Three days ago I heard Christopher Luxon being interviewed by Mani Dunlop on Morning Report. It was profoundly depressing.
Dunlop introduced the item by saying that with a by-election approaching in Hamilton West, the National Party was under pressure – she didn’t say from whom, but we can assume she meant media commentators – to “add diversity” to a “largely male” caucus.
RNZ had done the sums and calculated that National’s caucus was 33 percent female, 6 percent Maori, 3 percent Asian and “zero percent” Pasifika – a statistical breakdown that would have looked pretty good a few years ago, but which clearly doesn’t meet RNZ’s diversity threshold.
Dunlop (and I won’t even begin to discuss the ethics of National’s leader being interrogated on state-owned radio’s flagship news programme by the partner of a Labour cabinet minister) accusingly threw these figures at Luxon and demanded to know what he was going to do about it.
You can imagine how Winston Peters or Robert Muldoon would have responded to a question like that, but Luxon is cut from different cloth. He appears desperately eager to convince the media that he’s sympathetic to the woke agenda.
This is known as pushing shit uphill with a fork, since the media are fundamentally hostile to the centre-right and will correctly interpret Luxon’s attempts to ingratiate himself with them as a sign of weakness.
Luxon has yet to grasp this, so proceeded to humour Dunlop – you might even say kowtow to her – by assuring her that National was determined to build a more diverse party and to overcome any “unconscious bias”. To this end the party was re-educating (my word, not Luxon’s, but that was the thrust of what he said) its electorate chairs.
Here was the leader of the country’s principal conservative party – or perhaps I should use the initials CINO, as in Conservative In Name Only – adopting the terminology of the woke Left in a pathetic attempt to persuade the public that he’s no right-wing ogre, as if anyone could be in danger of having thought that in the first place.
(It didn’t help that Luxon’s answers to Dunlop’s questions were laced with wretched corporate jargon presumably brought from Air New Zealand, such as the need to do better “in this space” and to be “more competitive in our offerings”. God spare us.)
Dunlop must have struggled to conceal her glee at the satisfaction of having the leader of the National Party dancing so obligingly to her tune. The tone of his responses was essentially submissive.
Someone should explain to Luxon that every time he indulges in these appeasement games in an attempt to persuade the Left that he’s no threat – a strategy that won’t win him a single vote, since they won’t vote National anyway – he alienates more of the people whose support he should be seeking.
In fact he gives conservative voters another reason to find a different party to support. ACT stands to be the major beneficiary, but it’s also likely that right-of-centre voters will gravitate to smaller parties such as New Zealand First or former National MP Matt King’s DemocracyNZ – and by splitting the anti-Labour vote, allow an incompetent and destructive far-Left coalition to squeak back into power.
No one should quibble with Luxon’s aim of making National more diverse. Not only is it desirable as a matter of democratic principle for the party to reflect more accurately the demographic makeup of the country; it makes sense politically too. Certainly National should have learned a lesson from its disastrous propensity for choosing egotistical, entitled young Anglo-Saxon males as candidates, which seemed to be the pattern under the party’s previous president.
The problem with Luxon is essentially one of tone. In his eagerness to come across as unthreatening - a nice guy - he sounds weak. He needs to be more assertive in promoting and defending conservative values and less deferential in the way he allows the media to dictate the agenda.
He’s no longer a corporate chief executive who needs to be careful to protect the brand and not upset customers. Politics calls for a tougher approach and a realisation that to be effective, he must occasionally offend some people. He also needs to grasp – as Muldoon and his protégé Peters did – that there’s little political downside in taking on the media, because the public generally don't like journalists any more than they like politicians.
The bigger issue here is that National has an identity crisis. In two perceptive columns today, Josie Pagani and Matthew Hooton consider what it means to be a conservative party and the risks of abandoning the values that once defined conservatism. National has lost sight of what it means to be a true conservative party and lacks the confidence to uphold honourable conservative values.
I believe the party has been intimidated by the media into behaving as if conservatism is somehow shameful, and I can’t see it rediscovering, still less re-asserting, its ideological roots with Luxon as its leader. At least, not unless he radically changes gear.
This article was published at Karl du Fresne's blog