Christopher Luxon plans to dish out shadow portfolios to his MPs based on hard-headed corporate-style performance measures rather than political patronage.
The National leader is not going on record ahead of Monday, when he will announce his new front-bench lineup in Parliament and just which MP gets what portfolio.
But an illustration of the Luxon style is his decision to put his leadership rival Simon Bridges into the finance role. This will not purely be payback for Bridges' withdrawal from the leadership race, allowing Luxon to be crowned National's leader without a caucus vote. It is obvious that outside of Luxon himself, Bridges is the best Opposition politician for the role. It should have gone to him earlier, but pure pique from former leader Judith Collins resulted in her splitting the shadow portfolio in two and putting lesser performers into the roles.
Bridges will be expected to put Finance Minister Grant Robertson under political pressure and come up with solutions for major economic issues.
Soundings indicate that the corporate style of team building that the new National leader will impose will sort performers from also-rans.
His MPs will be expected not only to nail their direct opponents in Parliament — rather like the way his senior executives at Air New Zealand marked their international opponents at Qantas — but also come up with solutions to major national issues within their portfolios. He will introduce data-based performance measures, including on the impact they are making in their shadow portfolios.
He will be applying the lessons he has learnt from his customer-focused commercial background and redirecting them to gain new customers — in this case voters. His MPs can expect to hear more — much more — about focusing on issues that "move the dial". Luxon will want to know if they are articulating messages powerfully and proposing good ideas, not simply opposing the Government, which is also a major part of an Opposition's arsenal.
Those MPs who have not had corporate backgrounds may find this approach anathema.
But Luxon will be relying on polling and data, as well as his own observations, to measure individual effectiveness.
Luxon has impressed on the National caucus that they can't go into the 2023 election with an unfocused team.
His pitch to MPs, during the individual talks he held when building support for his leadership, was that National needed to get an "emotional breakthrough". It could either continue to play the internally-focused game that has seen it slump in the political polls to the point where several strategists believed it was heading towards 15 per cent support.
Or do it differently.
He told them it was time for "National versus Labour", not "National versus National".
There might be tears or setbacks but there had to be change to build a unified team.
MPs like Nicola Willis with housing, Chris Bishop on Covid and Simeon Brown on the gangs were already considered impactful politicians.
But National was making no impact against the Finance Minister. It needed a politician who could do retail politics and make the case to ordinary punters that wasteful spending leads to higher levels of debt, thus limiting the amount available to spend investing in, for instance, education or infrastructure.
Under Collins' leadership, National had basically lost the "big end of town".
That was apparent in the Herald's 2021 Mood of the Boardroom survey, where New Zealand's top business leaders were brutal in their ratings of National's performance, and Collins' as Opposition leader.
When asked whether the party has sufficiently renewed its personnel at both party and political levels, as well as its policies since the election, an overwhelming majority — some 90 per cent — said no. Just 2 per cent said yes, while 8 per cent were unsure.
The results of the Mood survey hit hard among National's top ranks. Luxon is endeavouring to turn those negative business perceptions around.
Business wants to know what is in store. Invitations have gone out from the likes of Business New Zealand for Luxon to address the Major Companies Group. Similarly, the Hugo Group, which meets to discuss public policies, and a webinar with business think tank the New Zealand Initiative.
He will also be talking with chambers of commerce across the country.
He will be telling them about National's new economic focus on productivity — housing is integral to that; a strong education focus; mental health; and Covid. The structural dynamic around the "Great Resignation" and addressing the skills shortage will be part of that.
Luxon is also reaching out to CEOs from the former Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council, which he chaired before resigning from Air New Zealand to prepare for a political career (and which Jacinda Ardern disbanded), and he has reached out to Rocket Lab's Peter Beck.
Luxon has not been shy about letting it be known that he wants to build a strong support team around him with the right advisers. He is of the view that good people (A-people) will be attracted to an A-team focus. Capacity was lost after the change of government in 2017 and National's abysmal showing in the 2020 election saw its parliamentary budget further decimated.
When it comes to Bridges, he will be bringing street-smart experience in Parliament to the role.
He's not the sort of politician to underestimate Robertson. It's known that he views his opponent's strengths as significant. The Finance Minister is an articulate, personable politician who is also a good communicator.
The pair have a personal regard for each other. Robertson sent Bridges a kind message after his son ended up in hospital after a playground accident this week. The accident meant the newly minted National finance spokesman could not be present when Luxon announced his role. Robertson has also congratulated Bridges on being awarded the plum portfolio.
Bridges is unlikely to be overly bullish this year.
But he will want to use the remaining fortnight in Parliament to get on record, early up, National's evolving concerns on productivity, the level of government spending and debt, inflation and Covid. Particularly when it comes to opening up the border so that more immigrants, with the skills business needs, can come into New Zealand.
2022 will be the time when Bridges makes a much harder critique of the Government's performance on economic issues and (in time) proposes solutions for them.
Andrew Bayly — who previously was Shadow Treasurer and held the shadow infrastructure portfolio — is likely to end up with roles in revenue and commerce. His style is more technocratic compared to Bridges' street-fighting approach. MP Mark Mitchell is a deeply retail politician and may be used in areas where the Government is vulnerable, including law and order.
While the Government's financial numbers are holding well for now, Bridges is expected to say this is a "sugar high" off the back of the mammoth fiscal stimulus to avert the worst financial effects of the Covid pandemic.
There is a concern that 2022 will bring a different economic environment, with more businesses going to the wall.
Bridges has already talked with the NZ Initiative.
He also plans to reach out to former finance ministers like Sir Bill English and Steven Joyce — Sir Michael Cullen would have been among these if he was still alive.
Essentially, both Luxon and Bridges want to rebuild National as the trusted party when it comes to the economy.
Bridges will focus on three main issues: productivity; wasteful spending and debt; and high inflation and the cost of living.
Luxon will be focusing on all of that. And on the political polls which will assess both his party's performance and his own.