Opinion: Christopher Luxon’s weekend “state of the nation” speech ended National’s long summer hibernation and marked the return to politics as usual at the start of election year. But the speech was not a “state of the nation” address in the traditional sense. There was no picture of the type of New Zealand Luxon envisaged under his leadership, nor was there any attempt to paint one.

Rather, Luxon’s address was more a critique of Labour’s performance since 2017 than an assessment of the issues now facing the country. There was, for example, no mention of climate change and National’s approach, aside from an acknowledgment at the beginning of the sacrifices, suffering and hard work of those affected by the recent cyclones. Nor was there any reference to co-governance, despite the prominence this had been given during the preceding week by former Te Whatu Ora Chair Rob Campbell.

Luxon’s speech objectives were specific and limited. It was a carefully calculated appeal to the almost 200,000 voters National shed in 2020, which it needs to win back to be able to form a government. Many of these will be mortgage-belt voters, attracted to Labour because of Ardern’s handling of the pandemic, but whose support is now wavering, as increasing mortgage rates and the rising cost-of-living takes its toll. On top of this, what wage and salary increases they have received in the past few years have been further eroded by bracket-creep as they move into higher marginal tax bands.

They are a group of voters ripe for the plucking. Their initial reason for crossing over to vote Labour in 2017 has now passed, but until now, they have had no strong incentive, other than instinct, to drift home to National this year. A childcare tax rebate for those with household incomes up to $180,000, as Luxon pledged, will appeal to many of them. For those who despaired over the past three years that National no longer understood their concerns, the announcement might be enough to get them listening once more to what National has to say.

For the first time since the end of last year, National is starting to give voters something to think about. The announcement of the childcare rebate, or FamilyBoost as National is calling it, comes on the back of National’s alternative to Three Waters. Until now, 2023 has been dominated by Labour – first the drama surrounding Ardern’s resignation and the change of leadership, and then the cyclones and the government’s response. But to recapture the momentum it lost through its summer silence, National must now complement these policies with more announcements over coming weeks.

Christopher Luxon absent as Chris Hipkins steps into the floodlights
Luxon is not yet the direct threat Labour is painting him as
* Christopher Luxon absent as Chris Hipkins steps into the floodlights 

Labour’s half-hearted response to FamilyBoost suggests it knows National may have struck a vein of support on this issue. The cautious reaction of the early childhood education sector, historically no admirer of the National Party, suggests it may think likewise. But Labour still retains some cards. Following Ardern’s announcement at November’s Labour Party conference of increased support for childcare, there is still time for Labour to trump National when it releases the full details of its own plans in a few weeks’ time. 

But that is where the second part of National’s plans becomes relevant. By promising to fund FamilyBoost through slashing spending on external consultants, National scores a good, populist point on two fronts. Not only it does that resonate with those on the centre-right critical of what they consider excessive and wasteful government spending, it also tickles a little dagger under the ribs of Hipkins, who, as Public Services Minister, bawled out National’s use of consultants when in government as unacceptable, only to see the figure balloon out massively under his watch.

Hipkins’ decision earlier this week to drop making emissions reductions the top transport priority, ostensibly because of the need to repair cyclone damage, confirms that Labour also realises Ardern-era politics are now over

In framing its response to FamilyBoost, Labour will need to be very wary about how it is to be funded. With National having raised the spectre of wasteful spending on consultants, and Rob Campbell attacking senior public servants as out of touch with reality, Labour will need to be especially clear about how its childcare support plans will be funded and delivered.

At a time when the Minister of Finance is supposedly running the rule over all new and proposed expenditure, to ensure it is efficient and produces value for money, Labour cannot afford a repeat of the sloppy delivery process that has accompanied other social policy reforms of late.

Luxon’s speech made it clear his focus will be on the politics of attainment, unlike the politics of aspiration which characterised the Ardern era. He seems less interested in promoting grand visions than he is in advancing policies that are achievable. From his first few weeks as Prime Minister, Hipkins appears to be of a similar mindset.

Hipkins’ decision earlier this week to drop making emissions reductions the top transport priority, ostensibly because of the need to repair cyclone damage, confirms that Labour also realises Ardern-era politics are now over. It is one more policy u-turn since Hipkins took over, which has increasingly seen the two main parties moving on parallel tracks. It is not clear yet what voters will make of all this.

History suggests there will be a measure of scepticism at Labour’s changes. Labour found in 1974 after Kirk, and 1989 after Lange, that new, more grounded, and pragmatic leaders, as Rowling and Palmer were, did not cut it with voters. Neither did the fact that the adverse circumstances they inherited were largely beyond their control. In both cases, those governments plummeted to landslide defeats at the next election, the indifferent quality of their National Party opponents of the time notwithstanding.

Labour now looks to be increasingly flailing around in search of a new direction. But this constant chopping and changing will soon wear thin. So, the challenge for National is to credibly present itself as a potential government-in-waiting by building on policies such as FamilyBoost. It remains unclear that it can do so. 

Peter Dunne was the leader of United Future and served as a minister in former National and Labour governments.

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