Wednesday 31 May 2023

Luxon’s Lack Of Political “Muscle Memory”.

Slow Learner: Effective leaders develop a political “muscle memory” of their own. The National Party should get one.

SPEAKING IN PUBLIC tops most people’s list of fearful situations. There are some careers, however, for which public fluency is a non-negotiable pre-requisite. There’s little point in pursuing an acting career, for example, if you’re frightened of audiences. The same applies to anyone intending to pursue a career in politics. There’s a reason why the study of rhetoric was part-and-parcel of a young nobleman’s education for a thousand years. Those who wish to rule their fellow human-beings non-violently, must be able to speak to them persuasively.

It is not, however, an easy skill to master. One of the more important reasons for maintaining political parties is to allow the idealistic and the ambitious to perfect the art of public speaking in an environment that is not, in the strictest sense, public. Party meetings and conferences are realistically political, but what is said there is unlikely to inflict serious damage upon party fortunes. Seasoned observers know that most conference delegates are amateurs, and that their utterances are not to be taken all that seriously.

Which is not to say that a shrewd political journalist will not be rewarded for keeping a watchful eye on low-level party gatherings such as regional conferences. In among a great deal of rhetorical dross, attentive journalists do occasionally encounter a truly outstanding public speaker. One whose understanding of the subject under discussion, evocative language, and all-round command of both themselves and their audience positively screams: “One to watch!”

As the years pass, and one party conference follows another, these outstanding performers may be observed rising steadily through the ranks. Some, of course, will fall by the wayside – victims of their own inflated assessment of their political importance. But, those whose political instincts are sound – i.e. those who avoid rocking the boat too vigorously – are generally rewarded with their party’s nomination. Not for a winnable seat, at least, not first off, but in order to further hone their political skills – under live fire.

One of the most important skills a candidate can master in these preliminary electoral bouts is that of resisting the temptation of telling voters what they want to hear. At just about every election meeting there will be an opportunity for questions from the floor. By then, experienced candidates will have already “read the room”. They know their job is not to capitulate to the audience’s opinions, but to shape them. Pandering to people’s prejudices is the essence of demagoguery – not successful party politics.

By the time these “ones to watch” are selected as candidates for winnable, or, better still, safe parliamentary seats, their rhetorical ability, tactical instincts, and strategic skills are plainly evident. But, winning a seat is only the beginning. A whole new apprenticeship looms, during which they must master the art of being a Member of Parliament.

At this point, alert readers will already be shaking their heads. This steady progression towards a parliamentary career may well have been the way politicians played the game forty years ago, when New Zealand electoral politics was dominated by two mass parties operating under the first-past-the-post electoral system. But, it is very far from being the way the politically ambitious become Members of Parliament in 2023.

In a mass party, the competition for the role of party representative in Parliament is fierce, and “winning one’s spurs” in the cut-and-thrust of intra-party politics is both admired and expected. But, neither National nor Labour are any longer mass parties.

The era of MMP is also the era of the so-called “cadre” party. In the mass parties of the past, advancement depended on how successfully party members had mastered the art of winning over their party comrades and pinning-down their votes – the politics of democracy. In parties organised by and for societal elites, the impetus for representation comes not from below, but above. To advance in a cadre party (of which Labour and National are both now examples) one must master the circuitry of power and influence – the politics of the courtier.

Unfortunately, if selection for a winnable seat, or a high placement on a Party List, becomes a matter of not what you know, but who you know, then the winnowing process which served National and Labour so well in the past, and which prepared prospective parliamentarians so thoroughly for the career of people’s representative, is undermined. Parliamentary candidates appear – as if from nowhere – chosen by the high and mighty, known only to party insiders, and, all-too-often, pitifully lacking in even the basic skills of winning voter support.

This is the weakness that saddles the New Zealand voter with Members of Parliament who are not only lacking in rhetorical ability, tactical instinct, and strategic skill, but are also alarmingly ignorant of the experiences, aspirations and values of the ordinary Kiwi voter.

