By Peter Dunne.
Christopher Luxon can feel well pleased with how things have gone since he picked up the previously poisoned chalice of leader of the National Party.
For the first time since going into Opposition more than four years ago the party has started to look as though it is serious about being a real contender for office again. It has begun to sharpen its focus on the main areas where it sees the Labour government as vulnerable – the ongoing management of the pandemic response and New Zealand’s reconnection with the world, and the deteriorating economic situation.
However, it has not all been plain sailing. The continuing mini controversies surrounding Harete Hipango are at this stage simply an irritant, but they could become more problematic if they continue, and Luxon is forced to act more bluntly than he has done so far to bring her into line or remove her altogether.
The first opinion polls of the year suggest Luxon is making headway with the public, at the expense of both the Prime Minister and the government. Also, they show mounting pessimism about the state of the economy and the overall direction of the country, normally fertile ground for an Opposition to hoe in its quest for votes.
Nevertheless, it is still very early days in the Luxon leadership, and a lot will change before the country goes to the next election in about 18 months’ time. Luxon will not want to get too far ahead of himself but can feel satisfied about the progress he has already made. People are starting to talk once more about the prospect of the National Party leading a future government, not just continuing to tear itself apart. National’s challenge now is to build on that emerging conversation and solidify the new interest in what it is saying into real support before the next election.
When Parliament begins sitting for the year next week the underlying dynamic will consequently be different from the past few years. If the Luxon momentum continues and builds, the government will be tested in the House in a way that it has not been since pre-pandemic days. And with the public becoming increasingly grumpy about aspects of the pandemic response, things are unlikely to be as plain sailing for it as they have been. The unprecedented partisanship of the Speaker notwithstanding, a more effective and hungry Opposition might force Ministers to give proper answers to Questions in the House for a start.
Moreover, based on recent polls, a large number of Labour MPs, in the main those who came in on the back of the big swing in 2020, face losing their seats in 2023. Many of the 15 electorate seats won by Labour from National in 2020 will likely flip back to National, although some of those Labour MPs will probably make their way back to Parliament via the party list. Nevertheless, on current polling about a quarter of Labour’s present MPs are at risk of not being re-elected next year.
As that reality starts to sink in over the next few months, those MPs and others who might also feel threatened will inevitably start to focus more on what they need to do to secure their individual re-election than they have needed to do so far. That will place pressure on the government to be responsive to their needs, to ensure they keep playing for the whole team and not just themselves. It will make the internal management of the Caucus to retain a sense of unity, cohesion, and purpose that much more difficult. This will be especially so if Labour’s fortunes continue to deteriorate – as they have been for the past few months – in the opinion polls.
Luxon and his team will be keen, if they can, to establish in the public mind the contrast between a National Party on the way up, and a Labour government increasingly hunkered down and looking inwards to protect a shrinking patch. In short, Luxon will be seeking to promote the vision of a positive National Party versus a stuck in a rut Labour government. Achieving that will require a level of internal party focus and discipline the party has not demonstrated since the halcyon days of the Key/English era.
Of the other parties, ACT, the Greens, and Te Paati Maori will all be seeking to consolidate their support to give them good platforms for the coming election year. But each will have their own way of going about achieving that.
ACT will be wanting to lock in its gains of the past two years, knowing all the while though that at least some of National’s rise will be at its expense. It will therefore most likely continue to be the government’s most aggressive Covid-19 critic to shore up the libertarian vote to National’s right. ACT will also seek to promote itself as Luxon’s reliable support partner, whose ideological rigour will be needed to underpin a future centre-right government.
Likewise, Te Paati Maori will be focusing almost solely on its constituents, aiming to win at least one more of the Maori electorate seats, and boost its party vote support at the same time. While the party says it has ruled out working with National in a future governing arrangement, a careful reading of its position suggests a more ambivalent approach. All it seems to have ruled out is a repeat of the previous 2008-2017 governing partnership with National, which still leaves a range of possible support options open to it, if it wished to use its influence.
The Greens are probably in the most awkward position of all the smaller parties. Although not in a formal coalition with Labour, the Greens’ fortunes are nevertheless inextricably linked to Labour’s. Having emphatically ruled out ever working with National they have left themselves nowhere else to go. Consequently, the Greens will suffer more so than most support parties the taint of being bound to a government whose support is waning. Compounding their problem is that if Labour’s support continues to slip, Labour will start to look towards cannibalising soft Greens support to bolster its faltering position.
These changing political fortunes confirm that the abnormal circumstances that shaped the political environment at the time of the 2020 election have passed, and that politics are now returning to their more normal state. While Covid-19 will continue to be a significant influence, at least for the short to medium term, other more long-term issues like the state of the economy and climate change are starting to reassert themselves. That means the convenient excuses of everything being on hold due to Covid-19 are no longer relevant or credible. Political parties are being expected once more to offer their plan for New Zealand’s future.
This change creates Luxon’s opportunity to brand National as the party for the future. The early polls suggest the public might be ready to listen to what he has to say. But there is still a long way to go to solidify that early public curiosity into something more tangible and lasting. That will only happen if National can develop a clear and attractive message to put before voters before the next election. LG