Bryce Edwards: Luxon’s “New National”

Bryce Edwards: Luxon’s “New National”

Back in the 1990s, Tony Blair rebranded The British Labour Party as “New Labour”, to try and draw a line under past failures. It’s as if Christopher Luxon is attempting to follow suit, and launch “New National” at the moment – a party that’s fresh-looking, has made some big breaks from the past, but is still recognisably conservative.

The National Party’s weekend conference – the first with Luxon as leader – was relatively successful in breaking with the past and modernising. But there were still plenty of recycled policies on show.

A successful, boring conference

There was nothing particularly interesting on show at National’s 2022 annual conference, but in a sense this is what the National Party wanted from the event – especially after a turbulent few years of extremely interesting and divisive conferences and caucuses.

National Party activist Liam Hehir put this well today, celebrating the fact that “No bold or exciting policies were announced”, explaining that “An exciting or even interesting conference is not something a political party should generally wish for. When a party’s annual meeting gets interesting the result is usually something of a disaster.” He points to the recent Green Party AGM, in which co-leader James Shaw was rolled, as an example of what should be avoided.

Other political journalists and commentators are in consensus that the fact that the conference went off without a hitch made it a success, and as a result National is looking the best it has for years. Political journalist Richard Harman went to the conference and noted that “National has come a long way in 12 months. It hasn’t seen such a cohesive and positive party conference since probably 2016.”

Harman also drew attention to the record 700 delegates at the conference and suggested that they left the weekend buoyed by a new unity and purpose: “you could almost hear their sighs of relief. After four years of turmoil over the leadership of the Caucus and the party organisation, National was finally able to present a settled face to the world.”

Similarly, the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan commented on the unity surrounding the new leader: “For the first time in years, National party faithful leave their annual conference assured their current leader will probably take them to the election. Luxon has clearly stamped his name on the party. Members might not always agree with him, but there seems to be a near-unanimous belief that he has a good chance of winning the 2023 election so they might as well get behind him until polling day at least.”

Coughlan also says that although he didn’t witness any Jacindamania-level enthusiasm for Luxon, the overall mood was positive, with higher levels of energy than usual.

Modernisation of the National Party

Party leaders are determined to show that National is under new management, and so new branding and slogans have been launched which reinforce this. The darker blue that Judith Collins used while leader has been replaced by a more subtle and traditional look.

RNZ political editor Jane Patterson comments: “The magenta wash shot through the true-blue National branding is one way Christopher Luxon is making his mark as party leader”. Likewise, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says the “branding has changed, with a subtle bit of purple now in the mix, gently dialling down the very definite blue livery.” And Coughlan suggests a return to the past: “a light magenta that bleeds into deep blue. It’s a little closer to the lighter, brighter colour scheme of the Key years”.

The slogan of “Taking New Zealand Forward” might at first appear extremely bland and anodyne. But it’s something of a dog-whistle, making use of the word “New Zealand” to contrast with parties such as Labour and the Greens that have replaced or complemented that word with “Aotearoa”. A critique of attempts to change the country’s name is hinted at with this slogan, without launching a full “culture war” that might alienate potential voters. It speaks to a more careful approach under Luxon, compared to Collins’ time as leader.

Luxon is seeking to take on what some National voters see as Labour’s “woke” agenda, while also positioning the party as modern and liberal. In his keynote speech he was careful to talk about the Treaty and multiculturalism in a positive way but, on the other hand, promise “one standard of democracy, equal voting rights and no co-governance of public services.”

National and Luxon also made it clear in the weekend that the party was prioritising the need for diversity in the party. Harman reported: “A clear message seems to be circulating through the party ranks that more diversity is wanted, and there was a notable number of Indians, Chinese, Pasifika and even Maori at the conference.”

Getting rid of party president Peter Goodfellow was related to this, with insiders saying Luxon forced him to step down. In his place, is new party president Sylvia Wood – described by Harman as “a mild-mannered employment relations consultant”.

Harman suggests Luxon is responsible for much of the old guard in the party organisation also being pushed aside: “He seems to have now got the party organisation onside, in part because there has been a near-total cleanout at the party’s Pipitea Street headquarters.” Important new functionaries include William Durning as general manager, and Jo de Joux as campaign manager.

