Ani O’Brien: Luxon can’t afford to continue ‘small target’ politics

Ani O’Brien: Luxon can’t afford to continue ‘small target’ politics

A ‘small target’ strategy is not going to cut it anymore if National want to win the upcoming election. The game has changed and the game plan needs to change as well.

Jacinda Ardern’s abrupt departure from the 9th floor has the potential to derail what looked to be an easy trot into the Beehive for Christopher Luxon and his team. It will no longer be sufficient for Luxon to simply not be Ardern while offering nothing up as an alternative.

The cult of personality that saw Jacinda Ardern lead Labour to unprecedented victory in 2020 cemented her as the be-all and end-all of the party. She received the accolades, but when the worm began to turn she started receiving the backlash. For many Kiwis divorcing Jacinda Ardern from Labour is incredibly difficult and this is true of those love her and hate her. If every victory was hers, so too is every failing.

The short-term messaging, following Ardern’s resignation, from both major parties has been clear. New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says he is different, intends to do things differently to Ardern, and will be ditching unpopular policies. Meanwhile, Christopher Luxon says that nothing has changed and that Hipkins was a senior minister of Ardern’s inner circle who had his fingers in all the pies Kiwis want binned.

The people of New Zealand will decide who they believe and Luxon can choose to cross his fingers and hope that Hipkins cannot successfully cast himself as ‘new’ and ‘different’, but it is a huge gamble. Hipkins has a majority Government and the resources that go along with it which he can use to put words into action, but Luxon can only make promises.

The problem is, he isn’t even doing that. Luxon has determinedly employed what has been termed ‘small target’ politics which sees a politician or party avoid proposing anything that exposes them to criticism or bad press. Instead, they utilize aspirational slogans, presidential-style personality games, and allow the Government to lose the election for themselves.

Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese stuck to a ‘small target’ strategy in the lead up to the last federal election. He was able to float around kissing babies and listing vague policy announcements, leaving Scott Morrison to pickle in the discontent of the populus.

Luxon and National no longer have the luxury of relying on this. Their ‘big target’ Jacinda Ardern is gone. Whether it is true or not, they now have to contend with the perception that the battle of the Christophers is a contest of two newbies. Without the growing dissatisfaction with Jacinda Ardern to bolster the centre-right vote, Luxon may just have to start presenting what an alternative National-led government would actually look like.

To play personality politics, a connection with the population is required and it is difficult to argue that Luxon has achieved that. In many ways, Chris Hipkins is more of a John Key-style politician than Luxon is. Hipkins shares the self-deprecating humour that endeared many to John Key and is much more relaxed in his slightly awkward ‘Dad’ persona. He is also a career politician and while that can be a negative thing for many reasons, he knows how to navigate the treacherous waters of politics and the media.

New Zealanders who are crying out for change after a tough two terms under Labour – of course, not all of the hardship can be attributed to the government – want to have confidence that Luxon can lead his team to victory. They want to hear how he is going to do it and what he stands for.

Most importantly, Christopher Luxon needs to demonstrate that he wants more than just to be Prime Minister of New Zealand at any cost. The electorate is cynical after being battered by the pandemic, cost of living crisis, and the non-delivery on promises made by the current Government. Kiwis don’t want an empty vessel who talks in substanceless platitudes, some would argue we have had two terms of that already.

The saying ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’, is true and ‘small target’ politics has been a successful strategy to move National out of the tumultuous years of an ill-disciplined caucus under Bridges/Muller/Collins.

However, now is the time to get bold and to propose solutions to the foundational problems facing the country. Luxon needs to give New Zealanders confidence that his government would be a substantial change from the status quo and he can’t do that if he is hiding from bad press.

Ani O’Brien has given votes to Greens, Labour, National & ACT over the years. She worked in the Leader of the Opposition’s office in 2021. The most consistent thing about her politics has been that she has been an outspoken critic of every New Zealand government.