Sunday, December 5, 2021

Competent management won't be enough to save New Zealand

I wrote the following article for the Insight section (paywalled) of the BFD. It was published on Friday.

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.


Trev1 said...

Very well said Karl. Please send copies to Luxon and Willis. I think the enormity of Labour's deconstruction of our democracy is beginning to dawn on people. Many are going to come face to face with it on their summer holidays when they run into government authorized race-based roadblocks. The expropriation of locally owned Three Waters assets has also struck a nerve as have the continuing, ideologically driven attacks on the rural sector. And schoolchildren will be coming home shortly accusing their parents of "white supremacy" after their daily indoctrination sessions on Critical Race Theory and Colonization.

I can understand that Luxon may want to steer clear of the culture wars in the immediate aftermath of his elevation. He will be much preoccupied with internal reorganization at this point. But as Harold MacMillan observed, "events" will leave him no choice. They will demand a coherent policy response and they are likely to come thick and fast in the New Year.

Terry M said...

I think it would be good if Chris Luxon comes out with some good positive ideas before the Christmas break to give the voters something to ponder over the holidays. But before that I would like to see him and his colleagues rip the labour cult a new one during question time over the next couple of weeks.
Labour are in so far over their heads they are ripe for the plucking. Mahuta, Williams, Little, Faafoi are really floundering under questions. The PM's body language says she is in trouble.
Looking forward to next week.

Andy Espersen said...

Interesting analysis. And right now we simply do not know, cannot know, how Christopher Luxon will be judged in, say, 15 years time. He will have to deal with not just those major anti-democracy factors here in New Zealand that you mention – but also the global factors of the aftereffects of the fight against climate change and against Covid and its variants (which will soon be ditched globally, I prophesy). This fight is presently being fought by “progressives” – by fanatic ideologues.

I hope he will be just a thoroughly conservative prime minister – following William Hague’s recipe (which you draw on towards the end of your article). Just putting the brake on (and scrap legislation already passed) all the impossible, inane, progressive, ideological “solutions to all problems” from our Labour government – and doing it in a way that New Zealand suffers the least economic damage from. To me he seems an excellent bet : his business career proves he is above all practical and realistic - and he is essentially of moral character.

I disagree with you, Karl : Competent, arch-conservative management is enough. We have had more than our fill of ideologues with crazy ideas, invented problems and ready-made solutions.

Tom Hunter said...

Over the last few months I've put up a couple of posts that address this subject. The first was in June The Precious Midpoint, where I look at the problems facing socialist parties in Britain, France and Germany and what it means for National here in NZ with their "better management" arguments.

But it does show the thinking that’s evolving here, at least with one ex-National MP, and it’s thinking that fits perfectly with Trotter’s about what’s wrong with National and where they have to go to regain power – which is basically to just cede all these fundamental arguments to the Left, roll over and awaken when the electorate eventually tires of Jacindamania.
he lesson is not to be like the New Zealand equivalent of Mitt Romney, Theresa May or David Cameron – all squishes who either failed to get elected or if they were, failed to grasp the actual electoral environment they claimed their “moderate” noses could sniff out.

That approach just won’t cut it anymore with Centre-Right parties. Real, practical solutions based around giving incentives to individuals – in education, healthcare and other areas – are what is required.
The midpoint is there to be moved, not just accommodated while others move it.

Tom Hunter said...

The second is Advice from the peanut gallery where I look at the similar problems the GOP face in the USA and the history of Reagan being labeled as an "extremist" by his own side, along with this quote from Thatcher:

Almost every post-war Tory victory had been won on slogans such as ‘Britain Strong and Free’ or ‘Set the People Free’. But in the fine print of policy, and especially in government, the Tory Party merely pitched camp in the long march to the left. It never tried seriously to reverse it. Privatization? The Carlisle State Pubs were sold off. Taxation? Regulation? Subsidies? If these were cut down at the start of a Tory government, they gradually crept up again as its life ebbed away. The welfare state? We boasted of spending more money than Labour, not of restoring people to independence and self-reliance.

The result of this style of accommodationist politics, as my colleague Keith Joseph complained, was that post-war politics became a ‘socialist ratchet’ — Labour moved Britain towards more statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left. The Tories loosened the corset of socialism; they never removed it.

That last is why - contra Andy Espersen's claims that "Competent, arch-conservative management..." - is actually not enough.

Max Ritchie said...

In chasing the 400,000 who went to Labour Luxon should not lose sight of those who did vote National. They did so despite the wokery of the Chris Finlaysons of this world. Despite what he thinks (or perhaps what his clients think) we should be One People. Balancing the interests of enough of the centre and right to get over 50% of the party vote, when combined with ACT, will be Luxon’s task. Anything which perpetuates the current drift to racism will be disastrous for National.

Tom Hunter said...

Also this quote from the US seems highly appropriate in the context of the difference between "conservatives" and Leftists when in power, This sounds familiar:

Here’s how this dynamic plays out: When Democrats are legislating on something major, they look around the field and say to themselves, “Yeah, we’re going to take some casualties on this one, but we’re going to change America.”

And then they blast right through it. Pelosi is going to lose members for this overhaul of our country and she knows it — she’s just decided that given the trouble they’re already heading into, it’s worth it.
To put it simply, Republicans approach politics like America fights wars: They don’t want to lose a single man. Democrats, on the other hand? They look at politics like the Russians looked at Stalingrad: The congressman in front votes now; when they fall the next man gets elected and he will vote too.

I reckon by 2026, certainly 2029 a National-led government will be fully funding He Puapua and telling everybody that it's good for race relations in NZ.

Ian P said...

