1 Dec 2023

Distractions assail coalition as it lays out ambitious agenda

From Focus on Politics, 7:00 pm on 1 December 2023
Collage of Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters

 The new coalition government unveiled its 100-day plan this week.  Photo: RNZ

"I don't think there's been any previous government that's been as aggressive about getting out of the blocks hard, fast and early" - Christopher Luxon

The new government's first week in office saw it get straight to work, setting high expectations and unveiling its 100-day plan - but it's not exactly been smooth sailing. 

Fixing the economy and making a material difference for New Zealanders is a hefty workload for a Cabinet which has so far been dogged by distractions - driven partly by new Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. 

It began with the swearing-in ceremony at Government House on Monday, a moment of pageantry marking the official handover of power.

Most of the MPs were beaming, none more so than Christopher Luxon, relishing his new title of Prime Minister.

The formal swearing-in of the new coalition government by Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro on 27 November, 2023.

Christopher Luxon grins at his swearing-in as prime minister. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It's remarkable given just two years earlier he was a mere backbencher in his first term at Parliament: New Zealand's least politically experienced Prime Minister - both an incredible feat - and a potential liability. 

Unveiling the plan for the first 100 days of the government at his first post-Cabinet briefing, Luxon on Wednesday set the bar high. 

"I'll just say, I think we're going to do more than 100 days than this government did in the last six years. So we're looking forward to getting into work."

The agenda is a mix: Cellphones in schools are out, pseudoephedrine in pharmacies are back in. The clean car discount will be scrapped along with Labour's Three Waters and RMA changes. 

Luxon insists the plan will help ease the cost of living, pointing to a return to a single mandate for the Reserve Bank and cutting compliance costs for businesses. 

"We are absolutely determined to rebuild the economy, to lower the cost of living, we are determined to actually deal with law and order and we're determined to deliver public services."

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Determination, meet distraction: New Zealand First leader and newly sworn-in Deputy PM Winston Peters consistently upstaged his boss, waging war on the media from the day the deal was signed. He had the Public Interest Journalism Fund and publicly funded media firmly in his sights, throwing around accusations of bribery.

Luxon repeatedly laughed off his deputy's claims, saying he would have chosen his words differently but he shared frustration with the fund, saying it led - rightly or wrongly - to perceptions of bias. 

"There'll be different personalities, there'll be different ways of expressing things ...  and that's fine, that acceptable."

Winston Peters

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters at Monday's swearing-in. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Other distractions also sprouted from NZ First policies: rolling back the smokefree legislation that had been hailed as world-leading, and calling a halt to New Zealand's acceptance of a minor amendment to international health regulations. 

Newly returned to the opposition benches, Labour leader Chris Hipkins, his own deputy Carmel Sepuloni, and his Health spokesperson Ayesha Verrall all seized on these as easy targets for criticising Luxon's leadership. 

Newshub's political editor Jenna Lynch, appearing on RNZ's weekly Morning Report panel, said plurality of views was indeed a good thing - but Luxon should have taken a stronger line on Peters' media comments and the contest of ideas needed to be based in fact.

Also on the panel, NZ Herald's deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan agreed NZ First's fringe focuses were distracting from the retail politics that got Luxon elected - but the prime minister also needed to avoid having Peters' ire turned back on himself. 

All this before the nuts and bolts of legislative change. Next week will feature ceremonial openings of Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the first Question Time on Thursday. Then it's straight into two weeks of urgency for the repeal of four Labour-sponsored laws, movement on a full return to 90-day trials, amongst about two dozen speeches from new MPs and a debate over the government's agenda. 

And the government intends to have that all wrapped up before Christmas.

In this week's Focus on Politics, Political Reporter Katie Scotcher looks back at the coalition's first week in power and the distractions that dogged it.

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