The irony of the Maureen Pugh furore is that it has caused far more damage to Christopher Luxon than to Pugh.
Luxon has come out of it looking like a control freak, intolerant of any deviation from the party line.
This should surprise no one. He comes from a corporate background, and the corporate world values conformity above almost everything else. Original thinkers are seen as problematical and even threatening. Conventional men who play golf and wear suits are naturally most comfortable in the company of other conventional men who play golf and wear suits.
John Key came from a corporate background too, but of a different type: one that placed a high value on individual risk-taking. One difference between Key and Luxon is that Key, for all his faults, seemed to have more trust in his own judgment.
But that’s not the only reason Luxon has come out of this affair looking bad. Many New Zealanders are likely to have taken a dim view of the way he threw Pugh under the bus.
Loyalty is a two-way street; party leaders are entitled to it, but so are their MPs – even lowly backbenchers. To publicly demean Pugh by ordering her to read some books on climate change – in other words, to go and stand in the naughty corner – was a bad look. It seemed petty and vindictive.
The result: Pugh finished the week having won public respect for having the honesty to say what she thought, even though she was then bullied into a humiliating recantation. People would have realised her backdown was insincere, but would have excused her because it was forced on her by her leader.
There was a simple way to avoid all this. When confronted by scalp-hunting political journalists about Pugh’s supposed climate-change heresy, Luxon could have casually waved it away. “Well, that’s Maureen,” he might have said. “She has her own way of looking at things. National has room for non-conformists.”
But he didn’t. He responded exactly as the media hoped and gave them the “Gotcha!” moment they wanted.
I think the underlying problem here is that Luxon is scared of the media and allows himself to be intimidated. Political journalists play him like a fiddle and end up effectively dictating the political agenda. This is no basis for a healthy democracy.
Luxon seems to lack the guts or confidence to stand up for principled conservative positions, fearing that the left-leaning media will punish him. The same is happening in Australia, where the once-formidable Liberal Party has been cowed into a state of paralysis by media that are even more aggressively leftist.
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1970s, the boot was on the other foot: New Zealand political journalists were scared of politicians – or to be more precise, one politician in particular, Robert Muldoon. That wasn’t good for democracy either. There's an honourable middle ground between these extremes.
Control-freak press secretaries appear to be part of the problem too. They wield far too much power. It emerged on RNZ this morning that when word of Pugh’s verbal indiscretion got around, Opposition press secretaries went into panic mode, scurrying around to ensure that all the other National MPs were “on message”.
Pardon me, but who’s in charge here? We don’t elect press secretaries to run the country. They are the modern equivalent of the palace courtier, wielding undue influence and orchestrating events out of the public eye. Political communications, aka the spin doctor industry, is a racket that’s out of control; a gravy train that needs to be derailed.