By Chris Trotter*
If there was ever an opportunity for a Conservative leader to take the political lead, it was last week. Seldom in the post-war period has there been such a confluence of disturbing and distressing events. War in Europe. Flames in Parliament Park. Covid-19 cases exceed 20,000 a day. Gasoline prices exceed $3.00 per litre.
A vigorous show of leadership from the Leader of the Opposition was in order. A performance that not only addressed the pain and confusion of New Zealanders, but also offered them comfort and guidance.
On Sunday, March 6, 2022, the opportunity for a groundbreaking “state of the nation” address was there in front of National’s Christopher Luxon.
Why didn’t he take it? Why was his SOTN address such a flabby and uninspiring effort? Political leaders worth their salt possess an intuitive sense of what voters care about. They don’t need a pollster to identify the main topics of conversation at national tables, at office water fountains and in public bars.
Considering the week we’ve all been through, Luxon’s talk should have been about safety: what happened to her and how she might be restored. That’s what the country wanted to hear, but that’s not what it got.
Luxon’s SOTN speech was straight out of National’s “Boiler Plate” file. Conventionally structured, rhetorically flat, and offering a set of policies indistinguishable from all other, equally indistinct SOTN speeches delivered over the past five years.
In a week when smoke rose from Kiev and Wellington: when New Zealanders were frightened and angered by a series of shocking and confusing events; what did the leader of National propose?
In a nation facing the enormous challenge of doing something meaningful about climate change – tax cuts. In a country where restoring social cohesion could hardly be more urgent – tax cuts. In a world where the red lines of international conduct have been erased under the tracks of Russian tanks – the tax cuts. (Although, to be fair, Luxon addressed a few tearful sentences to the Ukrainian people at the top of his speech.)
This was not the speech of a serious politician – or even a very careful one. In his rigorous retribution against Labor “socialism”, Luxon delivered the following anecdote:
“I remember sitting in a modest Moscow apartment with a couple in their forties on a dark, snowy afternoon. It could not have been clearer that socialism – in terms of government control of daily life and lack of rewards for hard work – had failed miserably and had in fact created misery.
Except the Soviet Union cut off the screen from history in 1991 – when Luxon was still a college student. The first time he visited Moscow as a Unilever employee was after 1993. This would place his Moscow family in the period of neoliberal “shock therapy”. It was a time of accelerated social and economic collapse as millions of Russian workers lost their jobs, homes, pensions and hopes. The Yeltsin years, when average Russian life expectancy actually dropped.
If you’re going to sing the damnations of Soviet socialism, it helps to be from a generation old enough to remember it!
The story of the “Moscow family” is, however, illustrative of the “paint-by-numbers” approach of Luxon’s speechwriters. Obviously, the National Party doesn’t have anyone as talented as John F. Kennedy’s Ted Sorenson or the American Republican Party’s Peggy Noonan and Pat Buchanan. Even more clearly, Luxon does not have the literary skills of a Barack Obama. The rhetorical genius of a Winston Churchill? … Unfortunately no.
Does it matter?
Certainly, the preponderance of recent polling data indicates that all Luxon needs to do to win in 2023 is sit back and not be Jacinda Ardern. If he can do it for the next 18 months, then all the smart money is on him to become New Zealand’s next Prime Minister. Why draw attention to yourself with grandiose speeches about the state of your country and/or the state of the world? Surely, the offer of modest tax cuts is precisely the kind of small but ideologically reassuring gesture that will get National across the line?
May be. If all indicators pointed to New Zealand emerging from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of the third quarter of 2022, with life quickly returning to normal by Christmas – well, sit back and saying as little as possible would probably be the best strategy. Especially if the rapidly fading Covid crisis throws all the unfinished and unstarted business of the Labor government into sharp relief.
But is this no longer a particularly likely scenario? Is it not more likely that the Russian-Ukrainian war, internationally, and the continued breakdown of social cohesion, domestically, will foster a much more austere, less forgiving and more polarizing type of politics? A policy of daunting political options and high stakes betting. A policy of intrepid saviors and ruthless avengers. Luxon might pass for the hero of a mellow Hollywood rom-com, but he barely makes the cut as a Marvel superhero.
Certainly, nothing in Luxon’s SOTN speech matches the tone of Jacinda Ardern’s speech following the extraordinary events of March 2, 2022. It was not a “kind” speech. Indeed, it exposed the Prime Minister’s cold fury at what had happened on the grounds of Parliament. More importantly, he drew attention to the explosion of misinformation and disinformation that had fueled the violence on the lawn of Parliament and continues to eat away at the social cohesion of the nation. Something, she warned, that should be addressed.
Laid out in Ardern’s speech are the themes that are likely to animate political discourse for the next eighteen months. Perhaps the best way to sum up the government’s new strategy is to quote the title of the greatest union fight song: “Which Side Are You On?” »
In its essence, it will ask the New Zealand electorate to choose between those who understand how drastically the world has changed and how much the country needs to change if it is to keep up; and those who refuse to acknowledge that New Zealand is well beyond being restored to something approaching normal by a handful of modest tax cuts.
In the scathing words of Finance Minister Grant Robertson:
“The National still lacks action on a plan for the key issues that will define New Zealand’s future. The speech said nothing about how we will meet the challenge of climate change or seize the economic opportunities that arise from a low-carbon economy to provide better-paying jobs.
Luxon will need to up his game by a significant margin if he doesn’t want to find himself and his party positioned on the wrong side of history.
Recalling the first verse of “Which Side Are You On”:
They say in Harlan county
There are no neutrals there.
You will either be a trade unionist
Or a thug for JH Blair.
If Luxon lets Labor maneuver him into the role of JH Blair, then he can say goodbye to his chances of becoming Prime Minister.
To have a fighting chance, he will need more than tax cuts.
* Chris Trotter has been a professional writer and commentator on New Zealand politics for over 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work can also be viewed at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.