Sunday, April 28, 2024

Dr Bryce Edwards: Luxon’s ruthless show of strength is perfect for our angry era

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has surprised everyone with his ruthlessness in sacking two of his ministers from their crucial portfolios. Removing ministers for poor performance after only five months in the job just doesn’t normally happen in politics.

That’s refreshing and will be extremely well received. The public will perceive this unprecedented move as a sign that Luxon has very high standards for his government and is determined that his ministers actually deliver results.

Brutal sackings will be popular

Appearing on 1News’ 6pm news last night, I described the demotions as “brutal sackings”, adding that although I thought the moves would be popular, few should believe Luxon’s explanation that the need to replace Melissa Lee was because they needed someone more senior: “Melissa Lee is one of the most senior, experienced politicians in National. She's the third-longest serving National MP, so it doesn't quite add up that she wasn't experienced. She's been in that portfolio since 2017” – see 1News’ ‘Collective sigh of relief’ likely over Lee's sacking - Jennings

The demotions have been strongly applauded by Newstalk broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan who argues that Luxon’s strong style of “performance management” is just what the public wants at the moment – especially after many years in which much worse poor performance has been accepted by prime ministers with a lower threshold of expectations – see: NZ deserves Luxon's style of performance management

She says that Luxon’s show of strength is a massive contrast with the last government: “What's happened today will shock a lot of people, because over the last few years we've got used to Prime Minsters just putting up with their ministers doing a bad job or behaving badly in public. Kiri Allan, Phil Twyford, Michael Wood, Clare Curran, even Nanaia Mahuta - the Foreign Minister who didn't like international travel. It took forever for Hipkins or Ardern to demote the under-performers, and they suffered for it – public opinion of them was tainted.”

The “kindness” attribute displayed towards their colleagues by recent prime ministers is now very out of step with an electorate that desperately wants politicians to get things done.

Of course, there’s always been a sense in which prime ministers are expected to be ruthless towards their colleagues – something that former Cabinet Minister Peter Dunne emphasises today in his column, Luxon gets out his butcher's knife – briefly

In this, he points to the phrase used by William Gladstone, the former PM of Britain: “the first essential for a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher.”

Luxon is sending a strong message

Dunne says that Luxon’s brutal ministerial reshuffle “has sent two clear messages – one to both Ministers that they are on their last warning, and that they will be unceremoniously shown the door if anything else goes wrong. The second warning is to all other Ministers about the Prime Minister’s limited tolerance for poor performance and the fate that might await them in such circumstances.”

He also argues that it would have been detrimental for both the Government and Luxon’s own reputation if the two ministers had been kept in place, and so it was smart to get them out of the way before the Budget.

Herald political editor Claire Trevett also stresses how unusual such demotions are – especially this early in a government’s term, and without any more overt wrong-doing: “Usually ministers are stripped of portfolios for a scandal, a breach of the Cabinet Manual, or telling a porky to the Prime Minister or the public” – see: Prime Minister Christopher Luxon’s reshuffle of Melissa Lee, Penny Simmonds should keep all ministers on their toes (paywalled)

She also says that Luxon has read the room well, unlike previous PMs: “Too often, prime ministers let flailing ministers stay in their jobs too long, either to save face or to risk looking as if they are conceding they made the wrong choice.” But she warns that such demotions are a balancing act, because if you do it too much it becomes a negative: “There is a bit of risk to Luxon in this approach: if you end up moving too many ministers around for shonky performances, it starts to look a bit chaotic.”

National Party insider Ben Thomas has also described the demotions as rather brutal, comparing them to some of former PM John Key’s: If Luxon’s mentor, former prime minister John Key, was the so-called ‘smiling assassin’, the current National party leader might be more like a corporate drone strike: affectless, unperturbed, and delivering the bad news in clinical HR speak” – see his column in The Post: Luxon unleashes the corporate drone strike (paywalled)

But Thomas admits that there’s a chance that the sackings, occurring so soon after Luxon appointed these ministers, might reflect poorly on his original decision to appoint them: “To paraphrase The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, it has usually been thought that if the PM sacks you after a year, you’ve effed up; if he sacks you after a week, he’s effed up by appointing you.”

