By Dr Bryce Edwards*
Opinion - Judith Collins' National Party leadership is under more scrutiny, with increased talk in the media of her being replaced by brand new MP Christopher Luxon.
For many commentators it's just a question of "when" rather than "if" Collins is replaced. While others ponder whether Luxon really has what it takes to do better than the incumbent.
On Thursday, the Herald's Claire Trevett wrote about the prospect of Luxon taking over the deputy leader role, with Simon Bridges returning to the top spot - see: Is a Simon Bridges / Christopher Luxon leadership ticket on the cards? (paywalled).
The theory put forward is that while Luxon might ultimately be the leader National needs, first he needs experience. Therefore, he might serve an apprenticeship under Bridges first, as deputy and Finance spokesperson.
In her column, Trevett lays out the case for Bridges' return: "There is no doubt Bridges can do the leader's job. He would almost certainly be the 'emergency' option if Collins suddenly stepped down this year. Some in National believe the troubles since Bridges was rolled have shown the former leader's strengths in the job and suggest that he could make a comeback, especially as the PM's Covid honeymoon wanes. The theory is that if Bridges cannot pull it off, Luxon would at least be ready to go."
However, she also identifies problems with this scenario: "Bridges would know he would be seen as an interim leader, and there would be constant speculation about whether Luxon would roll him. Bridges may also consider he would remain a viable contender in the future, time would heal old wounds, and it might be better to wait and see if Luxon fails before making his second bid."
Much more likely, therefore, is that the new leadership combination would actually have Luxon as leader, and Bridges as the deputy. In this scenario, Luxon gets his go at becoming PM in 2023, and if he fails, Bridges get to take over again properly.
What Trevett's column makes clear is that Luxon is now seen as the frontrunner to replace Collins: "an increasing acknowledgement among many National MPs - especially the more conservative MPs - that Luxon is seen as their best shot by the party supporters. That has seen others (with varying degrees of reluctance) put their own ambitions to rest and instead start to work out when and how Luxon could be installed".
On Thursday Bridges went on Newstalk ZB and protested his lack of interest in being leader again - see: 'Crazy silly talk': Bridges dismisses rumour of new leadership bid. Reminiscent of the immortal words of Winston Peters back when he would be asked about leadership aspirations in National, Bridges essentially declared he was content to simply be the MP for Tauranga.
This week, rightwing Herald columnist Richard Prebble made the case for Bridges' return to the leadership, rather than Luxon: "To be an effective MP, let alone leader, as Todd Muller proved, at least six years' parliamentary experience is required. National cannot pick those who could not hold their seats. They do have a former leader who has 'hardly been used' in Simon Bridges. Bridges will have learned from his experience. John Howard, second time around, became a very successful leader. What all the MPs now know is National will never win with Collins" - see: Why Judith Collins is politically a dead leader walking (paywalled).
Prebble recommends the party moves fast in sorting out their next leader, as inaction will hurt National, warning that the party could in fact be surpassed by ACT as the main party of the right.
National leadership defeat on fluoridation
Part of Prebble's argument for Collins' imminent departure is her supposed involvement last week in a caucus debate on fluoridation. According to Prebble, Collins and her deputy Shane Reti proposed that National oppose the government's move to centralise control of water fluoridation decisions to the Ministry of Health, but they lost the caucus vote. Prebble suggests Collins was caught out flip-flopping on the fluoridation issue, as she had previously supported it.
Here's Prebble main point: "Collins and Shane Reti's proposal was defeated. It is a very big deal. It was, in effect, a vote of no confidence. Leaders do not present proposals to caucus unless they are important and they have the numbers to succeed. Collins was not defeated over her views on fluoridation but her tactics. Her erratic captain's calls during the election concerned National MPs. Last week confirmed their doubts about her judgement."
This all came from a story last week by Newshub's Tova O'Brien - see: National MPs vote against Judith Collins, Shane Reti on fluoride policy in rare move for caucus. O'Brien reports on the significance of the discord: "It doesn't bode well for Collins. It's not a good day in the leadership office when your MPs override your decision on an important public health issue. National MPs have told Newshub this is incredibly rare and almost unheard of. One National MP said it's even rare to have these votes in caucus, and that it shows indecisiveness and lack of belief from Collins."
The story appears to have ignited further divisive leaking: "Another National MP says she's confused about what Collins stands for. 'There's no way the party will go into 2023 with Collins as leader,' the MP said. Remember, National's caucus meetings are supposed to be top secret and impenetrable, but once again the caucus is leaking like a sieve."
In response to this, National blogger David Farrar wrote an angry post, in which he says the issue is huge, not because of the policy issue, but because the leaking has started again - see: National leaking again. He quips, "If they keep this up, Jacinda will be Prime Minister until Neve is old enough to vote."
Farrar also challenges the accuracy of the story, saying some of the details are incorrect, which means the leak is likely to have come from someone not present at the caucus. And others have suggested that the vote was more a defeat for Shane Reti than Collins. See also, Dan Satherley's report on Collins' response: 'Highly wrong': Judith Collins hits back at report she lost caucus vote on fluoride.