Luxon’s new welfare policy

Luxon’s keynote speech to the party conference was generally seen as doing the necessary rebranding, and gained good media coverage. He resurrected a traditional National policy, on a welfare issue that will resonate with many – youth on the unemployment benefit long-term at a time of severe labour shortages.

More conservative voters will appreciate the benefit-bashing element of the policy, and it’s very much a recycling of traditional true-blue values. And the fact that Luxon has launched the policy during a time of low unemployment will certainly bring condemnation from the left and opponents. And it’s hard to see how this is one of the biggest problems in the country at the moment.

From Luxon’s point of view, the number of 18-24 year olds on the Jobseeker benefit has increased significantly in Labour’s time in government, and so he’s providing a solution to a mystery problem. Others will suggest that this is actually a result of the Covid pandemic, and to focus specifically on this group as being to blame is to scapegoat them.

Leftwing commentator Gordon Campbell explains today: “It appears to have escaped National’s attention that the pandemic has demolished a lot of jobs in sectors – hospitality, tourism – that have traditionally hired lots of 18-24 year olds, even if only on the minimum wage and/or in part-time jobs that offer no career prospects. Currently, the recovery in those sectors remains tentative at best.”

Campbell suggests that Luxon’s weaponisation of moral concern about this group is “loathsome”, and many will agree. But it also has to be acknowledged that Luxon’s so-called “carrot and stick” approach is significantly more carrot than stick at the moment. This will make the policy much more attractive to many who voted Labour in 2020.

Under this policy, National would give more resources to help the long-term unemployed in this age group to find employment – in particular by paying for a “job coach” and individualised plan to help them into the work force. And once in a job for 12 months, these former Job Seekers get a $1000 incentive payment.

Luxon is selling this as a continuation of Bill English’s “social investment” approach, and therefore as a type of “compassionate conservativism”. Of course, there are many questions about the practicalities of the scheme. And it’s likely that there really isn’t any ability for a National government to truly sanction beneficiaries by taking away their benefits. Such a sanction causes more problems than National would be solving. And this is probably why Luxon failed to give any real details on this element of the policy.

Is National becoming the “nasty party”?

Critics will be keen to paint National as playing to their base, and being out of touch with ordinary voters – in effect shifting further to the right. And yet there were interesting elements in the weekend that contradict this.

For example, although Luxon is focusing much of his rhetoric on “Labour government wastage”, his party continues to talk about the things they will spend more on. For example, Gerry Brownlee was reported as arguing for more spending on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In the big-spending area of health, National is also promising to spend more. Luxon had problems during the week with his confused position on whether the party would inflation-protect spending. But he ended up recommitting to spending billions more. And during the weekend, the party’s health spokesperson Shane Reti spoke about how the country’s health crisis meant that considerably more would need to be spent on health professionals.

Other parts of the welfare state might also be significantly bolstered by a National Government – especially in terms of early childhood education. Richard Harman reports: “delegates enthusiastically approved a remit calling for 20 hours of free Early Childhood Education hours for pre-schoolers.”

Despite some of these policies showing that National might not be the austere party of radical right that some critics want to believe that it is, there are still some policies that are starting to make National more distinctive under Luxon’s leadership. As political journalist Sam Sachdeva says today about National’s shifts: “It could be the start of an election campaign fought on sharp ideological contrasts”.

Similarly, Luke Malpass says National’s critiques of Labour are becoming clearer and stronger, and this is “setting the stage for the most sharply ideological election in a very long time. On many issues there are sharp differences: over tax, how centralised public services should be (three waters, health, polytechnics), immigration.”

Many of National’s policies seem under-developed, and it’s not clear how they will be paid for. But at the very least, the public should appreciate that with Luxon’s “New National” we are finally being offered a better contest of ideas than we’ve had for a long time.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on the National Party

Kirsty Johnston (Stuff): National MP Sam Uffindell ‘asked to leave’ prestigious King’s College after violent nighttime attack on younger boy
Herald: National MP Sam Uffindell asked to leave King’s College after violent attack on younger boy – report
Luke Malpass (Stuff): What we learnt from National’s first Christopher Luxon party conference
Liam Hehir (Spinoff): A deathly dull conference that National will be delighted with
Chris Trotter (Interest): Work, work, work
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National’s feel-good moment as Christopher Luxon stamps name on party (paywalled)
Richard Harman: National breathes a sigh of relief (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Hundreds of National Party stalwarts gather for first annual conference with Luxon as leader
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): National back to basics, but Luxon questions remain
Luke Malpass (Stuff): National Party sees a chance but not a slam dunk just yet
Gordon Campbell: On National’s plan to privatise welfare delivery
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Luxon seeks to move past National’s mistakes

