National leader and All Blacks coach both have time to turn around their indifferent performances to date and achieve victory. But both will need to dramatically change their ways
Opinion: Like Ian Foster with the All Blacks, Christopher Luxon began well, but his recent performance has slipped considerably. And, again like Foster with the All Blacks, increasingly he seems to lack the answers to put National back on top, and to keep it there.
Foster’s response to the All Blacks’ recent defeats has so far been to ask for patience and to promise more of the same – Luxon’s response to National’s stalling of the past couple of months has been to reach into National’s traditional grab-bag of tightening the rules regarding beneficiaries (in this case, the young unemployed) and a tougher approach to law and order.
Just as Foster seems incapable of understanding that other countries know the All Blacks’ traditional game-plan all too well and have worked out ways to overcome it, Luxon seems to think the approaches that have worked for National in the past will do so again, and that Labour will have no tricks of its own to counter them.
Foster’s bone-headed conservatism has also been accompanied by some downright clangers in his public comments. For his part, Luxon at times has looked hesitant and uncertain, and out of touch with current opinion. On other occasions he has, like Foster, simply made the wrong call.
His recent refusal to rule out post-election discussions with Brian Tamaki’s coalition of the crazies, Freedoms NZ, should they win seats at the next election, was such a case. Clearly, Luxon thought that, by fobbing off the question the way he did, he was pushing the possibility of any such post-election negotiations off the table and rendering the self-proclaimed Bishop irrelevant. In fact, he was doing the opposite. He was ensuring that remains a post-election prospect – the last thing he probably wanted.
Luxon should have heeded the lesson of his mentor Sir John Key. When Key bluntly ruled out working with New Zealand First before the 2008 election, he rendered it politically irrelevant. The immediate consequence was that New Zealand First was voted out of Parliament altogether at the 2008 election. At the same time, Key sent a clear message to National Party provincial waverers thinking of supporting New Zealand First to give National a coalition partner that they would be wasting their vote.
By contrast, Luxon’s ambivalence towards Tamaki’s mob leaves open the possibility of a deal if the circumstances are right. That may well embolden disaffected right-wing National supporters to opt for Freedoms NZ in the mistaken belief it will bolster support for a more right-wing government after 2023. But such a move will more likely have the opposite effect – encouraging soft National supporters who opted for Labour in 2020 to do so again in 2023, to keep the extremists at bay.
Given Luxon established the inquiry into Uffindell’s previous behaviour, he will be defying credibility and public expectation if he decides Uffindell’s future without making public the pertinent facts that have led him to that conclusion
Had Luxon made a bold statement along Key’s 2008 lines he would have rendered Tamaki’s coalition irrelevant and shepherded at least some of the waverers back into the National tent. Now, he risks not only encouraging some of his waverers to go elsewhere, but also driving some of his more liberal voters across the line to Labour.
Luxon’s latest big test will be the next stage of the Sam Uffindell affair. Compared with Labour’s messy handling of its troubles with Gaurav Sharma, Luxon’s early handling of the Uffindell case looked crisp and decisive. Uffindell was quickly stood aside, pending the outcome of an independent inquiry by a reputable QC. Once the QC’s inquiry was complete, Luxon promised he would make a clear decision on the MP’s future.
However, Luxon’s process, like one of Foster’s game-plans, has become more clouded. Not only has the quick and clean nature of the inquiry been blunted by the inquiry now having been extended for some weeks, raising its own questions, but Luxon has become less certain about what happens next. While he will still determine Uffindell’s fate, based on the QC’s report’s findings, he now says he will not be making those findings public.
Luxon may see withholding such information as the political equivalent of protecting commercially sensitive material, but politics does not work that way. Given he established the inquiry into Uffindell’s previous behaviour, he will be defying credibility and public expectation if he decides Uffindell’s future without making public the pertinent facts that have led him to that conclusion. Whatever the outcome, there will be a strong public sense of there being something still hidden if the relevant findings of the QC’s inquiry are not made public. As far as Uffindell is concerned, that would leave a permanent shadow over his reputation, whether he remains in Parliament or not.
In such circumstances, National’s handling of the Uffindell case will look just as murky and uncertain as Labour’s handling of Sharma’s situation, rather than the sharp and professional contrast it looked like providing at the outset. Any perceived advantage National may have gained with Luxon in charge will have been lost, just as quickly as Foster tarnished the All Blacks’ reputation.
Foster and Luxon will face their judgment days in September/October 2023 with the Rugby World Cup and general election. They both have time to turn around their indifferent performances to date and achieve victory. But to do so, both need to dramatically change their ways. The only certainty at present is doing more of the same is unlikely to produce the respective victories they earnestly seek. Both need to make bold changes and heed the wise counsel of others. However, it remains unclear as yet whether either has the capacity or the willingness to do so.