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On National’s Less Than Stellar Choices

Amid all the jostling in the National caucus ranks, spare a thought for Andrew Bayly. Who? Well might you ask. Plucked from obscurity by Judith Collin, elevated from number 18 to number 3 in the caucus rankings and given the Finance portfolio - a role in which he has been invisible ever since – Bayly seems destined for a future as a trivia quiz question. That’s because as the National leadership contest comes down to a choice between Simon Bridges and Christopher Luxon, the only decisions to be made on Tuesday are over who gets to be leader, and who gets the Finance job.

The media is pretty excited about the outcome, but the nation is not holding its breath over which of these two guys comes out on top and who gets the consolation prize. Since the interests of capital are paramount whenever National turns its mind to such matters, would the tycoon sector prefer to have a former CEO like Luxon in the top job, or in the Finance shadow portfolio?

The deputy leader’s job is also up for grabs in next Tuesday’s caucus vote, but the power invested in that role has always been more symbolic than real. So… Will National’s less than convincing commitment to gender equity be better served by Erica Stanford or by Nicola Willis? Or will National’s equally less than compelling commitment to bi-culturalism be illustrated by the retention as deputy of Dr Shane Reti? The public likes Reti a whole lot more than it has ever liked Simon Bridges. But when has being liked by the public ever been a prerequisite for a leadership role in the National Party?

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Offhand, National is choosing between someone who is known all too well, and someone who is known barely at all. Remember how back when she was in Opposition, Jacinda Ardern was consistently derided as a show pony, until she proved otherwise? In striking contrast, Luxon’s political abilities are being taken entirely on faith. Men, it seems, cannot ever be show ponies. That happens to be the case even though National has had recent experience with elevating another political novice - Todd Muller – to a role well beyond his talents. Luxon’s prior business experience is being taken on faith as a suitable platform for political success. That’s a very big assumption. Arguably, being the CEO of a dominant player (in the domestic market) like Air New Zealand could hardly be a less fitting preparation for a successful career in parliamentary politics.

How come? Well, instead of being purpose directed to one outcome – profitability -- and instead of being insulated by layers of middle managers conditioned to never speak truth to power, political leaders require a different skillset. They have to be thick-skinned. They have to be able to handle themselves on their feet, juggle multiple roles, and be able to express themselves in ways that go beyond powerpoint messages. Even more to the point, CEOs need to be conscious only of the company bottom line. Political leaders and Finance Ministers need to run the country and the economy for the benefit of everyone, and not simply for the benefit of the main shareholders. Of course, Luxon may prove that he does indeed possess all of the multiple skills required. At this stage though, his colleagues will be taking a major leap in the dark if they choose him for the top job on Tuesday.

Still, that leap may be inevitable given that the only other real option seems to be Simon Bridges, someone whom the public got to know all too well during his first disastrous stint as party leader. Against all odds, Bridges is back on the comeback trail. If nothing else, this is a useful reminder that political obituaries can be premature. Similarly, how often did we all write off Winston Peters, only for him to return again and again from the political graveyard? On a full moon, some New Zealand First supporters still look hopefully to the north, for signs of the master’s return.

In Australia, it's more common for political leaders (John Howard, Kevin Rudd) to be pulled back out of the reject pile. As Judith Collins went out the exit door this week, Bridges has come bounding back up the down staircase, supposedly reborn after his 18 months in the political wilderness. Apparently, widely unloved politicians can return to positions of prominence even after – at last sighting on the centre stage - they were demonstrating a rare inability to read the room during the early days of the pandemic. With all that in mind, Tuesday’s outcome is a bit of a toss-up. Will the new National leadership team provide an inspirational story of renewal, or will it prove to be a horror story about the return of the political undead?

National moves right

Whatever variation on Luxon/Bridges plus female deputy is finally unveiled on Tuesday, a change in tone will be required. Already, there is a widespread sense of hope among the public at large that the Collins era of chronic divisiveness may be over. National‘s new leadership team will need to provide not only steadier hands at the tiller, but a more positive vision to the electorate.

