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Karl du Fresne: Competent management won't be enough to save New Zealand

The question everyone’s asking about Christopher Luxon – or to be more precise, the question everyone who’s interested in politics and New Zealand’s future is asking about Christopher Luxon – is this: what sort of leader (and potentially prime minister) will he be?



Judging by what we’ve seen and heard over the past few days, the answer is that he’ll probably be like most previous National leaders.



That is to say, he’s likely to be driven primarily by pragmatism – by whatever works politically, rather than by deeper philosophical motivations. In this respect he may be not much different from John Key, the party’s most successful (for which, read popular) leader in the modern era, and a man who has been described as Luxon’s mentor.



During an interview with Lisa Owen on RNZ’s Checkpoint on the day he became leader, Luxon referred in passing to National’s “core values”. He didn’t explain what they were, perhaps assuming we already know. But we don’t, because they haven’t been apparent for a very long time.



Certainly, I never had a clue what Key’s core values were, if they existed. I’m not sure he ever spelled them out – and to be honest, it wouldn’t matter to most New Zealanders that he didn’t. It was enough that Key kind of felt right to a majority of voters – the feel-good factor shouldn’t be under-rated – and mostly avoided doing reckless or unpopular things. (I say “mostly” because there was the poorly handled flag debate, which was a gift to his opponents, and the sneaky signing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which revealed that whatever else Key believed in, transparency didn’t rank highly in his priorities.)



In fact National’s ultimate core value, for as long as most people can remember, is winning and holding onto power. Fundamentally, that’s what drives the party.



And speaking pragmatically, it’s hard to argue with. After all, a political party achieves nothing by languishing in opposition, other than by perhaps coming up with the occasional good idea that someone else then steals and takes the credit for.



But some people – and I admit I’m one – look for something more in politicians than simply the desire to win. Accordingly, we talk about “conviction politicians”: people who enter politics because of a compelling belief in a particular set of values and a commitment to pursue them regardless of political exigencies. ACT was founded by conviction politicians, though it later lost its way. So were the Values and Green parties.



Granted, New Zealand voters tend not to be wildly keen about conviction politicians. The public is suspicious of ideologues and feels safer with pragmatists who don’t stray too far from the centre ground.



And it has to be said that voters sometimes have good reason to be wary. Leaders of some conservative Christian parties, for example, presented themselves as conviction politicians but didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. One was a conviction politician in the very worst sense, entering politics on the basis of his religious convictions and ending up with convictions of the criminal kind for sexual offences against young girls.



Notwithstanding all the above, conviction politics has worked for Labour. One of the defining differences between National and Labour is that the latter is perceived as having more clearly identifiable values than the former. Labour evolved from the union movement and was seen as the party of battlers and underdogs. Remarkably, the blue-collar image persists despite the party being controlled by mostly middle-class, theory-driven political careerists and ideologues.



Ask most people what National stands for, on the other hand, and the answer – after a bit of hesitation – is likely to be more nebulous; something about belief in capitalism, individual rights and prosperity, perhaps. But these values are rarely, if ever, clearly and emphatically articulated, and voters can hardly be blamed for feeling a bit confused about the party’s identity.



Arguably, the last National prime minister who clearly and unequivocally espoused strong personal convictions was Robert Muldoon. Problem was, they were essentially socialist ones. Muldoon was the greatest socialist prime minister Labour never had.



What, then, of Jim Bolger? During his long political career, Bolger evolved from a staunch Muldoon loyalist to an enthusiastic proponent of the free market economy. Since retirement, he seems to have doubled back to a point where he often sounds more Labour than National – a turnaround that can possibly be explained by the social conscience imbued in him by Catholicism. Small wonder, then, if people are not sure what National stands for.



But back to Luxon. In his formal speech and other statements following his elevation, he talked a lot about revitalising National and winning back the 400,000 voters who deserted the party last year. He zeroed in on government failings in managing inflation, education, housing, mental health, crime and Covid-19. He stressed the need to get things done rather than just talking about it. He talked about rewarding hard work and initiative – virtues National has traditionally espoused.



