Fran O’Sullivan: Gaffes won’t help Christopher Luxon defeat Jacinda Ardern

OPINION:

Christopher Luxon must be kicking himself after recent gaffes, which would have seen his performance marked down if he was subject to the same performance reviews as hisMPs.

Some three months into his role as leader, Luxon has achieved some strong results for the National Party.

First, he has galvanised political support to the extent that on some polls he would be prime minister if an election was held today.

For instance, the latest Roy Morgan poll published one week ago showed support for a National/Actcoalition government at 47 per cent, down 2.5 percentage points on the previous poll after Actcontinued to lose support, but still clearly ahead of the current Labour/Greens Government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 42.5 per cent (down 0.5 per cent).

In particular, support for National has remained at 38 per cent — six percentage points ahead of Labour on 32 per cent. This is National’sequal-highest level of support since January 2020 on the Roy Morgan polls, when Simon Bridges was still leader.

There won’t be a general election until late2023, but Luxon can chalk up the sustained poll lead as a big positive on his key performance indicators.

The Ardern Government is vulnerable.

Again, the Roy Morgan poll has exposed a rapidly growing loss of confidence in the Government, which is now at its lowest rating since Ardern became prime minister in October 2017.

In March, 39 per cent of electors measured by the poll said New Zealand was “heading in the right direction” compared to 51.5 per cent who said New Zealand was “heading in the wrong direction”.

Second, on other polls, Luxon has built growing support for himself as preferred prime minister.

Game over? No. Luxon should not get too comfortable.

He has exhibited an impulsive — and somewhat impetuous — streak, which has led to an embarrassing run of gaffes.

First, the unfortunate use of the term “bottom-feeders”.

On Kerre Woodham’s show on NewstalkZB, he said: “If you want to have a go and you want to make something of yourself, we don’t just do bottom feeding and just focus on the bottom. We focus on people who want to be positive and ambitious and aspirational and confident, right?”

This has been widely read — and not just by his political opponents — as betraying a mindset which is disparaging of people who have not done so well in society. Or those who lack the level of ambition that Luxon admires and believes (as do many of us) is necessary to rebuild New Zealand in the post-pandemic world.

The upshot is that he was later forced to dance on the proverbial pinhead and clarifyjust what he meant: “People that are in state houses that actually aren’t paying the rents, that are trashing the houses, abusing the neighbours,” he told other media.

This was somewhat risible, asexplanations go.

But it’s an illustration of the minefields ahead of political leaders who make a fast rise to the top without the benefit of having first made their gaffes inless public fashion.

He will need to guard against letting the word “numpty” slip out —one of his favourites from his corporate days.

Second, there is a suggestion he is a bit of a grinch.

Was it really necessary to have a poke at the first public holiday to celebrate Matariki? On Jack Tame’s Q+A show he mispronounced the June 24 holiday as “Matarangi”. Everyone makes a fluff occasionally on live TV, but usually they correct themselves when they realise their gaffe.

But the point here is why later go on to suggest cancelling another holiday such as Labour Day in its place?

New Zealand will have nine public holidays each year with the addition of Matariki. This is not outside the norms regionally. Victoria has 11 including the Friday before the AFL Grand Final and the Melbourne Cup. Other Australian states tend to have 10 public holidays.

It’s not as if Covid has not taught many in business that they can be productive even withshorter working hours.

The move towardsfour-day working weeks is growing internationally, with firms’ staffs cranking up production so they can get out the door in four days rather than five.

In New Zealand,Perpetual Guardian founder Andrew Barnes contends that the four-day week is “not just having a day off a week — it’s about delivering productivity, and meeting customer service standards, meeting personal and team business goals and objectives”.

Luxon may be right to observe that the additional holiday may have an effect on some smaller businesses.

The Government contends that the day offcould boost the economy by $310.4 million to $496.1m.

Let’s see how it plays out.

But this, combined with Luxon’searlier equivocating on whether raising the minimum wage was a good idea and his rejection of the planned employment insurance scheme can give an impression that he is quick to pan proposals rather than having a thorough look at thembefore making up his mind.

The employment insurance scheme was backed by BusinessNZ.

Opposition rose after the scheme was expanded to include sickness.

This week Luxon has also had to walk back his position on subsidising public transport.

A government package to ease the cost of living by halving public transport fares for three months (April through to the end of June) is proving a success. Auckland hit record highs on its public transport networks in the first week of April, coinciding with the start of the reduced fares.

There is merit in extending the scheme to get more people into public transport and to reduce overall carbon emissions.

The estimated cost of the three-month initiative is $25m to $40m.

When asked if the cut-price subsidised fares were something he would like to see extended,Luxon said he believed services should not be “subsidised” or “underwritten”.

He later said he had mis-spoken when saying public transport should not be subsidised at all.

In themselves these gaffes will not sink his leadership. But he is up against a prime minister who is fast recovering her own political sangfroid and is off on a series of brand-enhancing overseas visits leading business missions.

She is now delegating much of the Covid response to other ministers.

Ardern will be also enhanced by taking on the mantle of a “wartime leader” following Cabinet’s decision to send military support to help the Ukraine effort.

She can’t be written off even though theeconomy is hitting some judder bars.

As a leader, Luxon appears to suffer from a deficit of MPs who have the cojones to “speak truth to power”. He is said to have a tight kitchen Cabinet. Too tight, maybe. He would benefit from bringing former deputy leader Shane Reti into that loop.

Reti impresses as a both-feet-on-the-ground politician deeply concerned about the social fabric of New Zealand. He would provide necessary balance and challenge within that group.

The Easter break provides a good opportunity for Luxon to hit the pause button.

Take himself out of the public eye. Do some much-needed swot to get over the detail of policies.

Come back a more intentional leader and on top of his game.

If he is to best Ardern in the “one-to-one” debates that will come around quickly enough in next year’s election, he will need to start war-gaming soon.

Right now he is providing plenty of fodder for Labour to use against him.

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