If they have time tonight, the Beehive’s new strategists deserve a quiet beer or Pepsi Max to celebrate a blinder of a first week.
The appearance of anti-smoking activists moaning on TV about a regulatory reversal was more a reminder of what people voted against, than a political problem for the new Government.
No one has accused Christopher Luxon of being a policy wonk or details nerd. His term chairing Jacinda Ardern’s short-lived Business Advisory Council suggests he’d be as happy fronting a Labour programme as a National one. His political pitch has always been that he’s a systems manager and relationship guy.
That may be exactly what the times call for.
By accident or design, last Friday’s coalition deals have produced New Zealand’s most right-wing government since the mid-1990s.
Labour and its allies may bleat, but it’s not Luxon’s fault the Ardern-Hipkins Government failed to deliver a bold new social-democratic Sweden of the South Pacific.
Their failure means a majority of voters – including half a million who trusted Labour or the Greens in 2020 – have given Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters a mandate to try building something more like a bold new Singapore of the South Pacific.
Almost all the important bits of the National, Act and NZ First manifestos made it into the final deals. Those that were dropped were mainly loony-tunes stuff anyway, like National’s foreign-buyers tax, Act’s yes-or-no Treaty referendum and NZ First’s conspiratorial rantings about multilateral institutions and international talkshops.
The agreed 49-point, 100-day plan can be read as a hodgepodge of unrelated action points lacking any overarching “vision”, but that reflects the mood of the electorate.
Over the past quarter-century, voters have had quite enough of strategies and business-growth brochures and just want some practical things to happen.
The plan has also been criticised for mainly just repealing legislation and stopping some of the previous regime’s pet projects.
But the length of the list - mostly of things that cost a lot but do neither good nor even harm - shows the defeated Government’s sole solution to any problem was a new agency, working group or report.
Having so many other bullet points that merely promise to start work or introduce legislation will allow Luxon to claim his ministers have over-delivered when the 100 days are up in early March.
In the meantime, the list gives ministers and officials the bullet points they need to understand the Government’s priorities. More in the mode of a David Lange or Jim Bolger than a Helen Clark or John Key, Luxon seems set to now let them just get on with it.
One reason for New Zealand’s quarter-century of policy stagnation and economic and social decline has been increasingly authoritarian micromanagement by successive prime ministers’ offices.
It has meant that whatever innovative ideas, passions or even personality individual ministers, their advisers or the bureaucracy may have had to offer, have been ever-more brutally smothered by a small clique of political operatives on the Beehive’s ninth floor.
This was unintended.
New Zealand’s most important and ultimately popular reforms invariably began with ministers and officials thinking outside the square and being prepared to challenge one another, sometimes fiercely.
The decline began with the innocent-sounding “no surprises” rule under Jim Bolger and Jenny Shipley. That required independent agencies like state-owned enterprises to tell ministers, and ministers to tell the Prime Minister’s Office, of decisions and announcements they were about to make before they were made.
The original deal was that these would be a mere heads-up. Except perhaps in terms of timing and political management, ministers wouldn’t interfere in operational and public-relations decisions that the law placed with officials, and the Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t interfere in ministers’ policy- and decision-making.
Successive prime ministers reneged.
For a while, Cabinet and Cabinet-committee meetings remained forums for fierce conflicts to be voiced and resolved.
That culture extended to caucus meetings, where ministers and even prime ministers could be confronted aggressively. Today’s backbenchers are expected to operate like Carthusian nuns.
By the time of the Key Government, officials found themselves having to check what coloured cushions they could buy for embassies. Under Ardern, even staff in university communications departments found innocuous social media posts about student events could sometimes make their way right up to the prime minister’s press team for approval.
This is not a good way to run an organisation with revenue and expenditure of $140 billion a year and which employs more than 400,000 people. No wonder they didn’t have time to get around to building those 100,000 houses or completing that Ngāpuhi Treaty settlement.
Worse, oppositions and media bizarrely decided that evidence a minister had rejected official advice was a gotcha. Previously, ministers charting their own direction and taking their officials along with them signalled success rather than scandal.
By the mid-2000s, officials wouldn’t give formal advice without first checking it was what the minister wanted to receive.
That hardly leads to ministers having access to the widest range of ideas, with free, frank yet contestable advice on their pros and cons.
The safest option became to do nothing.
This Prime Minister may have the management style and self-confidence to reverse this trend and the national malaise it has caused.
His casual response to Peters’ self-declared war on the media demonstrated similar political finesse to Tony Blair after his deputy, John Prescott, punched a voter who had egged him in 2001.
Blair didn’t condone Prescott, but said “John is John”.
Similarly, Luxon, while not agreeing with Peters’ more elaborate allegations, basically shrugged. Rejecting the left-wing daily media’s proposition that every difference of opinion, policy or style among ministers is a crisis may be key to managing coalition government.
Voters know from their own workplaces that airing differences is what drives better decisions. Top-down regimes are perhaps best for armies and police forces but not for organisations whose stakeholders want innovation and change.
The opportunity for Luxon is to extend that more sophisticated laissez-faire management approach throughout the Beehive and into the Wellington bureaucracy. It won’t be easy, given resistance to his much-needed bureaucrat cull. But Luxon’s even bigger challenge is that senior mandarins remain cowed by Wellington’s ever-tighter command-and-control culture that emerged after the late 1990s, which they nevertheless navigated successfully to reach the top.
If Luxon sets ministers and bureaucrats free to generate new ideas and boldly implement them, the way they did successfully for Lange and Bolger, he might yet lead the transformational government voters want, but which Clark, Key and Ardern’s top-down model couldn’t deliver.
If some ministers and officials can’t respond positively to a different way of doing things, Luxon can always sack them and get in new people who will.
- Matthew Hooton has over 30 years’ experience in political and corporate communications and strategy for clients in Australasia, Asia, Europe and North America, including the National and Act parties and Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown.