Monday 6 December 2021

A Smooth Performance.

In A Word: The new Leader of the Opposition, Christopher Luxon, has very clearly chosen to reject the option of presenting a “flinty-faced” National Party to an electorate grown accustomed to the rhetoric of “kindness”. If the message of National’s new leader could be compressed into a single word, then that word would be: Moderation.

COVID HAS A LOT to answer for. Todd Muller, in particular, has good cause to feel aggrieved. How much more smoothly his induction to “the hardest job in politics” might have gone if he had been able to sit down, in familiar surroundings, and answer his inquisitors calmly and with due consideration.

What New Zealanders saw, instead, was Muller standing all alone in the echoing darkness of the Old Legislative Chamber. Starkly lit, and filmed from a low angle, he was forced to respond to questions directed at him from hundreds of kilometres away. Fixed to his position in front of the camera, he attempted to enliven the strained encounter by raising his voice and gesticulating energetically. The effect was unsettling: a big, shouty man, waving his arms about randomly it the dark. In short, a performance most unlikely to inspire either confidence in, or affection for, the National Party and its new leader.

The contrast with Christopher Luxon could hardly be sharper. Interviewed by Jack Tame for TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show on Sunday, 5 December, the new National leader was seated comfortably in what one must assume was his own (very stylish) Auckland residence. The interview set-up was so much more conducive to useful communication than the desperately uncomfortable environment inflicted upon Muller. The lighting was flattering, the camera-angles professionally determined. With both men seated comfortably, eye-to-eye, Tame’s questions, and Luxon’s answers, resulted in the sort of unforced, self-revelatory dialogue that permits the voters to get a good measure of the Opposition’s new leader.

One can only speculate about the to-ing and fro-ing between TVNZ, the Q+A team, and Luxon’s people, that presumably preceded the interview. What seems clear, however, is that the advice being tendered to the new National leader is several orders of magnitude superior to that supplied to his hapless predecessors. This is important.

For most of her term as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has had at her disposal the formidable expertise of, initially, Mike Munro (Helen Clark’s superb media manager) and then the equally competent Andrew Campbell. Combined with her own not inconsiderable talents as a communicator, the highly professional media management of Ardern’s Government has contributed significantly to its political success.

There is a story (possibly apocryphal) which illustrates the vital importance of what would now be called the “situational awareness” of a good media manager. It harks back to a post-election period when Winston Peters was, not untypically, denying all interest in the “baubles of office”. When, however, it became clear that his support would be needed to keep Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government in power, Peters’ disinterest began to slacken.

Waylaid at one of the country’s larger airports by a scrum of journalists, Peters was repeatedly challenged to explain his sudden change of heart vis-à-vis said baubles. It was then that Mike Munro, who fortuitously happened to be present, noticed that Peters was standing in front of a Christmas display featuring a plethora of – you guessed it – baubles. Understanding immediately how damaging this “Winston with Baubles” image would be: Munro gently nudged the NZ First leader in front of a less compromising backdrop.

Silly? Petty? Well, yes, of course. But one has only to recall the images of Don Brash attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb in and out of a racing car, or “walking the plank” from a speed-boat to the jetty, to grasp just how much careful thinking and planning needs to go into how a political leader is presented. Even in 2021, one picture is still worth a thousand words.

It should, therefore, be a source of real satisfaction to National’s backers and strategists that Luxon has around him a team capable of setting up something as politically constructive as the Q+A dialogue with Tame. Quite apart from all the non-verbal communications: the sophisticated and stylish surroundings; the subject’s relaxed demeanour; Luxon was able to deliver his pitch without any of the weird distractions that prevented Muller from communicating effectively with his audience.

What, then, was the substance of Luxon’s pitch and how effectively did he present it? If the message of National’s new leader could be compressed into a single word, then that word would be: Moderation.

Luxon made it clear that he will be making full strategic use of Bill English’s “Social Investment” policy – “surging” resources to where they can do the most good for those deemed likely to make a prolonged call upon the state’s resources. While declining to offer a full endorsement of former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s call for a “reimagining of capitalism”, Luxon made it clear he was no hard-line adherent of the laissez-faire policies of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (Not to mention Act’s David Seymour.) Nor was he prepared to put a cap on state indebtedness as a percentage of GDP. (As both Labour and the Greens did in 2017.) Lower taxes: while something he would “love” to do, is not something he’s committing National to – just yet.

All this will be music to the ears of the 400,000 National “deserters” of 2020. Luxon has, very clearly, chosen to reject the option of presenting a “flinty-faced” National Party to an electorate grown accustomed to the rhetoric of “kindness”. There are simply too many women voters the party needs to win back from Labour.

