Matthew Hooton: Christopher Luxons got the job — now what?

OPINION:

Christopher Luxon is established as National’s most plausible potential Prime Minister since Bill English was pushed out.

It is no longer embarrassing for people to say they still support National. Nevertheless, the first poll numbers since Luxon took the job suggest he is hardly a John Key, let alone a Jacinda Ardern, when it comes to encapsulating and personifying the public mood.

Luxon may yet make a big splash in the New Year, the way Don Brash did in 2004 with his Orewa speech and Key did with his visits to McGehan Close and Waitangi in 2007. If not, his path to the top will need to follow more the slow and steady approach of an English, Helen Clark or Jim Bolger.

That may not be a bad thing. After nearly 15 years of cloud-to-cloud and fairy-dust politics, we might be better served if Luxon plans — to use English’s vernacular — more to grind away.

Luxon appointing Cameron Burrows as his chief of staff, more an English than Key protege, suggests a more serious approach to laying the foundations for a substantial new government than New Zealand has had this century.

In that context, Luxon’s numbers in the first Curia-Taxpayers’ Union poll since his anointment are good enough. He has attracted back around 150,000 Act voters and a few more from minor parties, putting National at 33 per cent, enough to be taken seriously again.

At 20 per cent as preferred Prime Minister, nearly two-thirds of National voters already back him, and there is no residual support for Judith Collins and Simon Bridges.

This dominance over his own party makes Luxon the highest-rating Opposition leader outside of an immediate campaign period since Key. Of voters who have formed an opinion about him, more are favourable than unfavourable, something also true of his deputy Nicola Willis.

In the context of the last three National leaderships, this is exceptional progress.

Still, Luxon’s takeover has demonstrated none of the professionalism of Key’s accession in 2006, when the new leader quickly rolled out a series of speeches written by Willis while publicly humiliating Brash with a risible job offer — both moves carefully planned to radically reposition National to the centre.

Despite their policy differences, Key and Brashalso had the integrity to work together on staffing the leader’s office to ensure continuity in the event of a leadership change.

In contrast, Luxon has had to scramble to build an office and his messaging so far has been indistinguishable from what National has been rolling out ever since Covid appeared nearly two years ago. It is not winning politics to call for the Auckland border to re-open six days earlier than Ardern had already announced it would be.

At best, it is the sort of thing that is completely forgotten within 24 hours. At worst, and more likely, it just suggests to those still nervous about Covid that National is more lax than Ardern, whose caution they think saved their life.

Worried National supporters have no choice but to believe claims Luxon wasn’t involved in any dastardly plot to roll Collins this side of Christmas. The alternative is being forced to conclude that, despite angling for the job since arriving in Parliament last year, he hadn’t got around to making any better preparations for the role than his three failed predecessors.

Absent some substantive repositioning, Luxon will need to rely on the next election being fought on the cost of living and Ardern’s comical failure to deliver anything except Covid homilies and house-price inflation much worse — or better, depending on your point of view — than experienced under Key or Clark.

On the plus side, Curia reports National is again considered to be slightly better than Labour on the economy and very narrowly on law and order, which is something to work with compared with other recent polling suggesting there is nothing at all on which National is trusted more than its main adversary.

Yet the Treasury’s forecasts in this week’s Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update (HYEFU) don’t point to 2023 being an economy election.

National may dismiss Treasury’s forecasts as unreliable, which they are. But Treasury is a conservative organisation and its numbers tend to surprise on the upside.

The HYEFU already has real GDP growing back strongly at 4.9 per cent in the year ahead of the election campaign proper. The worst of inflation will apparently be behind us, unemployment will be at historic lows, wages will be rising faster than prices and real GDP per capita will be growing. Business investment is meant to grow by nearly 10 per cent in 2022/23.

At the same time, house prices will be flat, falling just 0.2 per cent, not enough to alarm homeowners but sufficient for Labour Party social media accounts to assert to their gullible followers that the housing crisis has been solved.

The dollar will be up, which might upset exporters, but will make the median voter’s long-awaited holiday to Fiji or the Gold Coast a bit cheaper.

It would take just a tiny further improvement for Grant Robertson to be able to stand up in Parliament in his election-year Budget to announce a surplus in 2022/23 rather than the already-respectable 2023/24 — despite his planned $6 billion spend-up, mainly on health and climate change.

That money will probably make no more difference than the $1.9b for mental health Robertson announced in his 2019 Budget. But $6bstill makes a good headline, and presumably there will be even more in election year.

These are economic numbers on which a Government is almost guaranteed re-election.

National strategists may think that issues like the health reforms, Three Waters and resource-management changes may upset voters, but we are already close to the point in this election cycle whereArdern will start u-turning or at least slowing down on anything unpopular.

Covid, which has shown the superiority of local providers over Wellington bureaucracies, provides a pretext to rethink the radical centralisation of health that Andrew Little has proposed. Three Waters already looks dead. Resource-management reform is already scheduled to take much longer than the next two years.

Luxon may have had the leadership handed to him by circumstances and his friends. But becoming Prime Minister represents an altogether more mammoth challenge — and there is no sign yet he is prepared for it.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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