Newsroom’s political editor Laura Walters also points out how soon the demotions have come: “fewer than 150 days into the term was not a good look for the Government – something Newsroom understands Luxon’s staff raised with him” – see: Melissa Lee’s media Hail Mary comes up short

RNZ’s political editor Jo Moir suggests it’s a bad look in terms of diversity in Cabinet for Luxon to be sacking two women and bringing in a man (Climate Change Minister Simon Watts). But she says for Luxon “competence in the job, or lack thereof, had to trump anything else” – see: Aces in their places: Luxon plays coy over ministers' competence. But Moir points out the positive of having Watts come into Cabinet: “It will also bring to an end the frustration from climate and environment quarters over the climate change portfolio being outside Cabinet in the first place.”

The other possible message that the demotions send, according to Kelly Dennett of The Post, “is that Luxon is taking delivery seriously; that it’s productivity or bust in this corporate-styled National-led Government” – see: What Luxon really means when he says ‘this is how I roll’ (paywalled)

But she wonders if Luxon is using too much “corporate-speak” in these types of announcements. His phrase that “This is how I roll, this is how I lead” has been derided by a number of commentators. And Dennett argues it’s “not particularly prime ministerial, more what the sneaker-wearing CEOs volley around the boardroom.”

Melissa Lee’s poor performance

Although yesterday’s demotions were surprising due to their timing, no one seems to have been surprised, as Melissa Lee was already in serious trouble. Over the last month or two of major downsizing and threats in various media businesses, Lee has been widely viewed as ineffective and missing in action. Common reactions to her performance have involved the word “clueless” and phrases like “possum in the headlights”.

According to the Herald’s Claire Trevett, Lee was unfortunate to possess the portfolio during a crisis, but also failed to produce credible responses: “Lee’s downfall was that they came to a head on her watch – and she did not have an answer to them by the time they took their toll. Nor had she come up with anything since.”

Ben Thomas is more sympathetic to Lee’s plight, saying there was an element of unfairness in her sacking: “she had been, to differing extents, gagged by her own side. Even before the election, National refused to release her broadcasting policy”. Then during the media crisis, he says that she was stuck in limbo because of coalition politics involving NZ First: “Her office was reportedly barred from clarifying the timeline of policy development with journalists by Luxon’s office, to ease tensions with deputy PM Winston Peters.”

Newsroom’s Laura Walters appears to have more inside information on what has been going on in the Beehive, saying that Lee’s final downfall came when her third attempt to develop a Cabinet paper of solutions to the crisis disappointed the Prime Minister. Walters reports on Lee’s third Cabinet paper failing: “Sources told Newsroom that Luxon… believed the proposals in Lee’s [third] paper did not adequately deal with the complexities of the issues facing the media industry.”

Lee has now been replaced as Media Minister by Paul Goldsmith, and Claire Trevett ponders whether the new minister is simply being “handed a poisoned chalice.” The portfolio has certainly been a difficult one that appears to have defeated previous ministers like Claire Curran, Kris Faafao, and Willie Jackson – all of whom struggled to make much headway in helping the sector to modernise. For more on this, see Colin Peacock’s Media minister rolled as industry awaits plan

Penny Simmonds’ poor performance

Penny Simmonds has lost her cherished Disabilities ministerial portfolio in similar circumstances – as she too has caused the Government embarrassment, but not in a way that would normally lead to a sacking. However her mismanagement of the Disability portfolio led to savage cuts to disability support allowances, which shocked her colleagues and the sector. It was made worse by some intemperate remarks about those in the sector.

Finance Minister Nicola Willis had to intervene in the debacle, returning funding to the disability sector, and making it clear that any such changes in the future would need to be cleared by Cabinet rather than just Simmonds. And according to Newsroom’s Laura Walters, this “was seen by many as a vote of no confidence in Simmonds’ ability to oversee her own ministry.”

Despite this poor performance and bad publicity for the Government, few were tipping her to be fired so quickly. According to Walters, reporting on Beehive information, Luxon needed to demote Lee, and was less inclined to demote Simmonds this early, but “he decided to make both changes in one go to avoid another potential reshuffle down the road should Simmonds not bounce back.”

Also reporting Beehive sources, Ben Thomas says today that “insiders say Simmonds has struggled with the workload across her portfolios, and that the disabilities carer payment changes were not the only significant official-led announcements that passed under her risk radar.”

Luxon is appealing to our anti-political grumpiness

Luxon will win new plaudits from commentators for being decisive and bold, especially after years in which prime ministers have seemed highly reluctant to punish poor behaviour or performance. Luxon and his Government look like they won’t settle for “business as usual” or workmanlike politics.