Matthew Hooton (Herald): Peak Christopher Luxon now firmly in the past (paywalled)
Shane Te Pou (Herald): It’s increasingly evident National’s Christopher Luxon is not up to the job (paywalled)
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): Political perception is all and National can ill-afford to be associated with ‘dirty tricks’
Kerre Woodham (Newstalk): Some positivity in Nat’s youth unemployment policy
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): The political choices are becoming clearer, let’s see who wins
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National leader Chris Luxon on unemployment and delivery
Jane Patterson (RNZ): National lays out plan for those on welfare longer than a year
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Christopher Luxon uses conference speech to promise end to ‘free ride’ for young beneficiaries
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Why this years National Conference seems so desperate
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National touches base, recognises need for change
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National to announce social investment policy on second day of party conference
Andrea Vance (Stuff): In Christopher Luxon, National has nothing to smile about
Brent Edwards (NBR): National’s plan to get more young people into work (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National Party flocks to Christchurch for Christopher Luxon’s leadership test with members
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): National’s new welfare policy ‘completely out of touch’, shows ‘depressingly familiar side’, opposing politicians say
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): Christopher Luxon threatens ‘consequences’, ‘sanctions’ for young beneficiaries who don’t want to work
Herald: National Party grandees gather in Christchurch for Party Conference
William Hewett (Newshub): Fired-up Chris Bishop slams ‘useless, incompetent’ Labour, says National fully backs Christopher Luxon
Craig McCulloch (RNZ): ‘I’ve seen it all’: Peter Goodfellow looks back at 50 years as National member
Amelia Wade (Newshub): National’s promise of tax cuts raises questions over how it would afford them
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): National Party Conference: Luxon doubles down on bashing beneficiaries by unveiling welfare privatisation agenda
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Sylvia Wood elected as new National Party president, spells out party recipe for 2023 general election
RNZ: National Party elects Sylvia Wood as new president
Newshub: Full speech: Christopher Luxon reveals the NZ he wants at National Party’s annual conference
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Christopher Luxon tries to win over his own party
Steve Braunias (Herald): The secret diary of Christopher Luxon (paywalled)
Kelvin McDonald (Māori TV): National to ‘break cycle’ and shift young people off welfare into work
Justin Hu (1News): Luxon targets youth ‘benefit dependency’ in new policy
Herald: On the Tiles: Big talking points of the National Party Conference 2022
John MacDonald (Herald): Two commentators, one message – Luxon is struggling
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Christopher Luxon passes Wellington milestone, getting a Backbencher puppet


Other items of interest and importance today

1News: Poll: ACT jumps and can form Govt with National, Ardern and Luxon slip
Henry Cooke (The Guardian): Can Jacinda Ardern turn her popularity abroad into domestic success before it’s too late?
David Farrar: The rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern
Graham Adams (The Platform): Ardern’s train-wreck Q&A interview
Ben Thomas (Stuff): Was what seemed like Ardern’s vision really just a dream?
Brent Edwards (NBR): Government’s reform agenda faltering as it still deals with Covid(paywalled)
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Labour’s majority to end: How Parliament could change at the 2023 election
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): A bad week for the National leader, a worse week for the Government
Michael Bassett: Jacinda’s mind
Oscar Jackson (Today FM): James Shaw ‘quietly confident’ he will win Green Party leadership back
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): No one stands against James Shaw for Green Party co-leader
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): James Shaw the only nomination received for vacant Green Party co-leader spot
RNZ: James Shaw only contender as Green co-leader nominations close
Hayley Jacobsen (Today FM): Green Party co-leadership election looks like a ‘shaw’ thing for James Shaw
James Perry (Māori TV): Te Pāti Māori getting cut through across the spectrum – Shane Te Pou

