National straddles two strategies as it prepares for nail-biter election

6:40 am on 26 June 2023
National Party leader Christopher Luxon at the party's conference in Wellington, 25 June 2023.

Christopher Luxon at the National Party's conference in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Power Play - In letting slip its election-night target of 45 percent this weekend, the National Party revealed some of its inner thinking around its campaign strategy.

The figure was mistakenly published on a presentation slide at the opening of National's election-year conference in Wellington - a minor mishap in what was otherwise a disciplined and focused affair.

In one sense, the goal is unsurprising - every party wants to maximise its vote - but it also betrays National's conflicted relationship with putative ally ACT, as well as a certain bewilderment as to why National is not doing better given Labour's constant woes.

Christopher Luxon's elevation to leader 18 months ago lifted the party's popularity from the mid-20s to touch 40 percent, but support has since stubbornly settled in the mid-30s.

Not since Simon Bridges was leader, pre-pandemic, has National surpassed 45 percent support.

Toy tycoon and National donor Nick Mowbray summed up the frustration in a tweet on Saturday: "I can't understand these polls. NZ gone backwards on EVERY single metric... how can anyone vote Labour?"

Many party members spoken to by RNZ over the weekend expressed a similar sentiment, either denying the polls outright or blaming the media for perceived negative coverage.

Some commentators have blamed Luxon himself for the stalling vote, pointing to his persistently low personal polling.

His preferred prime minister ranking lags Chris Hipkins and has trended downwards this year, though it still sits above the depths reached by predecessors Judith Collins and Bridges.

Members are mostly forgiving: one told RNZ Luxon was still "fairly new to the job" and believed the public would warm to him on the campaign trail.

Another said: "I get frustrated when I hear [Luxon] not getting stuck in about the Māori issues ... but he's keeping above that ... we've got to pull a few lefties over to the right side."

That is a gameplan frequently proposed by right-wing voters - leave ACT to campaign in more contentious areas, while National hunts in the safer centre.

It's a sound strategy in principle, but those within National are wary of letting ACT grow too large at its expense. Indeed ACT's success is seen as one of the reasons for the ceiling on National's support.

National strategists were terrified when ACT climbed above 16 percent during Collins' tenure as opposition leader.

Even a result between 10 and 12 percent - where ACT is polling now - could give the smaller party a claim on as many as a quarter of the seats around the cabinet table.

Hence National's target of 45 percent, which would almost certainly require winning back some of that support lost to ACT.

ACT's David Seymour responded with a quiet reminder: "It's very important for both ACT and National to remember who the real enemy is - it's not each other."

The party's conference sought to straddle both strategies this weekend, focusing on areas of concern to nearly all New Zealanders across the political spectrum.

On Saturday, deputy Nicola Willis delivered an empathetic speech targeted at those struggling with the cost-of-living: "you are not alone, but you've suffered enough."

Sunday brought a law-and-order focus with Luxon unveiling a suite of crime policies with something for everyone: tougher sentences, more prison rehab, and more victim support. The announcement, though, was light on costings and MPs could not say what effect it might have on the prison population.

National believes the electorate is sufficiently convinced of Labour's failings and is ready for change. The party's challenge now will be persuading voters that National is ready to deliver it.

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