OPINION: This week Simon Bridges walked away from politics - well from the parliamentary kind anyway. He will, in my opinion, be the one who got away. The one with all the makings of an excellent Prime Minister, but for whom luck was simply not on his side.
The chaos of the Muller coup that dethroned Bridges from National Party leadership, despite the party polling higher than the Government, is ultimately responsible for depriving New Zealand of an intelligent Māori Prime Minister who saw power as the means to achieve his vision for a better New Zealand rather than power for power’s sake.
In his valedictory speech this week, Simon Bridges sent a clear message to the colleagues he leaves behind:
You were elected for your values, principles, character, and judgments, and to be bold in pursuit of them.
He implored them to be less poll-driven and to develop long term strategies rather than short term sugar hits. These messages were undoubtedly directed at National’s current leader Christopher Luxon and his inner circle who have thus far approached Opposition with the strategy of continuity with competence.
No one can deny the success of the strategy on the surface as the turn around in the polls is evidence that they have convinced many New Zealanders that they would be a better option than Ardern’s Labour. However, as we all know, it is very rare that an opposition party wins an election, rather invariably it is the incumbent Government who loses it. It is clear, in this case, that the country is becoming fed up with the current lot and has an appetite for change.
One need only pay attention to the rhetoric coming from both leftwing and rightwing political circles to see that the change desired is radical. In fact, even disregarding the traditional political spectrum, and viewing New Zealand through a populist lens, it is evident that the status quo is rather detested.
Luxon’s National is on course to become just the latest bolt-on to the neoliberal beast that has delivered virtual political continuity for two decades. Clark, Key (and English), and now Ardern have led Governments that have practically picked up the reins from the previous administration and done little to change course.
Admittedly, Jacinda Ardern’s Government has introduced radical change in the form of co-governance policies, but even these can be seen as simply an escalation of John Key’s signing of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and the Te Urewera Tuhoe deal. However, when it comes to social policy, housing, infrastructure, education, justice, and health New Zealand has been subjected to twenty years of failure, underfunding, and unimaginative policy.
Labour supporters are right to point out that National underfunded mental health services, for example, and failed to provide solutions to a country with increasing needs in this area. But, they should be equally scathing of the failure of this Government to make any improvement to the situation in the five years they have been at the helm.
New Zealand needs something radically different. New ideas and fresh thinking. Not John Key 2.0.
Christopher Luxon shot out of the gates in December 2021 and did remarkably well at handling the inevitably challenging media landscape in the early days. He has seemed to bring discipline to a caucus that has lacked it and made National a viable alternative Government.
He has hit some speed bumps of late, however, demonstrating his inexperience and highlighting just how remarkably adept Jacinda Ardern is at communications and controlling the narrative. Backtracking and inconsistency on public holidays, subsidised transportation services, and a weak performance on Q&A have been reminders that this is a man who despite a wealth of business experience, is in his first term in Parliament.
Simon Bridges said in his valedictory speech:
Play your politics in Opposition timid, and you'll necessarily govern timid, as well. I say again 'Be bold'.
National must take this on board if they are to be successful in making New Zealand a better place to live, work, and raise a family. They cannot simply be Labour Lite or Labour but a bit more competent. The members of caucus who could quite easily slot into the Labour caucus, need to be open to listening to those who have ideas that depart from the past twenty years.
Waving the same virtue signalling flags instead of listening to the needs of the wider population is a sure way to ensure a snowballing of the current unrest about elitist institutions - academia, media, and government - imposing top-down social engineering.
Put simply, Christopher Luxon must find (and communicate) something to stand for. Being Prime Minister for the sake of it will not provide a lasting legacy of making New Zealand a better place.
John Key’s time as Prime Minister was characterised by the pursuit of popularity - a pretty successful one at that. He went where the wind blew and delivered little for his party in terms of embedding their ethos and values. He simply rode his horse right down the middle, always taking the path of least resistance.
Luxon’s admiration for John Key and his desire to replicate his popularity is no secret and it is this that leads to reasonable predictions of more of the same which suggests more of the same declining quality of life and widening inequality that New Zealanders want addressed.
With the exception of Te Paati Māori, which does not have an equivalent in American politics, New Zealand’s entire parliament would fit within the Democratic Party. From AOC to Joe Biden before he became a geriatric puppet, the Democrats have just as much breadth in their party as we do in our whole system. It is this narrowness that has ensured that no matter who leads our governments, the outcomes are largely the same. Disagreement tends to be ideological rather than practical. We need a Prime Minister and a Government which is willing to be bold and chart a different path. As things stand, Christopher Luxon and National are unlikely to be that government.