4 Nov 2023

How Christopher Luxon’s NZ First gamble failed

7:05 am on 4 November 2023

Christopher Luxon practically begged voters to keep Winston Peters out of his government. It didn't work.

It could just as well have been John Key in the suit Christopher Luxon filled at Parliament on Friday.

An hour after the (almost) final result of the election was announced, the National Party leader breezed into a room at Parliament for a press conference.

National had lost two seats. It no longer had the numbers to govern with the ACT Party alone. It must strike a deal with NZ First, a scenario National had given grave warnings about less than a month ago.

But no worries, Luxon reckoned. All good, he said. This was what they'd expected - "we'll crack on".

National Party leader Christopher Luxon speaks to media after the announcement of the final count of the 2023 election results, 3 November, 2023.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon speaks to media after the announcement of the final count of the 2023 election results. Photo: RNZ/ Angus Dreaver

It was the kind of pollyanna performance Key gave regularly during his three terms as PM.

Luxon had good reason to act like this. His audience isn't just five million people hanging out for a government, but a much smaller group of people in ACT and NZ First analysing his every move. Of course he wants to look, sound and act like it's all under control.

But there is no hiding from the fact National desperately wanted to avoid this scenario. The importance of keeping NZ First out of government was one its main closing arguments.

Luxon, his deputy Nicola Willis, campaign chair Chris Bishop and even Key, spent the last three weeks of the campaign finding different (and only slightly more diplomatic) ways of saying to voters: 'Please, please, pleeeeeeeeease, don't make us work with NZ First. They're awful.'

For a time, on election night, it looked like the gamble might have worked. Now, it's clear that it didn't.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell on Election Night on October 14 2023.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Only one real winner

On election night, most parties could credibly claim some satisfaction with the result. Of the six parties with seats, only Labour had nothing at all to cheer. The tally of special votes has changed that picture. National and ACT now have a result they both publicly, repeatedly, said they didn't want.

National won't have time or the inclination to argue over it now, but it seems likely Luxon's 25 September announcement ruling NZ First in was decisive.

In July, NZ First was at 2.67 percent on RNZ's poll of polls. Luxon was still saying, back then, that Peters wasn't likely to make it to Parliament so he didn't have to say if he'd work with him or not.

But in early August, a Newshub-Reid Research poll put NZ First at 4.1 percent. This was the beginning of a quick march upwards for the party. With the addition of a dozen more polls up to the eve of election day, NZ First climbed in the RNZ poll of polls after all but one of them.

On Monday, 25 September, it broke the crucial 5 percent threshold in our poll of polls for the first time in half a decade. What else happened on that day? Luxon's Facebook video ruling NZ First in as a last resort.

NZ First then, was clearly on the way up when Luxon ruled them in. But it sure seems like his comments accelerated the trend.

It looks too, like NZ First's gain was ACT's loss in the final weeks of the campaign.

This all makes for a fraught backdrop to the talks Luxon, Seymour and Peters are apparently already engaged in.

Seymour might blame Luxon for handing Peters an electoral advantage. Luxon might blame Seymour for shedding so many votes in the final stretch. And Peters enters the room in the full knowledge that neither of the other two men want him there.

ACT leader David Seymour after the final results were announced for the 2023 election.

ACT leader David Seymour after the final results were announced for the 2023 election. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Making it work … somehow

Seymour seems to be struggling the most with this. On Friday, he refused to climb down from his earlier remarks about Peters being totally untrustworthy, and described the situation as "unfortunate". He's also been the most willing to talk about the detail of negotiations - he called out some priority areas and even some portfolios in comments on Friday.

There has been no contact between ACT and NZ First yet but all three leaders made it clear on Friday that there would be a moment where all parties were represented in the same room at some stage.

Luxon will have some egos to bruise in his own party as MPs who would have been hopeful of a ministerial post are forced aside to accommodate slots for NZ First and ACT.

It's finding a way to make the policy priorities all fit together that will be harder. This is so tricky because almost anything that comes with a cost will have to be paid for via a sacrifice of something on National's list. There is very little room to move in its fiscal plan.

A deal concluded within days, rather than weeks, seems possible only if it omits anything very expensive or complex. Such a high-level agreement, however, would have to survive on the strength of the chemistry between senior members of the three parties. That'd be another, even bigger gamble for Luxon's National Party.

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