If that is Luxon’s objective, then he’s smartly tapping into the Zeitgeist, reacting to a public mood that is increasingly grumpy and intolerant towards political complacency and mediocrity. We live in an age of political anger and discontent, which means that this National-led Government will quickly suffer if it protects poor performance.

Two recent IPSOS polling surveys indicate just how volatile and hard to please the public are. Last month, the market research company released its polling, showing that the public wasn’t evaluating the new government’s performance any more positively than it did for the last Labour Government when it was at its most unpopular – the average rating that people gave the National Government was only 4.6/10 – see my coverage of this: Scoring 4.6 out of 10, the new Government is struggling in the polls

Then last week, IPSOS released its survey of New Zealand’s attitudes to politics, which showed that two-thirds of the country believes that “New Zealand needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”, amongst many other rising anti-Establishment beliefs – see my column: Serious populist discontent is bubbling up in New Zealand

Of particular relevance was the survey question in which respondents were asked whether they agreed with the following statement: “To fix New Zealand, we need a strong leader willing to break the rules”. 54 per cent answered “yes”. The same question asked in the rest of the world had an average agreement of 49 per cent. In New Zealand, the demographics who much more likely to agree with the need for a strong rule-breaking leader were rightwing voters (60%), those on low incomes (66%), and Māori (73%).

Notably, political scientist Jack Vowles has also detected this growing grumpiness and desire for strong leadership. His NZ Election Study found that in 2020 43 per cent of the public agreed with the following statement: “A few strong leaders could make this country better than all the laws and talk”. But last year, the survey question found this had increased to 51 per cent.

Luxon and his government are also carrying out their own polling regularly, and will be well aware of how this increasingly anti-political mood means that voters will reward political leaders making strong decisions and being intolerant of mistakes and poor performance. In this sense, when he launched his surprise and ruthless demotions yesterday, Luxon was finally showing that he could be a “strong leader” or perhaps even a “populist” type of politician for our times.

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE


Ken S said...

Broadcasting and Disability Issues are crucial portfolios. That assertion in the first paragraph rendered the rest of the article unreadable.

Robert Arthur said...

My worry is that Luxon's bully boy approach will backfire and we will end up with a pro maori govt. With the precedent of fast track legislation and sweeping dismissals a pro maori govt would be even more of a threat than the one we had.

Anonymous said...

The truth is this shows Luxon's weakness when it comes to the media portfolio. He has caved to the demands of sycophants and hypocrites looking for blood. He rarely backs his own people. Melissa Lee was not responsible for any of the current media failings. If she were smart she would've said point blank that they are the failings of an industry that has lost its moral compass and the public trust. Failings that are entirely their own. It wouldn't make her popular with the media, but it would resonate with the public. Sometimes the only way to deal with a disgruntled media is to double down and make them hate you more. It will only lead to their own demise faster.

Anonymous said...

The support for Luxon will soon vanish when the masses realize what's happening on the foreshore & seabed front.

Anonymous said...

Political theater, smoke and mirrors, toothless distraction.

Anonymous said...

Back in the late 1940's & 50's Dr W. Edwards Deming was instrumental in helping the post war Japanese rebuild their economy and bringing a degree of manufacturing excellence in that was World leading. Later in life he said something about Management by Objectives which has stuck in my mind - basically that MBO was the abdication of leadership. Many would not see the link between that and the folly of annual appraisal (aka character assassination) but that corporate folly has persisted along with the ill feeling that it invariably generates. In this context, I see that Luxon's propensity to throw his people under a bus as opposed to helping them excel will not serve any of us all that well, least of all himself! Particularly when the one he did need to chuck under that bus was the source of the leak about the Maori ward situation. Yes Ministers need to perform, particularly given the headwinds here in NZ with the Maorification/Coup looming large. We need some true leadership, clear objectives and providing his coalition with the tools and methods to achieve what we need to put this nation back on its feet and back out of the gutter that wokism has dumped us in.

mudbayripper said...

Just exactly why would any National minister in charge of Media, give a dam about a destructive, hopelessly left wing MSM. Mabe Melissa Lee was doing just fine with her hands off approach, happy to watch them self destruct like the rest of us.
Much the same applies to the minister running disabilities.
Chris Luxon is a weak political wannabe. Unable to lead and make decisive decisions on the truly important issues confronting the country.
Throwing members of his team, as has become his trademark move, under the bus, is in my opinion a cowardly act designed to appease the coalitions political enemies.
Or are they his enemies.
I'm not convinced.