Analysis: While Christopher Luxon has been painting the fence and Chris Hipkins enjoyed some comedy on their summer breaks, it will soon be back to work. So what are the biggest challenges for the pair as we begin the new political year? 1News digital political reporter Felix Desmarais takes a look.
As a freshly-minted prime minister, all eyes will be on Christopher Luxon this year, scrutinising his ability (or lack thereof) to lead a cohesive and collaborative three-party coalition.
No matter your stripes the Prime Minister’s life and ascent is remarkable. He’s basically had three jobs, rising – over 18 years and nine roles – from a management trainee at Unilever to the Canada chief executive. Then eight years at Air New Zealand, most of those also as chief executive. Then, as we know, he became an MP, Leader of the Opposition and Prime Minister in the space of just over three years.
He also managed to drastically reupholster the whole attitude and output of the National Party after becoming its leader in November 2021. Insiders say this is down to a level of managerial emotional intelligence on Luxon’s part – endowing trust in MP as a baseline, teaming groups of MPs together to bond over achievable goals, and paying attention to MPs’ personal interests and passions.
It’s likely churlish partisanship to see all of that as anything other than impressive, even if one dislikes the political flavour.
But Luxon now has perhaps one of his biggest challenges ahead.
National has promised to get the country ‘back on track’. It’s a pliable enough tagline that can mean whatever it needs to mean depending on the voters’ concept of what back on track means. That was useful for the election but now it could pose a problem: it creates a nebulous weight of expectation.
For many – based on the October 2023 Ipsos New Zealand Issues Monitor – this means a stronger economy, interest rates falling alongside the cost of living and inflation. For some, it likely means a greater sense of safety and security in the streets, including a sense of justice for criminals and their victims. It will mean a healthcare system that isn’t bursting at the seams, with long wait times in emergency departments and for specialist care.
Many too, will likely hope a more settled sense of national identity, race relations and social cohesion will arise. That, of course, means different things to different people.
All of these things are incredibly difficult, and there will be an ever decreasing window of time to appear to have made progress in the eyes of the public.
That is all also rendered more challenging by wrangling the sometimes competing interests and identities of National, ACT and New Zealand First. For their part, those parties have all stressed that is why coalition negotiations took as long as they did – to lay a solid foundation for how the three would work together.
Luxon will be hoping it pays off.
His CV is full of brand management roles. He’s managed to turn around the National Party brand – now he needs to deliver on those promises.
On Monday, he posted a photo of himself painting his shed, acknowledging there was “a lot for the Government to deliver”.
“Just like this shed, we’re going to get it done,” he wrote.
Let’s hope he spins plates as well as he daubs paint.
Worst job in politics?
There’s no doubt Chris Hipkins wanted to be prime minister a bit longer. But boy does he look at home as the Leader of the Opposition.
The cliche goes the role is the worst job in politics, but Hipkins may prove it doesn’t have to be.
It’s an incredibly important role. A disorganised, inward-looking Opposition party that is more worried about political machinations and mind games than holding the government of the day to account is a disastrous disservice to New Zealanders. Arguably for some of the time it was in Opposition, that was the case for National.
Under Hipkins’ helm, that may be unlikely for Labour – as long as he can keep his team together with their head in the game.
With 15 years’ experience to Luxon’s three, Hipkins is a very experienced politician and is most at home in Parliament – he’s a politician’s politician. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his convictions, he just knows more than the corridors like the back of his hand. He’s an exceptionally quick and cool performer in the House. He’s simply better than Luxon in that context, but unfortunately for Hipkins, question time alone does not a prime minister make.
He will likely get a few wins on the board against Luxon and the coalition government, but it’s unlikely to dampen the shine of the new Government. But there is probably no one better for the job right now than Hipkins, and without his experienced leadership Labour would likely have already started to fall apart. If it’s about to, he’s their best bet to stem the flow.
It hasn’t yet. But being turfed out of government smarts, and where there’s power and ambition there’s the potential for implosion. For both major parties history has shown it’s only a matter of when, not if. Keeping the Labour family together will be a great test for Hipkins and his leadership, and 2024 will show if he is cut out for it.
Who knows, if he plays it well enough he may convince the public he’s ready to occupy the ninth floor again.
But to some, that could just be a pipe dream – or worse, a joke.