National Leader Christopher Luxon didn’t invite his party’s board to its caucus retreat in Queenstown.
This broke a longstanding habit that has seen the board attend the annual caucus retreat.
It was an indication that behind the closed doors of the retreat, what he wanted was a frank talk with his caucus.
It would be reasonable to assume that for many, that would have been a wake-up call.
It may also have reflected some doubts he may have about how effective the party board actually is.
Luxon will know from his wide network of Auckland business contacts that the party has had difficulty raising the money it needs to replace the large donations from Chinese donors, which kept it afloat during the Key years, and that has been a board responsibility.
One message from business that he seems to have absorbed is that they want more from National than simply opposition.
It was a message he seems to have absorbed, and it has the virtue of distinguishing him from his two predecessors, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins, whose time as leader was dominated by their highly aggressive stance towards the government.
“We have to be able to oppose the government really strongly and call them out for failure to deliver,” he said yesterday.
“But the New Zealand people are expecting it from us, have to come forward with our own ideas of how we take the country forward together.
“And so that’s one of the messages that we’ve already started to talk about and will continue to talk about tomorrow.
“But it’s very important that if we do that job right, oppose and propose, the New Zealand people will start to see that we are a credible, strong alternative government that is the right people to take the country forward from 2023.”
After only two months in the job, Luxon can credibly claim to be a viable candidate to form the next government.
For a politician so new to politics, it was surprising to hear him invoke the party’s core philosophical values yesterday as much as he did.
“My observation of centre-right parties, and we talked a little bit about it this morning, is that wherever you go around the world, there are two problems with Center-Right parties. One is the people don’t think we care about them,” he said.
“We talk about things, and we don’t demonstrate that we care about them.
“And the second thing is that we don’t apply our centre-right politics, principles and beliefs and means to solve some of the biggest problems that people have.”
National has talked like this before. In 1990 Jim Bolger campaigned for the “decent society”; John Key and Bill English both moved the party to the centre with their “brighter future” campaign in 2007.
But inevitably, the party has always seemed to prefer to come back to talking about economic indicators.
And Luxon did that yesterday.
National has been trying to imply that the explosive growth in inflation is a consequence of increased government spending since Labour has been in power.
“We’re saying that there has been 68 per cent growth and growth in public and government spending over the last five years, and as a result, our economy is not going well,” he said.
“It’s failing to deliver.
“We’ve got a situation now.
“We have inflation going at twice wage growth.
“That’s a big, big problem. It’s going to become the preeminent problem.”
To the extent that the inflation is local, it is as much a consequence of the $50 billion-plus of Reserve Bank money injected into the economy since Covid struck and the consequent impact that has had on the housing market.
StatsNZ, last Thursday announcing the record 5.9 per cent jump in inflation for the 2021 year, said: “The main driver for annual inflation was the housing and household utilities group, with prices for construction and rentals for housing increasing in the year to the December 2021 quarter.”
It was not clear yesterday what he thought would solve the “big problem” of inflation eating away at wages, but unions are already calling for wage increases.
“Businesses can help by making sure that those with the lowest incomes see wage increases that are matching inflation,” said CTU economist Craig Renney in response to last Thursday’s inflation announcement.
“Government can help by making sure that the minimum wage and welfare at levels that doesn’t see workers fall further behind.”
Policymaking for both the government and opposition is not going to be easy over the next 12 months.
Nevertheless, Luxon is proposing to go and talk to organisations and ordinary people as National prepares for the 2023 election.
“We need to demonstrate to the New Zealand people that we care deeply about them, and we need to go out and meet with them and engage with them, engage with the communities and organisations that are seeing the pain, the hurt, the frustration,” he said.
“We need to get out and meet with sector bodies who have ideas that can help us build solutions and proposals and plans that can take the country forward.
“At the same time, we want to bring our intellectual principles of centre-right politics and apply them to some of the biggest, most challenging gnarly problems we have in this country.
“And we can’t just sit there criticising and saying, just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
“We have to care, and we have to go in and actually sort the chain and get it sorted so that people can have a shot at life and that y Kiwi dream.
“It’s game on.”
National hasn’t heard this sort of talk from an Opposition leader since John Key got the job in 2006.
But Key had 48 MPs and a highly experienced inner circle. Luxon has 33 MPs, and only one of his leadership team, Simon Bridges, has been a Minister.
He remains the underdog.