Change on the right in New Zealand

New Zealand’s National Party has a new leader this week. Christopher Luxon, a first-term MP but formerly chief executive of Air New Zealand, was elected unopposed to the job on Tuesday, following the removal by the party last week of the previous leader, Judith Collins. Nicola Willis was elected as his deputy.

Luxon thus becomes National’s fifth leader in less than four years. Its most recent prime minister, Bill English, stayed on for a few months after losing the 2017 election; two more leaders came and went before Collins, who led the party to a landslide defeat last year. She promised to see out another term, but that was never likely to work, and after a snap demotion of one of her predecessors the party room decided it was time for a change.

Luxon faces a formidable task, with the Labour government of prime minister Jacinda Ardern having won 50.0% of the vote at the last election, almost double National’s total, and a majority in its own right for the first time under proportional representation. But he has almost two years to work on it, and while the opposition is behind in the polls its position is far from hopeless. (Although the fact that the soft-libertarian ACT forms a growing component of the opposition’s strength produces tensions of its own.)

For much of last century, New Zealand’s politics moved in close alignment with Australia’s: a wartime Labo(u)r government defeated in 1949, a long post-war conservative ascendancy (with one brief interruption in New Zealand’s case), then a short Labo(u)r government in 1972-75 followed by a conservative government that resisted economic reform before going down to defeat in the early 1980s.

But although both new governments then tried to modernise the economy, New Zealand was more of a basket case so its Labour Party had a bigger task. It broke under the strain, and National returned to office in 1990. From there the streams diverged: National took up the torch of reform, serving three terms before defeat in 1999; Australia’s Liberals instead turned to the “relaxed and comfortable” John Howard, who won a landslide in 1996 and survived several near death experiences until 2007.

So in New Zealand it was Labour who took on the complacent Howard-like role, resting on the laurels of reform while proclaiming its determination to go no further. And it was National that suffered an identity crisis more like Labor’s in Australia, with chronic leadership instability broken only by the long tenure of the moderate John Key, leader from 2006 and prime minister from 2008 to 2016.

Key’s success – aided by such structural factors as proportional representation and the absence of News Corp – meant that National never fell into the control of the hard right the way its Australian counterpart did. But since English unexpectedly lost office (due to the far-right NZ First reaching a deal with Labour) it has seemed rudderless and unsure of itself.

Being in opposition anywhere has been a difficult gig in the last two years, as Covid-19 has driven a general swing towards incumbents. Ardern has been particularly successful, and last year’s big win was no surprise. But successful leadership in a crisis does not always translate to public approval once the crisis has passed, so it may be that the (still hypothetical) transition to normality will throw up opportunities for Luxon and National.

Ideologically the new leader is a conservative, but as a newcomer to parliament he is relatively free from factional baggage and apparently enjoys Key’s strong support. Whether experience in running an airline will prove useful for running a dysfunctional political party, only time will tell.

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