Conservative males will likely interpret Luxon’s pitch in slightly different terms. The priority for these voters is a National leader capable of restoring the New Zealand ship of state to an even keel. Radicalism of all kinds: be it of the Right or the Left; is unsettling. Moderation is exactly what they are seeking: a return to business as usual.

Perhaps the most important of Luxon’s answers to Tame’s questions were the ones he gave on Māori-Pakeha relations. After displaying an impressively succinct understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi’s three articles – an understanding conspicuously lacking in the Prime Minister when similarly questioned in 2018 – Luxon drew a very clear line in the sand on the issue of Māori co-governance.

Foreshadowed here, is what, for many New Zealanders, will be a welcome rejection by National of what is fast becoming the “official” version of the Crown’s Treaty obligations. Members of the political class have been given a thoroughly polite, but timely, warning that a change of government will bring with it a considerably less radical interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning. Those senior public servants anticipating an inexorable, bi-partisan advance towards the full realisation of Māori co-governance, in time for the Treaty’s bicentennial in 2040, should think again.

Naturally, not every one of Luxon’s replies were as polished, or filled with political heft, as his response to Tame’s questioning on the Treaty. Indeed, it would be astonishing if they were. National’s new leader has been in Parliament for barely a year, and there is still a lot of polishing to do. Labour’s problem, however, is that Luxon is not a rough-hewn work-in-progress, still bearing the marks of the chisel. On the contrary, the man already offers a remarkably smooth surface to the camera’s gaze.

Two more years of polishing. Two more years of coming to grips with the insatiable hunger of the 24-hour news cycle. Two more years of drawing the best from a caucus team already buoyed by the palpable change of mood across both party and country. Two more years of favourable poll numbers. Two more years of rising donations from the fabled “big end of town”. Two more years of refining National’s message and upgrading the means of delivering it – and Labour will be in a world of pain.

How eagerly the Prime Minister must be awaiting medical science’s final judgement on the Omicron Variant. The worse, the better.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 6 December 2021.


Anonymous said...

The clincher was his refusal to countenance "co-governance". This will see National sweep Labour into the gutter!

None of us going north will tolerate was is, in effect, a "shakedown operation" by Maori thugs at some fictitious "border".

I know I am not alone when I say this is likely to end in violent confrontation :-(

Kat said...

Media announcement from Mr Luxon today:

“We will be a Government-in-waiting that will relentlessly hold this spin-heavy and PR-driven Government to account, and focus on proposing detailed, constructive and intellectually rigorous solutions.”

Are we to believe that the implied “relentless” is not going to include any spin-heavy or PR-driven opposition tactics and that the well-oiled black ops endemic in the Key years will be polished away over the next two years.

Oh look, a pig just flew over the cuckoos nest.

Labour is already in pain, just take a look at the tired strained, but amazingly still smiley, face of Covid response minister Hipkins.

David George said...

There's a new look and feel to the National party, best wishes to them.
The covid virus is mutating along the lines I heard from a virologist when it first came to our attention: each variant less deadly but more contagious. He said it would evolve to something not unlike the common cold or flu. Hopefully it also plays a smaller part in our lives (and politics) than it has done.

Barry said...

My oh my. I didnt know there was a place in NZ called Damascus- it must be near where you live Chris.
No mention oh Onward Christian Soldiers or anything like that.

I thought Luxon handled himself quite well in Q&A. Better than the previous 2 or 3 leaders and with a bit of class - meaning no stupid or panicy answers. All people like Tame usually try for are "gotcha" questions -stupid really as they never actually elucidate anything worth knowing.
I think Luxon will do a good job if his reaction to the media so far is any guide.

Tiger Mountain said...

Have the media got the rose water and hot towels out again, such as lovingly administered to one John Phillip Key?

The employing class never sleeps–and their minions are not allowed to!

The Barron said...

Hmmmm - He let Simeon Brown slither up 10 places in the caucus.

Unknown said...

A good article but "senior public servants anticipating an inexorable, bi-partisan advance towards the full realisation of Māori co-governance, in time for the Treaty’s bicentennial in 2040.."

I can't imagine the above deciding to wait to 2040. 2024 is more their goal I think.

oneblokesview said...

Well done Chris. A thoughtful piece

Odysseus said...

Labour has been captured by extremists. Their agenda extends well beyond the fanciful notion of "co-governance" to racial supremacism, where 17 percent of the population have a veto over the needs and aspirations of the 83 percent - "the other populations" as the majority of New Zealanders are called in the segregationist "Pae Ora" bill now before a Select Committee. The "Three Waters" legislation will give that 17 percent a lock on access to fresh water, a fundamental human need. Children are to be taught that the only authentic history of New Zealand is "Maori history". Shortly, holday-makers will be stopped by race-based roadblocks authorized by this government to enforce their tribal "borders".

