Bumpy roads ahead: New Zealand’s incoming PM set to lead a three-headed, ‘anti-woke’ government | New Zealand politics
In the long run, New Zealand’s incoming prime minister should still be pretty pleased to have got to where he is now.
Just three years ago Christopher Luxon was entering parliament for the first time as a member of a chaotic and failing party. He now leads that party – National – and will soon ascend the long driveway to Government House to be sworn in as prime minister. Not a bad turnaround.
But if you zoom in on the current situation, things start to look a lot less ideal.
Last month’s election gave National its second worst result since 2002. At the start of the campaign, polls suggested the party could govern with just one coalition partner – the ACT Party, a right-wing group with broadly similar goals to National who would be eager to make a National-led Government work.
This was also the result suggested on election night, but half a million “special” votes had not yet been counted then, and their release yesterday confirmed that the hope of a two-party coalition is now gone.
Instead Luxon will be forced to marshall ACT and the populist NZ First for either a full coalition or some kind of confidence and supply deal.
NZ First leader Winston Peters is tricky to summarise. He’s the man who picked Jacinda Ardern to lead the Government in 2017 but also the man who recently accused her of some sort of shadowy cover up over the Christchurch terror attack. He favours a large interventionist state which is hostile to foreign capital and people, keen to lock up criminals but also raise the minimum wage.
This is not the worldview of ACT leader David Seymour. While the two have been fighting for the same votes in recent years they come from deeply different traditions: ACT’s purpose has been to carry on the neoliberal economic project started in the 1980s, to strip back the state to the bone, while NZ First has spent a lot of time trying to stop that.
And the two find it hard to be collegial. Seymour once suggested Peters would soon be in a care home needing help to dress himself; Peters has called Seymour a “cuckold” many times and once spelt out how he thought a physical fight would go between them.
This tension has eased as the three leaders try to look like grownups for coalition talks, but not abated entirely – this week Seymour admitted he had been trying to contact Peters but hadn’t received any response.
But this new right-wing Government is not doomed, just doomed to be messy.
All three parties share a reflexive distaste for anything that could be described as “woke”. They all are uncomfortable (or at least profess to be) with any kind of Government programme that seeks to redress past wrongs against the indigenous Māori by giving them some kind of separate service, like the Māori Health Authority. They all believe the criminal justice system is too “soft” on criminals. They will all be happy to invest in roads over public transport or cycling infrastructure.
On economic issues however, there are rough seas ahead.
National staked its election on a tax cut which will be paid for by un-banning foreign purchases of homes in New Zealand, and then taxing them. The party had few other marquee economic policies and its shadow finance minister said she would resign if she couldn’t deliver the plan.
NZ First is unlikely to allow foreign home buying back in. That doesn’t rule out the tax cut – but it makes paying for it while not either adding to public debt or seriously cutting back public services much more difficult. It also makes it even harder to argue that such a tax cut would not add to New Zealand’s inflation.
Seymour, meanwhile, will be pushing for a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi that many think would tear apart New Zealand’s social consensus, and for rollbacks on the gun reforms instituted after the Christchurch attacks. Even if Luxon talks him out of these goals, the conversation focusing on this stuff will distract from National’s attempts to keep the Government focused on more pocketbook middle-class issues.
The big job for Luxon as this Government firms up will be making sure National keeps its newly won centre voters onside. He’s seen how quickly Labour managed to lose this vote after its huge win in 2020. Some culture warfare will make sense electorally – expect to see a lot of noise made about speed limits being lifted – but too much will leave a sour taste, especially if inflation remains rampant. This task is far from impossible, but the special votes just made it a lot harder.