David Farrar: A terrible electoral law decision
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Jami-Lee Ross tells police he smelled ‘political danger’ so recorded Simon Bridges
Craig Kapitan (Herald): Labour and National donations trial: Andrew Little called to witness stand
Amy Williams (RNZ): Labour’s Andrew Little tells court he was distanced from donations in ‘sham donors’ trial
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Labour MP Michael Wood rang political donations trial defendants over paintings
Craig Kapitan (Herald): Labour and National donations trial: Andrew Little called to witness stand
Catrin Owen (Stuff): PM’s chief press secretary spoke to defendant in political donations trial
Craig Kapitan (Herald): Labour and National donations trial: Minister Michael Wood testifies
Logan Savory (Stuff): Southland Mayor Gary Tong to give evidence in political donations trial
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Political donations trial, week 2: MPs quizzed on involvement in ‘sham’ auction
Mike Smith (The Standard): Why stick more fingers in the donations dyke?
Greg Presland (The Standard): Political donations law needs reform
No Right Turn: A new standard for BORA consistency?

Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): Labour’s cost of living stuff-ups (paywalled)
Hayden Donnell (RNZ): A government in the gun over accidental generosity
Michael Neilson (Herald): Cost of living payment: PM Jacinda Ardern distances herself from campaign email
ODT: Editorial – Politics and the $350 payout
Brad Lewis (Today FM): Christopher Luxon slams Labour Government, describes party as political version of The Office
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Cost of Living Payment paid to people on working holidays who have left NZ
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government admits cost-of-living payment went to dead people
RNZ: Christchurch City Mission receives cost of living payment donations
Liam Dann (Herald): Strong wage growth good news for workers – a headache for Reserve Bank (paywalled)

Susan St John (Newsroom): Poverty is not a partisan issue
Rebecca Macfie (Newsroom): Big wage rises: ‘It’s our turn now’
1News: Flat broke: New Zealand’s students struggle to survive
The Standard: Poverty is a political choice, why are Labour choosing it?
Demelza Jackson (Herald): Talent tug of war: Fears NZ lost out after immigration site glitch
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Immigrants framed as a problem rather than a potential solution
Steven Joyce (Herald): Hiding the welcome mat is making NZ poorer (paywalled)
Duncan Garner (NBR): Welcome to the hospo party (paywalled)
Jean Bell (RNZ): Firefighters’ smouldering anger erupts
Brian Easton (Pundit): Fighting past inflation battles

1News: John Key: Pelosi’s Taiwan trip ‘reckless, provocative and dangerous’
RNZ: Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan labelled ‘reckless’ by Sir John Key
Michael Neilson (Herald): US, China and Taiwan visit: PM Jacinda Ardern says ‘positive dialogue’ needed
Anna Fifield (Stuff): We must stand up for our values, we must stand up for Taiwan
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): NZ urged to ‘tread carefully’ with Pacific family over US-China crisis
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Mahuta to meet Chinese counterpart amid rising Taiwan tensions
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Nancy Pelosi’s poke at the panda out of order (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Phil Twyford heads to New York with a goal of getting US and Russia to put down their bombs (paywalled)
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): At what point does NZ stop facilitating Russia’s backwards and brutal regime?
Tom Peters (World socialist website): New Zealand government nervous about US-China confrontation

Tina Law (Stuff): Class of 2019: Last three years difficult ones for the Christchurch City Council
RNZ: Shortage of council candidates in many areas ahead of elections
John Lewis (ODT): Candidate shortage for local elections
Michael Barnett (Stuff): We want our next Mayor to be an actionist, not an activist on a soap box spouting piffle
1News: What should happen to Auckland’s port? Mayoral candidates weigh in
Tina Law (Stuff): Time is running out for council candidates to put their names forward
Lincoln Tan (Herald): ‘Auckland at tipping point on crime and safety’: Mayoral candidates’ plans on law and order (paywalled)
Jonathan Leask (Local Democracy Reporting): Ashburton has a mayoral race
Whanganui Chronicle: One week left for those wanting to stand as candidates in local elections
RNZ: Chief ombudsman to investigate councils over concerns on closed door meetings
Mark Jennings (Newsroom): Leo Molloy loses another advisor
Damien Venuto (Herald): Auckland mayoralty: The Front Page – how dirty will election get?
Jess Berentson-Shaw (Newsroom): Away from ‘roads, rates and rubbish’ – love local (government)