A coup is taking place under the cover of COVID. It will not end well for Labour. They still have a chance to turn things around by halting this nonsense. But I doubt they have the stomach to confront those powerful elements in their caucus who are promoting this dystopian future. Luxon's message of "moderation" will be a powerful tool. We may in fact be watching the tide go out on New Zealand's last ever Labour government.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Smooth? I would have said oily, but that's probably a bit of a biased reaction.:) But let's face it, the similarities between this situation and the David Lange affair are pretty obvious. Lange was brought in as a white hope against Muldoon, this guy has been brought in in a similar way to oppose Arderne. Whatever you say about him, Lange at least was an excellent debater, although not a good party leader, and I also thought a rather shallow person – but then I didn't know him in person. Luxon's debating skills are still largely unknown, and I must say I can't for the life of me believe that someone who stuck to a fundagelical church past adolescence is a deep thinker. Time will tell I guess.

Shane McDowall said...

Labour are not that friendly towards Maori

Remember the foreshores and seabeds under Helen C.?

Just the whiff Maori regaining property they did not give away in the first place was enough for Helen to do the dirty.

He Pua Pua is a non-starter. About as likely as a one world government. Or the anarchists dream of a world with no governments.

Three Waters? Given that local councils have poisoned and even killed their ratepayers, central government would be hard pushed to do worse.

Given their low vaccination rates, maybe the rest of us should set up vigilante "border" checkpoints to protect us from the whanau, hapu, and iwi of Northland and the East Coast.

And from the 'I can't fucking believe it' files, it seems that the Government's response to Covid breaches the sacred Tiriti.

It still surprises me that some tinpot hapu has not tried to claim oxygen.

Kat said...

Not such a smooth performance in the house today from Mr Luxon, a lot more polishing required.

However there may be hope:

Jens Meder said...

According to Simon Wilson (NZ Herald 7.12.21), Chris Luxon said his job is to get the best out of each individual, but has not yet articulated a vision for the country apart from "If we can grow our productivity...we can grow our wealth, and that will allow everyone to be more prosperous".

Well - on the measurable economic level the so far not refuted basic truth is, that -

without saving for security reserves and PROFITABLE investment at the expense of hand-to-mouth consumption potential there are limits to productivity and no sustainable increase in wealth can be expected.

Even the "social investment" in higher education may become just an economically unprofitable luxury hobby for the nation in cases where it results in emigration to "greener pastures" , or e.g. in more sophisticated arguments in favor of more wealth redistribution before more of it has been produced.

In view on that, for increasing absolute or relative productivity - would not the productive best for each individual and the nation be in raising our personal and collective savings rates for achieving anything we desire individually and collectively ?

greywarbler said...

Anonymous at 11.44

I know I am not alone when I say this is likely to end in violent confrontation :-(

But you are alone Anonymous, so alone that you do not dare to adopt a code word for yourself as a pseudo. Try putting the name of your gang as one, the group wishing for violent confrontation so your gloomy, negative people-hating illusions look true.

sumsuch said...

But they'll be worse about climate change and helping the neediest. Goes without saying -- except Churchill led the best response to the previous great crisis. Being a scientific christian the chap has a lot to live down.

John Hurley said...

Labour couldn't do what it does without media allies. Check out Hayden Donal on Mediawatch.
He is horrified at the "blitz" of Media coverage against the new bi-partisan density Bill.
Apparently this is the media doing wrong. He rattled off membership of the co-alition for more houses: NZ Initiative, Unite Union (left-wingers and vested interests). The truth is wall to wall Paul Spoonley the media have done nothing but spruik immigration. As Ranginui
Walker predicted "NZ will be ruined- it will be just like anywhere else". The upper class school boy from coalition for more houses said that overseas they have no set back and wall to wall so we should to.
On He Pus pay the media tried to shut down Judith Collins.
"You mentioned Maori 41 times and I just wonder who your trying to attract"

sumsuch said...

All this jumping on his first 48 hours or something. A journalism/commentator mania, which you need to treat, and is of very little interest to anyone else. Why you shouldn't pay intelligent people by the hour.

John Hurley said...

And I watched Moving House with Clark Gayford. The house that makes way for the 15 shady boxes sits up on a hill overlooking the ocean for someone from the building industry.
That's the issue isn't it. These are luxury values. Your limousine liberals won't be living in them.