By Chris Trotter*
Covid has a lot to answer for. Todd Muller, in particular, has good cause to feel aggrieved. How much more smoothly his induction to “the hardest job in politics” might have gone if he had been able to sit down, in familiar surroundings, and answer his inquisitors calmly and with due consideration.
What New Zealanders saw, instead, was Muller standing all alone in the echoing darkness of the Old Legislative Chamber. Starkly lit, and filmed from a low angle, he was forced to respond to questions directed at him from hundreds of kilometres away. Fixed to his position in front of the camera, he attempted to enliven the strained encounter by raising his voice and gesticulating energetically. The effect was unsettling: a big, shouty man, waving his arms about randomly it the dark. In short, a performance most unlikely to inspire either confidence in, or affection for, the National Party and its new leader.
The contrast with Christopher Luxon could hardly be sharper. Interviewed by Jack Tame for TVNZ’s Q+A current affairs show, the new National leader was seated comfortably in what one must assume was his own (very stylish) Auckland residence. The interview set-up was so much more conducive to useful communication than the desperately uncomfortable environment inflicted upon Muller. The lighting was flattering, the camera-angles professionally determined. With both men seated comfortably, eye-to-eye, Tame’s questions, and Luxon’s answers, resulted in the sort of unforced, self-revelatory dialogue that permits the voters to get a good measure of the Opposition’s new leader.
One can only speculate about the to-ing and fro-ing between TVNZ, the Q+A team, and Luxon’s people, that presumably preceded the interview. What seems clear, however, is that the advice being tendered to the new National leader is several orders of magnitude superior to that supplied to his hapless predecessors. This is, in and of itself, important.
For most of her term as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has had at her disposal the formidable expertise of, initially, Mike Munro (Helen Clark’s superb media manager) and then the equally competent Andrew Campbell. Combined with her own not inconsiderable talents as a communicator, the highly professional media management of Ardern’s Government has contributed significantly to its political success.
There is a story (possibly apocryphal) that illustrates the vital importance of what would now be called the “situational awareness” of a good media manager. It harks back to a post-election period when Winston Peters was, not untypically, denying all interest in the “baubles of office”. When, however, it became clear that his support would be needed to keep Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government in power, Peters’ disinterest began to slacken.
Waylaid at one of the country’s larger airports by a scrum of journalists, Peters was repeatedly challenged to explain his sudden change of heart vis-à-vis said baubles. It was then that Mike Munro, who fortuitously happened to be present, noticed that Peters was standing in front of a Christmas display featuring a plethora of – you guessed it – baubles. Understanding immediately how damaging this “Winston with Baubles” image would be: Munro gently edged the NZ First leader into a less compromising backdrop.
Silly? Petty? Well, yes, of course. But one has only to recall the images of Don Brash attempting (unsuccessfully) to climb in and out of a racing car, or “walking the plank” from a speed-boat to the jetty, to grasp just how much careful thinking and planning needs to go into how a political leader is presented. Even in 2021, one picture is still worth a thousand words.
It should, therefore, be a source of real satisfaction to National’s backers and strategists that Luxon has around him a team capable of setting up something as politically constructive as the Q+A dialogue with Tame. Quite apart from all the non-verbal communications: the sophisticated and stylish surroundings; the subject’s relaxed demeanour; Luxon was able to deliver his pitch without any of the weird distractions that prevented Muller from communicating effectively with his audience.
What, then, was the substance of Luxon’s pitch and how effectively did he present it? If the message of National’s new leader could be compressed into a single word, then that word would be: Moderation.
Luxon made it clear that he will be making full strategic use of Bill English’s “Social Investment” policy – “surging” resources to where they can do the most good for those deemed likely to make a prolonged call upon the state’s resources. While declining to offer a full endorsement of former National Prime Minister Jim Bolger’s call for a “reimagining of capitalism”, Luxon made it clear he was no hard-line adherent of the laissez-faire policies of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (Not to mention Act’s David Seymour.) Nor was he prepared to put a cap on state indebtedness as a percentage of GDP. (As both Labour and the Greens did in 2017.) Lower taxes: while something he would “love” to do, is not something he’s committing National to just yet.
All this will be music to the ears of the 400,000 National “deserters” of 2020. Luxon has, very clearly, chosen to reject the option of presenting a “flinty-faced” National Party to an electorate grown accustomed to the rhetoric of “kindness”. There are simply too many women voters the party needs to win back from Labour.
Conservative males will likely interpret Luxon’s pitch in slightly different terms. The priority for these voters is a National leader capable of restoring the New Zealand ship of state to an even keel. Radicalism of all kinds: be it of the Right or the Left; is unsettling. Moderation is exactly what they are seeking: a return to business as usual.
Perhaps the most important of Luxon’s answers to Tame’s questions were the ones he gave on Māori-Pakeha relations. After displaying an impressively succinct understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi’s three articles – an understanding conspicuously lacking in the Prime Minister when similarly questioned in 2018 – Luxon drew a very clear line in the sand on the issue of Māori co-governance.
Foreshadowed here, is what will be, for many New Zealanders, a welcome rejection by National of what is fast becoming the “official” version of the Crown’s Treaty obligations. Members of the political class have been given a thoroughly polite, but timely, warning that a change of government will bring with it a considerably less radical interpretation of the Treaty’s meaning. Those senior public servants anticipating an inexorable, bi-partisan advance towards the full realisation of Māori co-governance with Pakeha, in time for the Treaty’s bicentennial in 2040, should think again.
Naturally, not every one of Luxon’s replies were as polished, or filled with political heft, as his response to Tame’s questioning on the Treaty. Indeed, it would be astonishing if they were. National’s new leader has been in Parliament for barely a year, and there is still a lot of polishing to do. Labour’s problem, however, is that Luxon is not a rough-hewn work-in-progress, still bearing the marks of the chisel. On the contrary, the man already offers a remarkably smooth surface to the camera’s gaze.
Two more years of polishing. Two more years of coming to grips with the insatiable hunger of the 24-hour news cycle. Two more years of drawing the best from a caucus team already buoyed by the palpable change of mood across both party and country. Two more years of favourable poll numbers. Two more years of rising donations from the fabled “big end of town”. Two more years of refining National’s message and upgrading the means of delivering it – and Labour will be in a world of pain.
How eagerly the Prime Minister must be awaiting medical science’s final judgement on the Omicron Variant. The worse, the better.
*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.