The men and women who transformed National and Labour from mass parties into cadre parties may have rid themselves of bottom-up, democratic, intra-party politics, with all its embarrassments and irritations, but in the process of making their parties lean, mean, elite-driven machines, they forgot that the game they are playing, electoral politics, is, by definition, bottom-up and democratic.

National and Labour are selecting All Blacks who have never played Rugby. How else to explain Sam Uffindell and Gaurav Sharma?

Or, for that matter, Christopher Luxon?

Experience in the management of large corporations is one thing, experience in the rough-and-tumble of democratic politics, quite another. National has not only saddled itself with a politician with zero experience of cutting and thrusting his way up the spiral staircases of the National Party, but it was also willing to anoint as Leader a man with barely 13 months’ experience as a Member of Parliament.

Put a person of Luxon’s political inexperience in front of a hall-full of conservative voters and he is almost guaranteed to make the beginner’s error of telling them what they want to hear. If that involves abandoning Medium Density Residential Standards, the bi-partisan plan National agreed with Labour allowing three-storey dwellings to be built on all residential land in the main cities, then so be it. What was he supposed to say to these angry NIMBY voters? No?

Athletes and musicians talk about developing “muscle memory” – the practically unconscious mastery of their occupations that only comes from thousands of hours of practice, and years of experience. Effective leaders develop a political muscle-memory of their own. In answering tricky questions from the media. In delivering a stump speech as if it is the first time the words have passed their lips. Of knowing exactly how to lure their opponents into a policy trap – and then spring it. Of instinctively veering away from the “creepiness” of AI-generated images.

That National can no longer lay its hands on such a leader, tells us something about the state of New Zealand politics four months out from the 2023 General Election.

It’s not encouraging.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 29 May 2023.


  1. “National and Labour are selecting All Blacks who have never played”

    A good perspective on our current political parties ie No skin in the game,
    disconnected from the realities of the general populace

    They all suffer from ‘Status quo syndrome’
    No real sense of vision, leadership and real change

    Which is why for the past few elections I vote neither / nor.
    This means either of the smaller parties. Anybody but
    Our current political masters

    Which turns out to be a case of good intentions / bad reflections
    Because from what I have read votes to parties that don’t make the 5% threshold
    Are quietly distributed to the major parties anyway

    So this is a rort in itself.

  2. I would have thought that Trump would have put to bed the idea that business people are better at running the country. Which is quite possibly the idea that put Luxon in the position he holds today. From what I can gather he wasn't a brilliant businessman although not as bad as Trump, who is simply a grifter. And even compared to a relatively unattractive character like Hipkins, he doesn't scrub up well. His inexperience is noticeable and almost makes me feel sorry for him when he gets foot in mouth syndrome. Almost. After all, in conservative terms he chose his own fate.
    And he may well end up being Prime Minister. Be interesting to see if he can hold a bunch of prima donnas together while attempting to govern the country.

  3. An interesting article, the issue of which I have pondered on for some time. I wouldn't say that either National or Labour are fully fledged cadre parties. They still have over 20,000 members, or at least National does. Selections in safe seats are still keenly contested. The membership of these seats is often more than 1,000, and the delegate positions in candidate selections are well contested. Not so in the less safe seats, which are often chosen by the Board.

    Nevertheless there has been change. Many more of the candidates in all parties have worked in Parliament and have had a more limited experience in the business or professional world. For instance, you see fewer senior lawyers and senior accountants contesting selections than used to be the case. Fewer MP's in rural seats than in the past have come through the senior ranks of Farmer Organisations.

    Both major parties have done lateral recruiting for the top role in the recent past. For instance David Shearer, John Key and now Chris Luxon. None were particularly involved in their Party prior to becoming MP's. Don Brash may be partially seen in this light, though he had twice stood for National in East Coast Bays at the time of the Social Credit surge in the early 1980's. He certainly understood the National Party when recruited in 2002.

