses,” said Luxon. “He may not express it in the way that I would do it, but, honestly, we have serious challenges in this country and we are focused on those things.” That was a marked improvement, certainly, on the “didn’t see those comments” of a day earlier, which had an echo of the position just a couple of months ago, when Luxon professed of Peters, “I don’t know him.”
He knows him now, and he has decided that the best tactic is to seek to brush it off. After all, as another cowboy maxim goes: always drink upstream from the herd. The risk, however, is that by refusing to repudiate so much as a speck of Peters’ conspiracy-friendly hyperbole, he gives both coalition parties a dangerously long leash, especially on a day when he had, he noted, “laid out my expectations of ministers”. It won’t be long before those expectations are tested again, probably by Mr Rodeo himself.
For now, Luxon wants to move swiftly on from the dance of the upstaging deputy and the outcry over the abandonment of the smoking ban, and direct attention to the refreshed 100-day plan agreed by the coalition and unveiled yesterday. It’s an ambitious programme, as is clear not just because Luxon called it ambitious seven times at yesterday’s presser.
That’s no simple task. The 1News 6pm bulletin, for example, included in its lead item last night not an examination of that 100-day plan but a graphic breakdown of the Public Interest Journalism Fund, a flawed but largely exhausted and defunct initiative. National’s other challenge is one that, funnily enough, Chris Hipkins faced not long ago. It’s all very well enumerating the things that are going into the firepit. But what is new? New ideas? New projects? The sooner National is talking less about binning Labour’s laws and more about its constructive plans – on gangs, for example; in classrooms; and especially on infrastructure – the better.
As the 54th parliament sits for the first time next week and the more expansive programme is laid out in the speech from the throne, that is the stuff Luxon is desperate to get cracking with and take questions on – a world away from the defensive crouch in which he was stuck last night, just a couple of days after being sworn in, and in large part thanks to his new deputy. As far as the international coverage is concerned, however, don’t expect miracles. Best of luck to the new climate change minister, Simon Watts, as he jets off to Dubai and Cop28 with the news that New Zealand will soon be back open to the pursuit of offshore gas and oil exploration.