The focus on Christopher Luxon
The focus in National has clearly now moved onto Luxon. This was partly driven by the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll, which showed him on 2 percent as preferred prime minister (compared to 1 percent for Bridges, and 8 percent for Collins).
Since then, he has given his maiden speech in Parliament, in which he went on the front foot about his religious beliefs - see Audrey Young's Former Air NZ boss Christopher Luxon explains his Christian faith in maiden speech.
Many saw the speech as an adept attempt to position himself for the role National leader. Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote last week that the speech "felt like an opening bid, used to both introduce himself and clear away perceived problems" - see: Why Christopher Luxon may try National leadership tilt this term (paywalled).
It was an attempt to inoculate himself against charges of being too Christian and too business-oriented, but it also appeared to be an attempt to mimic John Key, which du Plessis-Allan says is both "smart" and "risky". And as to those who say Luxon hasn't been there long enough, she points out: "Don Brash did it within little more than a year of entering Parliament and then came with 2 per cent of taking the next election from Helen Clark." And under the current Covid-induced flux, anything seems possible.
As to whether his Christianity is a problem, du Plessis-Allan had another column saying "we have been electing Christian prime ministers for the longest time" including recently Bill English, Jim Bolger and David Lange - see: Christopher Luxon needs to avoid being 'the Christian guy'.
She does suggest that his Christian approach "could also backfire. Luxon now needs to back up his promise that Christianity isn't a political agenda." She points out that he recently "voted against safe spaces outside abortion clinics to keep protesters away."
Stuff newspapers approved of Luxon's speech on his religious values, with an editorial concluding: "What Luxon did this week, in a thoughtful and open way, is to reconnect such values to the centre of New Zealand politics and show that they are not as strange or extreme as some might assume" - see: Putting some faith in politics.
Matthew Hooton has discussed Luxon's political positioning, suggesting his speech was smart in its inclusions of implicit criticisms of John Key's record, and making it clear that he's relatively liberal and compassionate in his politics - see: Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon, so close, and yet so far apart (paywalled). But Hooton warns Luxon's anti-abortion stance could be a problem.
Andrea Vance is even less enthusiastic about Luxon as leader of National, arguing his brand of Christianity makes him too extreme: "The new Botany MP is a dogmatic ultra-conservative, and has publicly voiced his opposition to abortion and voluntary euthanasia, and suggested penalties for anti-vaxxers should extend to parents receiving benefits" - see: National, and why it can't win with the 'next John Key'.
While no fan of the incumbent leader ("Collins carries too much baggage: a reminder of internecine feuds, electoral slaughter and the Key years"), Vance suggests Luxon is not the answer: "He also does not represent the zeitgeist. Both he and Key embody the past, a world dominated by 'stale, male, and pale' politicians."
Such identity issues, together with the religious debate, really do underline the problems National currently has - and they point to why Judith Collins might be able to stick around longer. Yes, Collins made much of her religious beliefs during last year's election campaign, and in fact she took over from Todd Muller (Catholic), who took over from Bridges (Baptist), who took over from Bill English (Catholic). But is the country really ready for National to be led by an evangelical Christian?
Writing six weeks ago, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass argued that, although Collins' can't win the next election, "there is absolutely no mood among the National Party caucus for change. Plus there really is no obvious replacement. Not Simon Bridges and certainly not Christopher Luxon" - see: Why Judith Collins could already be a lame duck leader - whether she knows it or not. So, while speculation and rumours continue over National's leadership, there's no obvious answer to the party's woes.
But for anyone wondering if all the speculation about leadership instability and Luxon positioning himself for a leadership run is based on nothing at all, it's worth pondering why the new MP has recently launched a serious campaign of self-promotion. As Trevett wrote on Thursday: "National MP Christopher Luxon's maiden speech - or rather the social media street parade he promoted it by - was instructive. Most MPs posted a simple video of their maiden speech. Luxon put up numerous posts before and after the event, including paying for Facebook posts of excerpts to be pushed out. It was akin to the promotion that goes around a leader's State of the Nation speech."
Similarly, Heather du Plessis-Allan reports that Luxon's "Twitter and Facebook accounts are full of professionally shot photos and happy slow-mo videos of him walking and laughing - as you do - in Parliament's corridors. He seems to have recruited someone to tag along snapping photos. Again, no subtlety. He's done a lot of work meeting and greeting around Wellington, making sure to include the gallery journalists who can be crucial in endorsing leadership contenders as credible."
What's more a new poll out yesterday from Roy Morgan gives further impetus for the party to do something about its problems, with National down six percentage points to only 23 percent support - see David Farrar's Latest poll. Farrar comments: "What should be very concerning to National is there was an 8% drop in those saying NZ is heading in the right direction, yet National also dropped 6% in the poll. Shouldn't over-react to one (or even two polls) but National definitely needs to make sure those voters who are losing confidence in the Government, see National as a credible alternative."
Finally, for satire on Luxon's leadership ambitions, and his faith, see Victor Billot's An ode for Christopher Luxon, and The Civilian's Christopher Luxon standing patiently outside Judith Collins' office, tells her 'let me know when you're done'.
*Dr Bryce Edwards is political analyst in residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of Democracy Project.