    I wonder if this issue lies behind the apparent inability of the current Labour government to actually implement policy choices. When comparing the current Cabinet to that of the Helen Clark government, there does appear to be a dearth of talent. Not many of the current Cabinet have ever held senior positions. Those that have (Clark, Little, Verrall) all seem to be noticeably more competent than their Cabinet colleagues.

  4. I echo your concern Edward M about redistribution of votes. It seems to me that this redistribution is a dilution of democracy not an addition, and mucks up the one person, one vote, crispness we expect.
    I think it is in the STV system. Google says -

    Which votes get transferred with the Single ...
    Electoral Reform Society › which-votes-get...
    17/08/2021 — Candidates that exceed the quota are elected, with any surplus votes (total votes minus the quota) transferred to each voter's next...
    STV advocates argue that, by requiring a candidate to appeal to the supporters of other candidates for their second and further preferences, it reduces adversarial confrontation, and indeed, gives a substantial advantage to candidates that broaden their appeal by being not only collegial but as open-minded and flexible ...

    There is open-minded and not knowing when to decide to shut the window (of opportunity?). I have heard in real life where windows have been kept open at all times, and that was in the old system of fighting tuberculosis with lots of fresh air and complete rest. Now we try to use medications to fight it without going to such extremes. I fear STV is a panacea, perhaps a nostrum, that may kill more than cure.

  5. Luxon a slow learner? Or rather the product of a generic way of dealing with all matters as taught by foremost business colleges and universities? There they learn the commonsense way of dealing with all matters wherever they land, sort of like pragmatic seagulls, and have a grab-bag of nostrums so to do. It must be full of common-sense guidelines against which one could state Einstein's theory; the one he is supposed to have said about common-sense:

    Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen.
    Of course that is an opinion and also Einstein may not have said it as Quote Investigator will inform on.

    But in taking an interest in being factual, and the content of the quote, we have exercised our minds. And that is something that the mass phalanx of business graduates today are not encouraged to do in their generic management studies. Because it is against their monetary interests no doubt. I think that Luxon will have similar priorities governing his willingness to learn and change.

  6. LARRY N MITCHELL1 June 2023 at 08:40

    Luxon is a proven leader of a large organization, he is fiercely intelligent and comes with no political baggage/skeletons.

    MATCH THAT! Labour Party.

    He is surrounded by numerous competent experienced supporters invested in winning an election in 4 months time .

    Here's a list of his Lieutenants:

    Bayly ... Bishop ... Brown ... Brownlee ... Doocey ... Goldsmith ... Lee ... Mitchell ... O'Connor ... Penk ... Reti ... Simpson ... Stanford ... Upston ... Watts ... Willis.

    MATCH THAT! Labour Party.

    Give me a Luxon any day ... over any Personality politics and candidates captured within an unimaginative incestuous Party Machine ... read NZ Labour Party.

  7. Luxon seems to me to be the product of managerialism – in which competence in one area of management presumes competence in all others. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily true, and running a country is not like running a business anyway. And his ability to run a business – Air New Zealand – has been called into question by some, particularly around debt. There are those who say he scarpered, leaving a mess for others to clean up. Let's hope he doesn't do that in government.

  8. @L N Mitchell - were you born in NZ? Where were your formative childhood years spent? What sex are you? Are you a heterosexual? Have you had or having children? Do you spend time each day with your children, taking a positive interest in their doings, setting reasonable rules for behaviour, talking about how to handle negative impulses to others etc?

    Have you studied world population data, NZ population data, and data as to what shapes personality ie hunger, lack of housing etc? One can ignore matters that do not loom large to oneself because they refer to another sex. Perhaps you don't have firm grounding in sexuality in general, its effects on the individual and on society's attitudes affecting the individual.

  9. Why is Wayne Mapp's perspective surprisingly honest? Cos he believes his ideas are right. As ever I appreciate him while disagreeing. Thank god for a NZ with a Right that is honest.