That’s going to be far easier said than done. To win back the supporters National has lost to the ACT Party, the new team will need to get some quick gains on the board. The wider public however will want to see evidence that National can be a credible government-in-waiting, so any rampant displays of red meat negativity would be likely to repel as many voters as they might attract. These are complicating factors, and they’re due entirely to the hole that National has dug itself into over the past three years.

There are other serious fault lines ahead on the road to Election 2023. The current wisdom is that since Bridges and Luxon are both Christian social conservatives, they will need a socially liberal female (eg Nicola Willis) in the deputy role. Obviously, such a gesture at “balance” would only be window dressing at best, given that deputies have nothing like the clout vested in shadow leaders and finance ministers in waiting.

Balancing Act

There’s an ever bigger problem. Unless the National team can dramatically collapse the ACT vote, the new leadership – which is already far more personally conservative than Judith Collins ever was – will have to make serious concessions to the ACT Party. Taking Act’s socio-economic policies on board would involve a National-led government putting New Zealand through another bout of unreconstructed Thatcherism, and with welfare policies somewhat to the right of Genghis Khan.

In other words, who-ever wins what on Tuesday, the National Party is currently on course for the extreme right of the political spectrum – both personally under Luxon/Bridges, and within any governing coalition it has that includes ACT. National has not chosen to position itself in this ideological territory since the heyday of Ruth Richardson. Those hoping that Luxon might be the reincarnation of John Key need to keep that reality in mind. Key did not have to contend with a huge ACT Party caucus parked well to his right. Key’s popularity was based on an image of genial centrism. Luxon/Bridges will not enjoy such a luxury.

That’s why, as soon as the new leadership team beds in, it needs to be asked just how it proposes to manage its policy positions vis a vis ACT, and where it sees daylight between itself and David Seymour. Meaning: In the months ahead, National will not only be fighting on its left flank against the Ardern government. It will be fighting on its right flank as well, since Seymour will be policing any straying to the centre by National’s new leaders, and he will be portraying this as a betrayal of neo-liberalism’s gospel truths. So…. If you think Ardern is an ideologue, buckle up.

Footnote: The problem facing Luxon/Bridges with regard to any claims they make about ushering in a new area of moderate centrism will be – in fact – the mirror image of what Labour used to face during its nine years in Opposition. Back then, the Greens used to be the albatross routinely hung around the neck of Labour…because supposedly, the Greens posed a radical threat to the entire nation. Yet as climate change concerns went mainstream, the “threat” posed by the Greens quickly receded.

That’s where the analogy breaks down. The ACT Party really are tax cutting, public service shrinking, welfare slashing extremists, and New Zealand has already gone through a harrowing era that illustrated the social damage that such policies can do. Most of the people who lived through the previous era of Thatcherism in this country would have no desire to be put through that experience again.

In the run-up to Election 2023 therefore, it will be up to Luxon/Bridges to provide concrete assurances to the public that they’re willing and able to keep the ACT Party in check. Yet the more that National will need ACT to be able to govern, the harder that job will be.

Comeback kids and kittens

What is it about political leaders (and champion boxers) that so few of them can ever retire, undefeated? Rocky Marciano was the rarity that proves the rule, in that he never tasted defeat in the ring, but also never made a comeback. For almost everyone else…. There must be something about the need for public acclaim, combined with the self-regard that’s required to do at the job in the first place that keeps them coming back for more. There seems to be a craving for approval, until the reality of defeat finally sinks into the bones. Even then, the sense of grievance held by the likes of Robert Muldoon, David Lange, Mike Moore etc can become the stuff of legend.

With all that in mind, here’s a song (from 1937) for Simon Bridges. We thought he was a goner but the cat came back, ‘cause he couldn’t stay away…

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