The intended message was clear: National will be more competent managers than the present lot. As with Key, Luxon’s business credentials will be used to burnish his credibility. Provided the party can maintain discipline and not be distracted by the traps that will be strewn in its path by the media, we may see a sharper and more concerted focus than was evident under Judith Collins and her immediate predecessors.



(As an aside, Luxon has already had a taste of what he can expect from journalists. The first question at his press confidence, from Jessica Mutch McKay, concerned his Christian faith, which many journalists clearly regard as one step removed from total nutbar territory. Tova O’Brien then tried to unsettle him with a question about having to watch his back, to which Luxon replied with a deft putdown and the best line of the day: “You think politics is like House of Cards”. Later, on Checkpoint, Owens wasn’t content with Luxon saying he was pro-life and demanded to know whether he regarded abortion as murder, improbably justifying the question by claiming it was one that all her female listeners wanted him to answer. Really?)



Luxon’s performance in the interviews I’ve heard was mostly articulate and assured. But is he a conviction politician? In his first speech as leader, he avoided some of the polarising, hot-button issues simmering in the public arena: Maori co-governance proposals (as in Three Waters), the appropriation without any mandate of English place names, Labour’s audacious and undemocratic re-apportionment of power and control, the increasing suppression of free speech, the centralisation of power and erosion of local democracy, the radicalisation of the education system, ideological coercion in academic institutions, confected furores over diversity and inclusion – in other words, the culture wars. Most journalists and interviewers avoid these subjects, probably preferring to think they are the pre-occupations of an extreme right-wing fringe and therefore not worth raising.



Talking to Mike Hosking, Luxon was more forthcoming. No doubt feeling he was on safe ground with a host and audience who were likely to be broadly sympathetic, he opened up about iwi roadblocks (“nuts”), gun violence and gangs (“we’ve got a big problem with that”) and Three Waters, which he vowed to repeal.



On the other hand, he appears to have back-pedalled on his earlier opposition to so-called “safe zones” outside abortion clinics, which isn’t promising. And interviewed by Ryan Bridge on The AM Show, he was notably less unequivocal about iwi road blocks, saying only that they need to be monitored. He can’t afford to change his message to suit whatever audience he happens to be talking to.



The best advice for Luxon is that he should hold his ground and not allow himself to be browbeaten or unnerved by media needling. I believe there’s a large cohort of voters in the political centre who are alarmed by wokeism and want to hear unequivocal statements from the leader of the opposition, yet there remains a feeling that National is too timid about nailing its colours to the mast on issues of principle. Luxon needs to dispel the impression that National has no stomach for a fight over these big issues, which go to the very heart of New Zealand’s identity and the type of society we aspire to be. If he really wants to win back some of those voters who transferred their allegiance to Act, there’s the answer.



Underlying all this is a bigger question. What is the role of centre-right parties in 21st century democracies? Some say it’s simply to manage the economy, maintain stability, take whatever action might be necessary if there’s a genuine crisis and otherwise do as little as possible – the classic laissez-fair approach. By this yardstick, Key was a great conservative prime minister because he left virtually no enduring imprint.



William Hague, a former leader of Britain’s Tories, wrote last year that conservative politicians generally shun abstract principles and universal ideologies. In this respect they are at a marked disadvantage compared with their political enemies, who are energised and inspired by commitment to ideological goals.



According to this analysis, conservative parties are defined mainly by their opposition to “progressive” politics rather than by any core philosophy. This means in essence that they are in a state of continuous managed retreat, constantly giving ground to the left and adapting as best they can.



I no longer believe that’s good enough. In New Zealand, we are faced with parties on the left that want to deconstruct one of the world’s most exemplary democracies and rebuild it in a form we won’t even recognise. Mere competent management, as promised by the new National leader, won’t be enough to stop that.


This piece was first published at the BFD.


Karl du Fresne blogs here.


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