  10. You can perhaps see the difference then and now here.

    A message from Bob Hawke

    Can you imagine Bob Hawke arguing for social engineering?
    In fact it was doing that behind the scenes that has (arguably) produced the culture wars, because:
    the only inclusive policy is nationalist (charity begins at home);
    human struggles against human;
    some people are "r" selecting;
    those on the top deck make the decisions.

  11. Wayne, if verral was competent she would not need to tell outright lies about her father's prescription issues.

    The fact is that every single media outlet is aligned with the left and is prepared to do what it takes to undermine anyone opposing the current incompetent lot. Does that mean the Luxon is the most competent candidate for Prime Minister, maybe not but just compare him AND his team and see what is the best option for New Zealand come October.

    As it stands it seems our host here is so disillusioned that he is claiming that he now supports Winston.

    As has been said many many times, if Winston is the answer, it's a really dumb question.

  12. Brilliant insight, Chris. Oh, the messiness of people. 'Cadre', ay.

    Humour in your analysis. When you talk straight down the line all the reactions are in play.

    As Righties go I'm fond of Luxon. Glad for our Right -- not crazy, yet.

    Re rhetoric, I'd like to see a politician who didn't dog-whistle, instead talked about ideas -- that'd be our break-out from cadres. Our only escape from ... a very unpleasant time in my old age.

  13. couldn't agree less. it worked for key so why not for luxon

  14. Edward Main & Greywarbler. the votes for failed parties are not wilfully distributed to the major parties, but to whichever party is next in line so to speak. roughly speaking if one party won votes equivalent to 52.25 seats, & another party won votes equivalent to 5.4 seats, & the party which didn't get in to parliament won votes equivalent to 0.3 seats, then the party with 5 seats ends up with 6 seats.
    so the "leftover" votes can accrue to a smaller party.
    the actual mechanism is called the "sainte lague method", & it's used for a lot of things, e.g. in the usa for deciding how many seats in the house are alloted to each state.
    i hope this helps

  15. "The fact is that every single media outlet is aligned with the left and is prepared to do what it takes to undermine anyone opposing the current incompetent lot."

    Not this again. The mainstream media is in the main owned by private companies – luckily not Murdoch – but private companies nonetheless whose main job it is to make money. They are aligned with whatever will make them money. This is on a par with suggesting that private companies somehow go "woke" (i.e. do something I don't like) in order to own the Conservatives or something rather than thinking about the money that they will make by doing it.
    It reminds me of the whiners on MSN, who go on and on about how the press is in the governments pocket and won't allow negative stories – to the point where some guy seems to take great delight in pointing out every negative story about the government, and claiming it must be fake news because everyone knows that the press is in the governments pocket. Sometimes I wish I had his sense of humour.
    Incidentally Gary I have a spare bridge in the back garden I'd just love to get rid of are you interested?

  16. I'd like to see some fluent politician talk about ideas, rather than focus group points. This isn't the time for that. This is the thirties times a thousand. And you or any of our NZ Left blogs don't help.

    Something wrong with you lot. You prefer your income drizzle? Angry.

  17. All I can say is "Tova, now Jessica" and $55 million.

    When 95% of journalists self identify as left leaning and 70% self define as hard left then neutrality is dead and buried which is evidenced by the slavish adherence to a redefined treaty that needs to be put back behind the cupboard from whence it came.

    Ask about the Monday morning editors calls from the 9th floor where the scenes was set for the week. Ask about the obsession in the media with the leader of the opposition when the actual government provides a daily litany of scandal and corruption.

    It's no bridges I'm interested in, it's a road to somewhere that appeals rather the the current road to nowhere.

  18. "When 95% of journalists self identify as left leaning and 70% self define as hard left "

    When 95% of newspaper owners self identify as left – then you should be worried. Incidentally I looked at the original figures and 70% do not self define as hard left. It is about 15%, and another 5% to the left of them. Not that hard left was actually defined.