Christopher Luxon can't possibly believe abortion is murder.
If he does, he's a moral cretin — if not for the belief itself, then for failing to act upon it.
If you think abortion is murder, you don't devote your life to selling deodorant in Canada or bums on seats in New Zealand. You immediately act to stop it.
To be fair, Luxon has never directly said that abortion is murder. His political sin was agreeing with that proposition in one of his first interviews as party leader in December.
Even then, he was adamant there were no public policy implications from his beliefs.
Hard-line anti-abortion activists therefore attacked him, saying that means he's not truly pro-life.
If today's politicians retain any analytical ability, it is reading polls. Luxon knows as well as anyone that over two-thirds of us supported liberalising abortion law in 2020.
Being on the wrong side of that majority isn't fatal, as Bill English's 44per cent of the vote in 2017 and Jim Bolger's three election victories attest. But you need your sidestep planned out.
For Luxon, that would include replying "that is not a word I would use" when the abortion-is-murder question was asked. After all, not even the conservative majority in Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organisation, the US Supreme Court judgment removing the constitutional right to an abortion, used the m-word.
For three years, Luxon and National have known his uncommonly strong religious beliefs are an issue since he first sought selection for Botany.
The abortion-is-murder furore was seven months ago.
With Dobbs, National has even less excuse for not being ready after the unprecedented leak of the draft judgment set off a global furore eight weeks ago.
Labour strategists can't believe their luck. A week later, National remains on the back foot over what party doyens have known for months is the biggest risk to their Luxon project.
With elections tending to be decided by the greater propensity of women voters to swing between Labour and National, such a failure of basic political management has left party activists and donors worrying about whether anything has changed.
Nobody in the Beehive genuinely believes abortion laws or services would be at risk under a Luxon Government, any more than under English or Bolger.
Of the minority of MPs who voted against the 2020 reforms because of their conservative Abrahamic or Māori beliefs, most would apply that same conservatism to oppose reversing them. As an example, Labour's Nanaia Mahuta voted against decriminalising abortion in 2020 but condemned Dobbs as foreign minister. Similarly, English opposed same-sex marriage in 2013 but endorsed it as prime minister three years later.
This year's Safe Areas Act was backed by 90per cent of MPs, including Luxon and Mahuta. In no possible New Zealand Parliament could a majority be assembled to restrict existing abortion rights.
Still, who can begrudge Labour for taking advantage of the loose ball?
More in sorrow than anger, Grant Robertson cleverly raised doubts about National's commitment to the status quo.
National's Simon O'Connor helped keep the story going with a gloating social media post welcoming Dobbs.
When Luxon asserted himself and ordered O'Connor to remove it, the Tāmaki MP contradicted him by saying he removed it on his own.
Luxon then committed the mortal sin of mansplaining, saying women voters care less about abortion rights than the cost of living and the quality of health and education.
Aggregated polling might support that view, but usually politicians try to at least look like they are listening to voters rather than telling them what their market research says.
Voters for whom abortion is their litmus test may be a small group overall, but some are undoubtedly among the 450,000 who backed Ardern in 2020 but have switched to National since. Unlikely to be impressed with being told the price of a bag of spuds worries them more, they are probably lost to Luxon permanently. Sick of Ardern, much depends on whether they head to Act or the Greens, both with impeccable pro-choice credentials.
The lesson is that, while five years ago Ardern offered hope, her best friend for 2023 is fear.
To borrow words from former Labour president Nigel Haworth, Ardern's best bet is a campaign based on "an odd world in which Labour is the safe, conservative centre and National ... a fractioned, theocratic, radical right".
Labour has few other options.
It can't run on its record, having failed on everything important it promised in 2017. Nor is Covid the winner it once was, with even Chris Hipkins now admitting that last year's Auckland lockdown was unnecessarily long.
Ardern's international diplomacy is terrific for New Zealand, but won't win over median voters.
Some assume Robertson, a key architect of Working for Families and interest-free student loans in Helen Clark's Beehive, will roll out something similar next year.
But that was when a global economic boom was delivering Clark and Michael Cullen embarrassingly high surpluses each year. Voters demanded profligacy, whether it was National's tax cuts or Cullen's more complex schemes.
In contrast, Robertson has borrowed over $60 billion for Covid, worsening inflation. His books remain deep in the red and voters are already alarmed about debt, economic management, runaway inflation and ruinous mortgage rates. A Working for Families-style fiscal spray would lose rather than win the election.
Clark successfully used fear to see off Don Brash in 2005. For Ardern, fear over Luxon's intentions for abortion law is just a trial run.
In a Facebook post ostensibly about Dobbs and the Oslo pride parade attack, Robertson wrote of "two years of stress and anxiety from the pandemic" and a "world [that] feels as volatile, scary and uncertain as it has for many decades right now".
Labour won't deny those feelings but empathise with them, asking voters which is the least scary option to take them through it.
Would Luxon cut benefits, like Bolger did in the early 1990s, or per capita spending on health and education? Would he need to, to fund the big tax cuts he and Nicola Willis promised in March? Is that promise any more viable than the planned April 2010 tax cuts that Key and English cancelled lest debt balloon as the global financial crisis worsened?
On foreign policy, would Luxon send your children to war in Europe or East Asia? Or would economic considerations make him beholden to China?
He'll need to respond much better to these kinds of worries than he has on abortion over the past seven months.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.