Labour’s turn towards negativity against National leader Christopher Luxon is far from full-throated but nonetheless a sign the party knows it is in for a testing election campaign next year, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: With the grainy photo and vaguely unnerving music, it seemed for a moment like an artefact from an American political campaign.

But the Labour Party’s social media takedown of Christopher Luxon didn’t exactly reach Willie Horton levels of inflammation: “He’s not announced a single new policy,” the text blared of the National Party’s new leader after six months in the role.

Nonetheless, the decision to try out a negative line on Luxon caught the attention of many – particularly coming less than an hour before the release of a 1 News Kantar Public poll showing National again holding a slender lead over Jacinda Ardern’s Labour.

Last term, Labour had the luxury of staying (mostly) above the fray when it came to negative ads, with National’s internal dysfunction and ever-changing leadership providing more self-inflicted wounds than it could possibly match.

Ardern has also made a political asset of her “relentless positivity” in both the 2017 and 2020 election campaigns, contrasting her sunny persona first with Bill English’s fairly dour demeanour then Judith Collins’ combative negativity.

But with National clawing back support to reach pre-pandemic levels and electoral viability – and just as critically, Labour’s polling numbers heading back towards earth – the Prime Minister and her team can’t afford to sit back and rely on base competence to get them through.

Ardern’s ‘stardust’, as English dismissed it in 2017, may finally be settling too: while she still holds a lead in the preferred prime minister stakes, an eight-point margin over Luxon in the latest 1 News poll is as low as it has ever been since she came to power.

Labour’s initial attempt to shake off any fresh shine attached to Luxon seems unlikely to leave a mark.

Labour’s criticism of Christopher Luxon is fair but seems unlikely to do much damage. Screenshot: Facebook

The substantive claim in the ad, that the National leader has failed to announce any new policies in his first six months in charge, is broadly fair.

Rattling off a laundry list in response to the charge, he mostly named Labour policies that his party would undo. The one example he offered of proposing, rather than opposing, was the policy of indexing tax thresholds to inflation. Just one problem – Bridges first pitched that as leader back in early 2019.

But while such a blank slate would be damning six months out from an election, we are barely halfway through the current term, and there is plenty of time for National to make the case that it can offer more than blunt opposition.

Then there is the fact the messenger can be as important as the message – if not more so, as Ardern herself can testify after sparking Labour’s rapid ascent in 2017.

The response to the ad on social media seemed mixed at best, while Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson was quick to dismiss the suggestion it showed Luxon was unnerving Labour.

“No, not at all. I think it’s important as part of what we do to hold the Opposition to account: we produce many, many social media posts, and around the Budget dozens of positive posts about what we’re doing in the Budget, but from time to time, we’re going to raise issues and concerns about the Opposition.”

In fairness, the party seems to be merely dipping its toes into the waters of negativity: the posts in question appeared on Twitter and Facebook without any paid promotion to boost views.

But with a couple of similarly critical posts earlier in the year about Luxon suggesting he opposed public transport subsidies, Labour may well continue to use sharp elbows.

That the National leader was forced to walk back his public transport remarks shows there will be weaknesses for his opponents to exploit.

Jacinda Ardern’s popularity may be waning but she still has a passionate base of support, Sam Sachdeva writes. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A further sign of Luxon’s inexperience came on Tuesday morning when, asked about anti-Māori comments made on his social media tribute to land rights leader Joe Hawke, he initially shied away from outright criticism of the remarks and instead suggested the Government’s co-governance reforms were a factor.

Come the afternoon, there was a clearer response, one which should have been easy enough to offer earlier: “I condemn racism outright.”

Such a faux pas could be much more costly come election year, when the spotlight will shine intensely.

Further help from National governments past may be at hand: watching on intently as Luxon spoke on Tuesday morning was Julie Ash, whose seven-year stint in the Beehive included stints as the chief press secretary for John Key and English.

Ash may not be a permanent fixture, currently filling in for another member of Luxon’s media team – but her presence serves as another reminder that a number of former party operatives find the incumbent leader a more appealing proposition than his predecessors.

In any case, Luxon may not need to reach Keysian levels of popularity to knock over Ardern.

There are good reasons to avoid being overly bullish on National’s prospects. Raging inflation levels could yet recede before Kiwis go to the polls in late 2023, Ardern is still a sharp operator with a passionate base of support, and you have to go back over 30 years to find the last two-term government in New Zealand.

National will surely have been looking across the ditch to Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s victory over incumbent Scott Morrison despite similar levels of unpopularity.

Luxon is of course of a different political stripe, while other factors such as the ‘teal’ independents are unlikely to be replicated here exactly – but the fundamental approach, a so-called ‘small target’ strategy offering plenty of criticism of a divisive incumbent but little bold vision, could easily be adopted for a New Zealand audience.

The cost of living crisis also offers a clear bullseye for Luxon and his team, and one that the Government can do little to fully protect given the prevailing global conditions.

There are good reasons to avoid being overly bullish on National’s prospects. Raging inflation levels could yet recede before Kiwis go to the polls in late 2023, Ardern is still a sharp operator with a passionate base of support, and you have to go back over 30 years to find the last two-term government in New Zealand.

With Te Paati Māori having signalled its unwillingness to join National in government, Labour also has the benefit of a greater number of dance partners to work with.

But all the signs point to a tight and bitterly-fought race come 2023 – and the political negativity may just be beginning.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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