National's leadership change has unfolded roughly as predicted last week.
After some jockeying between Christopher Luxon and Simon Bridges, the former prevailed and made the latter finance spokesman.
Balancing gender, geography, social outlooks and political experience, Luxon made Nicola Willis — the highly rated former John Key adviser and Fonterra executive — his deputy.
Her political soulmate, Chris Bishop — unquestionably National's top policymaker — is expected to be confirmed as number four in the coming days. Shane Reti will be part of the senior group, which must also include a South Islander.
For the first time since Bill English and Steven Joyce left Parliament in early 2018, National's senior team compares favourably with Labour's top five of Jacinda Ardern, Kelvin Davis, Grant Robertson, Megan Woods and Chris Hipkins.
Luxon has acted more deliberatively than some media advised. Delaying Bridges' confirmation until yesterday let the spotlight first fall on himself and Willis, with both exceeding expectations in their first lap of the media circus.
Unambiguous messaging that there will be no change to abortion law under a Luxon Government and that he now supports safe spaces around abortion clinics undermined the predictable media attack on his conservative religious beliefs.
The left-wing fuss over him owning an Auckland home, a Wellington apartment, a family bach and four rental properties also worked through the system. Luxon may be worth tens of millions of dollars — but a lot more people are, after the record increase in house prices since Ardern was elected to make them plateau.
Voters accepted Key being National leader despite him being worth a reported $50 million, now presumably vastly more given the general global asset inflation of the past four years. There's no reason why they will reject Luxon's financial success.
To the contrary: Luxon's first electoral priority is winning back more than Judith Collins could, of the 500,000 voters who ticked National in 2017 but switched to Labour in 2020's Covid election.
His second priority is attracting back some but not all of the 200,000 voters who backed National in 2020 but have since switched to Act. National wants and needs Act to sit reliably over 5 per cent and again be a self-sustaining coalition partner, but it would prefer David Seymour and Brooke van Velden to understand which party is boss.
The focus by Labour strategists and left-wing Wellington journalists on Luxon's financial success will attract rather than repel these crucial voters, one of whom is the median voter who will decide Luxon's and Ardern's fates in two years. And whereas Key's business career was in the more murky world of international finance, Luxon headed New Zealand's most popular company.
Bridges' appointment as finance spokesperson in his home town of Tauranga — even if a family emergency meant he didn't make the press conference — was Wellington's worst-kept secret, after Bridges dropped out of the leadership race. But adding "infrastructure" to Bridges' job title and the issues Luxon highlighted pointed to their priorities.
Broadly, English and Joyce's apparent obsession with debt-to-GDP ratios has been replaced by productivity as National's number one focus. According to Luxon, "for the last 30 years, our economy has been suffering from a productivity disease".
Luxon and Willis may be Key loyalists, Bridges one of his senior ministers, and Bishop a former Actoid, but it's 30 years ago that Ruth Richardson's benefit cuts were followed by the Mother of All Budgets. Luxon's comments implicitly criticised and distanced himself not just from Bolger's Government, but also Key's. It signals that he wants to offer something new.
After Robertson started throwing Adrian Orr's newly printed money out the door last year, National received advice from no less than Murray Horn. As a leading Treasury intellectual through the 1980s and 1990s, including as Treasury Secretary when Richardson passed her landmark Fiscal Responsibility Act, Horn is no wild-eyed spendthrift. Yet his advice was that the focus on New Zealand hitting a particular debt-to-GDP ratio by a given year had come to overshadow questions of the quality of spending.
National was too shambolic to make much of Horn's advice last year, but Luxon and Bridges appear to have picked it up, stressing not so much the quantity of government spending but the quality.
Politically, the theme provides decent fodder given Labour's spending priorities. But if Luxon and Bridges can shift attention to what return government spending delivers — or whether it delivers any return at all — they will set up a serious conversation about what investments in education, primary healthcare, transport and other infrastructure are needed to boost productivity, not just what fat should be trimmed.
They could also connect Robertson's chuck-the-cash-out-the-door fiscal policy to rising asset and consumer prices that are eroding the value of savings and wages, raising the price of living and widening inequality.
Don't get too excited about all this just yet. It is the same message Key used in the mid-2000s when he argued New Zealand didn't have a debt problem but a productivity problem. As Prime Minister, he then let English return to the orthodoxy of debt-to-GDP targets after the global financial crisis and Christchurch earthquakes.
Also recall that English and then Joyce were given the title Minister of Infrastructure, followed by Shane Jones and now Robertson. Business will need convincing that Luxon plans the title to mean more than it has since Key invented it in 2008 and Ardern retained it in 2017.
Remember, too, that all new Opposition leaders get a reasonable run in their first few days. Optimistic Labourites and their friends in the state-owned media saw Key's nemesis first in David Shearer and then David Cunliffe.
Todd Muller's speech immediately after being elected leader received similar praise to Luxon's, also being based on rhetoric to restore National's base. A few days later, the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama fan announced an uninspiring all-white front bench and was caught up in controversy over his MAGA-cap souvenir that Bishop had told him to get rid of.
All might similarly turn to custard for Luxon, especially if Collins sets out to undermine him or Bridges yet decides to sulk. But faced with a Government that has failed to deliver anything but nice photo-ops and prime ministerial homilies, and a Covid response that is no longer better than average, National supporters can dare hope for a polling turnaround.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.