Saturday, December 11, 2021

Karl du Fresne: Competent management won't be enough to save New Zealand

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.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at This article was published 5 December in the Insight section of the BFD


Janine said...

I agree Karl. Merely "doing what Labour do but better"doesnt cut it with me either. Have you heard any of these opposition politicians come out strongly against the divisions being created in our society? Sure, they will repeal Three Waters as they know 80% or more of people are opposed. Gosh, they might even have something noteworthy to say about He Puapua but I'm not holding my breath.

Do these people( politicians) our equal New Zealanders,not better New Zealanders in any shape or form, not believe we are one race, undivided by ethnicity and colour? They sure have a hard time saying it.

I am afraid people like you and me who just want equality for all are very thin on the ground.I guess we have to vote for somebody though. So we are always voting for the less destructive option rather than a truly inspiring leader.

Terry Morrissey said...

It would be quite pleasant to get a party that governs for all New Zealanders equally and has the ability to express how they will do that.
Is not influenced by a corrupt satanic UN, with climate fearmongering as a financial gravy train, corrupt lying pharmaceutical companies that have profits not peoples health as their priority, a biased and grabbing Waitangi Tribunal which begins every claim with "Once Upon a Time,"and a minority tribal iwi(I want it)elite.
Freedom from mandates would be on my list plus the right to be treated for an illness by medical practitioners with safe effective drugs,without requiring a court case.
Being kept up to date with honest factual news by an appolitical news media in english not pidgin.
My actual wish list could be rather lengthy but is generally covered by the first sentence.
But then I may as well wish for the moon, Karl.

Ross Meurant said...


Where you pen:

"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."

You are right on the mark.

Putting pressure on Labour to return to the rule of law, is a proven recipe for failure.

It now time to put pressure on Luxon and Seymour.

No more obfuscation, prevarication, procrastination. Tell us what you stand for or, it is time to establish a new party.

K.N.Pepper said...

Someone far smarter than I wrote this piece.

The whole world has divide itself into progressives and conservatives.
The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes.
The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes being corrected.
A pretty grim outlook isn't it?.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone interested in the scenario of Luxon being in the situation of having Labour change leaders post nuptuals and seeing Mahuta as Labour’s annointed flag bearer? Would Luxon be forced to have a firm point of view about race based legislation? That would be his finest test as rebuilding National under pressure.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

Terry Morrisey!
I fully agree with you.
We also have to get rid of Mandates, which Luxton most probably won't do.
Last heard somewhere vented by Luxton is :
No jab, No benefit!
What is wrong with those people?
Doesn't he read India, Ivermectin Blackdown?
Poor countries using Ivermectin $ 3.00 for treatment, while the Shot
( deadly, see Israel) some $45.00 a shot followed by many "boosters"
The Greek alphabet has 24 letters. So, another 22 variants to go. By that time the patent might have ran out.
Does he also have shares in the Big Pharma?

He certainly will not read the book, written by
Danish Professor Dr Peter C Gotzsche called:
Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime.
How big pharma has corrupted healthcare.
A very worthwhile read, for every body, including your doctor and specialist.

RRB said...

Luxon, just another politician who doesn't appear to stand for much?
We the voters want to know how good his backbone is.
Tell us which laws he's going to repeal in the first year (not someday).
Why wouldn't he want to say how and when he is going to return our freedoms?
Tell us if he's going to outlaw the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the consequential undermining of our democracy.
Tell us if he's going to outlaw criminal gangs and return the effective Strike 3 system.
Tell us if the immigration system is going to return to only allowing immigrants with skills we need.
We are not interested in petty handout bribes to correct government inspired inflation.
And give us the list of media journalists whose allegiance was purchased with taxpayer money by the Labor government.
Trump won on policies not taxpayer funded bribes.

Auntie Podes said...

Spot on!
It seems nobody has a clue what the National party is about- least of all their leaders. Key was a disaster - all that time as leader and his only legacy was his Cheshire Cat-like grin and that has faded long ago. I detest pragmatists. They have no blue print to work from. They just try this - try that - and when neither works, they nothing to fall back on.
At least we know where we are with Ardern - the extreme left - going further left to blatant racist-communism. Up shit's creek and already disastrous.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

I have not followed the pre-chewed, re-gurgitated ,biased/false news, so I certainly don't know ( and don't even want to know) what is going on. Sure I know that what IS going on is not good news.
If it is true what Luxton has said about the " shot " I wonder: has he done any research himself!
I doubt it..
Does everybody really HAVE to get shot?
I rather be shot with a gun than slowly ruining my immune system with a concoction of highly dangerous muck, mr Luxton.
If Medsafe tells you that the shot is safe, I don't believe it. Certainly not after reading the book written by a Danish professor in medicine Professor Doctor Peter C Gotzsche. The title??
Deadly medicines and the Organised Crime, how big pharma has corrupted healthcare.
They don't care about our health, only the health of their bank account and all rich governments tumble in the trap.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

I also forgot to say that ALL New Zealanders are immigrants and NONE of us is INDIGENOUS!
Moari came by canoe ( very well done ) Captain cook came on a sailing boat ( also very clever and I came by plane.
SO why the devision based on skin color?
What about the Indian, Chinese and other colored immigrants?
They don't seem to be important, only hard working.