An earlier version of this story said nearly all the questions at a National Party roadshow meeting were about race. In fact, while several of the questions canvassed race relations issues, most did not. The error is regretted.
I feel for Christopher Luxon, I really do. Not because, as the whispers have it, he’s fighting for his survival as leader of the National Party. That will only be true if it becomes clear he’s going to lose the election.
The far bigger fight he’s waging is for the survival of his whole party.
This might seem a strange thing to say, considering National is holding its own with Labour in the polls. But National faces an existential threat this election. Not from Labour. The enemy is on the right: It’s Act and NZ First.
And the battleground is race.
This was starkly on display on the North Shore last Wednesday, when Luxon launched his nationwide tour to a full house in a lunchtime meeting at the Birkenhead Bowling Club.
The tour is called Turn Back the Clock. No, sorry, it’s Back on Track. They’re test-driving this slogan for when the campaign formally begins a bit later in the year.
It’s clever. It evokes the sturdy economic management associated with John Key and Bill English, while also suggesting we’ll be better off if only we can find our way back to the social settings of an earlier time.
Crime, climate change, educational failure, even the congested roads: They didn’t used to be such a problem, did they? And what happened to our world-famous harmonious race relations? Let’s get back to that. Everyone likes nostalgia.
In Birkenhead, Luxon began with a half-hour talk, focusing mainly on the economy, crime and health, and then fielded about an hour of questions. Several of them were about race.
The audience, largely elderly and very Pākehā, was angry. No one said it out loud, but the theme was clear: They wanted to know when Luxon was going to put those bloody Māoris back in their place.
It was not pretty.
Luxon indulged them with statements like, “It’s alarming that Waka Kotahi is going to spend all the money on road signs.” Meaning, road signs with words in te reo as well as English.
Why does this matter right now? Bilingual signs are common overseas, the idea for having them here came from the transport agency, not the Government, its budgetary impact is trifling and it shouldn’t be an election issue at all. But somehow it is.
Yet Luxon also tried to moderate his audience’s obsession with race. He told them the average age in New Zealand is 38. Therefore, he said, “most of us came through school with some degree of familiarity with the use of te reo”.
What he meant was: You’re not keeping up.
This goes to the heart of Luxon’s problem. Race – the perception of unfair advantages being handed to Māori – has become the defining issue on the right.
There are complaints about the quotas for Māori and Pasifika medical students, for example, although it’s rarely noted that those students have to meet the same rigorous academic standards as everyone else. And the critics are strangely silent about the other quota – the one for medical students with a rural background.
As for co-governance, rather than it being a mechanism for consensus decision-making, as prevails at the Waikato River Authority, it’s seen as just a power grab.
But in the middle, race is seen very differently.
Elections are won and lost in the middle, according to conventional wisdom. This one is being fought for the hearts and minds of voters who swung to National under John Key and then swung to Labour under Jacinda Ardern in 2020.
Those voters are not angry about uppity Māori. On the contrary, they’re likely to be not just “familiar” with te reo, but pleased about its expanding use. Ruby Tui gave powerful voice to that sentiment when she sang Tutira Mai at the Rugby World Cup.
Tui is a much-loved national hero and it was a thrilling moment, not just because she did it, but because an enormous proportion of the crowd clearly knew and loved the song.
How did that happen? Because in middle New Zealand, kids of all races and ethnicities learn waiata and haka at school, and the tikanga that underpins them, and bring home a degree of cultural competence that’s vastly different from their grandparents’. And their parents are likely to be good with that.
In this “middle”, the use of Māori greetings and placenames is a welcome component of the TV news and widespread in daily use. We have a local language that’s English inflected with te reo, and it’s a living language, evolving all the time. We’re good with that too.
We’re not likely to get freaked out by a marae visit, because whether through school, work, a sports club or in some other context, we’ve done it and learned from it and loved it.
National understands all this. At least, it did under Key and Bill English. Co-governance arrangements were created in a range of situations and, according to Te Arawhiti, the Ministry of Māori Crown Relations, their Government passed into law 46 Treaty settlements, worth almost $1.24 billion. It’s an impressive achievement.
Because of all this, the Key/Ardern voters of middle New Zealand are likely to be repelled by the racism that has emerged on the right. Back on Track? Not if it’s a dog whistle to grumpy voters sick of having to accommodate Māori in their lives.
Which brings us to Luxon’s dilemma. He can’t win both these audiences at the same time, because appeasing either one horrifies the other.
He could explicitly agree with the middle. After all, isn’t that where the biddable votes are?
“I will call out racism at every opportunity,” he told me at National’s Northern Regional Conference last month. But he didn’t do that in Birkenhead.
He let racist questions fester, because he’s much more focused on the floating voters on the right.
Until last week, many of them were dismayed at National’s complicity in the housing density rules. Others are scornful of its capture by gun haters, not to mention the way it’s been hoodwinked by the greenies and their climate change and been given the runaround by bloody Māoris.
NZ First is attracting some of those voters, but it’s hard to think this election is anything more than a last hurrah.
Act, however, is on the rise. Its strategy has long been to chase every grumpy vote going, whatever the issue. And it enters this election better placed than it has ever been. David Seymour is the right’s best-performing parliamentary leader, he leads a large and disciplined caucus which has some distinct, well-defined policy goals.
Deputy leader Brooke van Velden will campaign hard to win the Tāmaki electorate and on a rising tide she could succeed. Large parties win seats, and Act has decided to be a large party.
Meanwhile, National has not pulled itself into the commanding position Luxon’s supporters expected.
If Act wins, say, 20 per cent, and National 30 per cent, Act will be a powerful force in the new Government. So powerful, it will be well placed to become the dominant party on the right in 2026.
Too much? The hard right has taken over the Republican Party in America and replaced moderate parties of the centre-right in France, Italy, Austria, Sweden and many other European countries. There’s no reason to think the same trend won’t emerge here.
So what’s National to do? There’s no future in out-Acting Act. Oppositional scaremongering and witless nostalgia offer few solutions to the really big issues that confront us now, whether it’s the cost of living, the climate crisis or social dysfunction.
Is there a place for enlightened conservatism? There should be. Hosing down the racism would be a good start.