Trev1 - It's very early days for Chris Luxon, and it would be unwise for him to come out guns blazing so soon after being elected leader. I see Labour's consistent philosophy as being just legislate and chuck money at things to try and change people's behaviour. I think National have always taken a more hands off approach, and just let people get on with their lives. Your comment that National will need a 'coherent policy response' soon -if only we had been given such a thing by Labour prior to the 2020 election. After 3 years of failed policy achievement, if only we'd had some inkling of the radical, unmandated, and undemocratic changes that are rapidly destroying the country we all love in just over 12 months in office!

Scott said...

Yes I think National should cement their position as competent managers of the economy and get into power that way.
But I would like to see them repeal the Labour agenda. Just do it the first weeks in office. Abortion, transgender, conversion therapy, 3 waters. Gone by lunchtime. Do it all as fast as possible then concentrate on the prosperity of NZers. By the time of the next election they can bring a solid track record of economic performance and prosperity to win the confidence of the electorate.

Karl du Fresne said...

Ian P
It was Trev1 who mentioned the need for a coherent policy response.

Andy Espersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan McNeill said...


It is encouraging to have you engage with the deeper questions that lie beneath the surface of New Zealand politics. All politicians are animated by a guiding philosophy or ideology, be they people of faith or no faith. You are right to insist that what politicians believe matters, and it is a significant weakness for National that it can no longer reliably articulate its core beliefs.

Right now, I’d settle for any political party whose core tenants included an agreement to uphold the New Zealand Bill of Rights without exception, excuse or dissembling. Any political party that said it would never impose mandatory vaccinations or any medical procedure upon any section of the population. A party that ensured no one would lose their employment because they refused a Government sponsored medical procedure.

It is beyond discouraging that not one of the mainstream political parties in New Zealand subscribe to those tenants.

Hiko said...

It is easy to see what the core beliefs of the parties on the left are and apart from the incompetence it is very apparent the direction they are taking us
This has not been the case with National and is the reason why after many years of supporting them I gave up on them.
Those who will not stand up for something will fall for anything.
John Key had charisma but it was hard to figure what exactly he stood for
Chris Luxon is John Keys pick so where does that leave us?
We will just have to wait and see

Phil said...

I am heartened by reading articles in UK sites Unherd and Spectator UK over the weekend that what is happening in NZ is being noticed. In NZ, businessman Sir Ian Taylor has given the Government some heavy criticism. I view this Government as the most corrupt one in my lifetime. I would wager that there is a corrupt opinion poll coming soon showing no National bounce and Luxon on low PM % which the media will use to pound him. We know there was an opinion poll on Friday showing that the Government is in trouble and 95% of media ignored it completely.

Andy Espersen said...

Tom Hunter, I agree : “Real, practical solutions based around giving incentives to individuals – in education, healthcare and other areas – are what is required”. Here you are actually describing conservative sentiments and values – as opposed to “progressive”. So I cannot understand why in the end you come out disagreeing with me.

I have again read through Karl’s blog and your comments. Nowhere here do I find a clear statement as to exactly what special, human qualities you desire in a prospective leader of the opposition today. The closest Karl gets to it is that he/she must have “more than just a desire to win”. I can only presume that such nebulous “more” must be a clearly presented “political conviction plan”, exactly how successfully to lift New Zealand out of its terrible situation of our anti-democratic quagmire - and out of this ruinous economic situation, self-inflicted from our panicky political reactions to Covid and climate change.

One arch-conservative, political attitude is that an individual will not trust him/herself with the omniscience and omnipotence to prescribe a successful “plan” for any political action in an immensely complicated scenario. The myriad of unknown and unexpected factors coming up to confront New Zealand (and humanity) over the coming decade makes that a mission impossible. Luxon feels that in his bones, I believe.

New Zealand’s reaction to everything must be, can only be, day-to-day practical and ethical political decisions – and to me Christopher Luxon seems ideally suited for that.

Karl du Fresne said...

Conviction politicians don't need to be wild-eyed ideologues. I'd happily settle for a firm and unequivocal commitment to basic democratic values such as freedom of speech, transparency, due process, the rule of law and majority rule.

Doug Longmire said...

I do like the portrait Karl.
That young lad has talent. He has caught your character really well !! :-)

Ian P said...

I did address my comments to Trev1.
Thankyou for all you are doing to salvage some credibility and honour in our NZ Media.
As for as the prostituted mongrels of the media, their day will come

Karl du Fresne said...

Thanks Doug. My wife and I have two very clever and funny teenage grandsons and their company gives us immense pleasure.

Unknown said...

After winning the election of 200x John Campbell asked John Key what he wanted to be remembered for.
He said that there was one thing he really believed and that was he wanted NZ to be more confident about its place in the world, more outward looking.
"And so we played a bit about whether people should come here " and went on to claim that that is where the wealth comes from suggesting it was good for all (precise). He wanted NZ to be "more multicultural".
Go back to the current density issue they have transferred shade protection to Williams Corp (private jet).
It seems to be a thing that some people have no fear of a big bad wolf called competition for resources. I would put highly paid bureaucrats and politicians in that camp.
Facebook don't allow posts about white nationalism, yet whites are an ethnic group like any other and nation is a group who see themselves as a people with a territory.
It makes sense that a percentage benefit from the levels of immigration under John Key so perhaps the question is now "whose interests do these people serve?".
As has been pointed out about John Lennon's Imagine, love has to be specific or it isn't love.
Luzon is "very attuned to the values of modern NZ".
I would suggest Arthur Crimes expressed those on Q&A. He said being anti-immigration is xenophobic; Auckland used to be boring and Japan's population is 120M "and they're doing OK".
Platform domination is a form of censorship isn't it?

Unknown said...

Hear Hear Brendan!! With you all the way on the issue of mandates.