By Chris Trotter*
Let's get something out of the way from the get-go. There is nothing unprecedented about a former leader of the National Party reclaiming that position some years after losing it.
Those “pundits” who blithely dismiss the likelihood of New Zealand following in the footsteps of Australia’s political parties, really don’t merit the description. Was it not Bill English who led the National Party to the worst defeat in its history in 2002?
And was it not the same Bill English who succeeded John Key as National Party leader – and Prime Minister – in 2016? That established, I hope readers will find the prospect of Simon Bridges Redux (if that is the final outcome of this contest) just a little bit easier to accept.
Whether Bridges is the right person for the job is, obviously, a very different question. One worthy of just as much careful consideration as the putative candidacy of Christopher Luxon. Given the general agreement among National Party watchers that one of these two contenders will be the next Leader of the Opposition, it seems only sensible to weigh the pros and cons attached to both men.
That Simon Bridges could become the first National politician of Māori descent to lead his party is, potentially, a very big deal.
Though very few people engaged in mainstream politics are prepared to admit it, the future of Māori, and the future of Aotearoa-New Zealand, are becoming ever more closely entwined. The country’s politics cannot escape being caught up in this uncomfortable fact. The young people of 2021 – as the bitter recriminations surrounding the Pfizer vaccine roll-out attest – are disproportionately Māori. Far too many of these youngsters are inadequately prepared to shoulder the burden of preserving their country’s economic and social well-being in the years ahead.
The aforementioned Bill English understood the frightening dimensions of Māori underperformance better than most of his parliamentary colleagues. It was one of the primary drivers of his “social investment” strategy – an imaginative policy initiative that was, sadly, allowed to falter under Bridges 1.0, Todd Muller and Judith Collins. If he proves successful in his bid to reclaim the National Party leadership, Bridges 2.0 could do a lot worse than to take English’s idea and run with it.
Dramatic policy changes in education, health, housing and corrections cannot be avoided in the years ahead if Aotearoa-New Zealand is to avoid crippling skill deficiencies in its national workforce. A country that becomes dependent on imported skills cannot hope to exercise a decisive influence over its future development. Were Bridges to put himself at the forefront of this debate, and give his party the ideological space to develop new and innovative solutions to the problem of Māori underperformance, then National could steal an election-winning march on Labour.
The Government, urged on by its large Māori caucus, clearly grasps the urgency of indigenous underperformance. Its solutions, however, are of a race-based radicalism that many Pakeha (and not a few Māori) reject as constitutionally objectionable. If Labour proceeds along the lines suggested in the He Puapua Report, considerable political division seems inevitable. A National Party led by a Māori politician no less seized of the importance of indigenous underperformance, but promoting policies intended to benefit all underperforming citizens equally, could position itself as a force for unity and progress.
There is strong evidence in Bridges’ autobiography that he has given considerable thought to what it means to be a New Zealander in the twenty-first century. National is not the party most people think of when it comes to these sort of questions – especially those touching upon the future of Māori. It is, nevertheless, the party which, under Jim Bolger and Doug Graham, got the Treaty Settlement ball rolling. Nor should it be forgotten that it was John Key who sent Pita Sharples off to New York to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In the chapter on race in Bridge’s National Identity, he contrasts his own way of being Māori with that of the Māori Party MP, Rawiri Waititi – with whom he went to school:
“Today Rawiri has a full face moko, which is beautiful and fierce and which I am in awe of. But you couldn’t pay me a billion dollars to get that done to myself. The pain would be one reason; the other is that it would change who I am – it’s not me. Rawiri’s tikanga is not a daily part of my life and never will be. Nevertheless, New Zealand needs to realise that I am just as Māori as Rawiri. Let’s not look down on him, and let’s not look down on me. He’s not too Māori and I’m not too Pākehā. Let’s celebrate [New Zealand’s] diverse garden.”
Is it really that difficult to see Bridges offering National its own “Nixon recognises Red China” moment?
Meanwhile, the other half of the National caucus will be asking themselves whether the former Air NZ CEO, Christopher Luxon, can give the party another John Key moment.
Those of a more ruthless mindset will demand to know how any intelligent right-wing politician could possibly entertain the idea of installing yet another “successful business person” at the helm of the National Party? Isn’t one Todd Muller enough?
When is the National Party finally going to understand that John Key didn’t become one of its most successful leaders on account of his career in business, but because he had an unerring instinct for where “Average Kiwis” positioned themselves politically. That, and a flair for institutional politics that could just as easily have made him head of the CTU as the Nats.
To put it bluntly: Christopher Luxon is no John Key.
Then there’s the question of Luxon’s religious beliefs. Obviously, he’s not the only member of National’s caucus who professes the Christian religion. Bridges, himself, is a pastor’s son who, like Luxon and a not inconsiderable number of his caucus colleagues, proclaims himself to be an evangelical Christian.
Therein, lies the problem. What sort of evangelical is Luxon?
Essentially, there are only two kinds of evangelical. The first (and the most faithful to the biblical injunctions) is the evangelical who proclaims the “good news” of Jesus Christ to the whole world, unceasingly. The second kind of evangelical sees the hand of God at work in society and, in the case of far too many evangelical politicians (especially in the United States) feels the Almighty’s hand guiding them into preordained leadership roles. New Zealanders, a secular bunch for the most part, soon grow weary of the first kind of evangelical, and are profoundly wary of the second.
Now, Luxon is at pains to reassure New Zealanders that he regards his religion as a private matter, not to rammed down people’s throats, or enshrined in their country’s laws. All well and good, but if that really is his position, then he cannot truly call himself an evangelical. Ramming righteousness down the sinner’s throat is the noisy evangelical’s Christian duty. A quiet evangelical, on the other hand, is almost certainly convinced that God has a special plan for him – and the country. Something which should give both his colleagues, and the voters, pause.
On the other hand, Christopher Luxon strikes just about everyone who meets him, or watches him on television, as an intelligent, diligent and resourceful individual. His newness, seen by some as a distinct handicap, is just as easily construed as a recommendation. No, he doesn’t have parliamentary dirt under his fingernails, but neither does he have fratricidal blood on his hands.
By all accounts, Luxon was a very capable CEO. It is entirely possible that, by 2023, that is all most New Zealanders will be looking for.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.