When more than 700 National Party delegates left their two-day annual conference in Christchurch yesterday afternoon, you could almost hear their sighs of relief.
After four years of turmoil over the leadership of the Caucus and the party organisation, National was finally able to present a settled face to the world.
Front and centre of that face was leader Christopher Luxon,
And he was frank about the challenges he had faced as party leader.
“We went through a period of dysfunction,” he told media yesterday.
“I said we’d turn the party around; I said we would reset; I said we would leave the baggage behind, and you can see that in the Parliamentary caucus and in the party organisation as well.”
Luxon was the focus of much of the conference.
Delegates were treated to a series of vignettes from his wife, himself and a radio jock MC, all promoting the story of Christopher, who once had hair and who, as a young teen from the Christchurch suburb of Bishopdale, was impressed with his sale manager father’s books by Charlie “Tremendous” Jones.
Jones, a big-selling American motivational author most famous quote was, “you are today what you’ll be five years from now, except for the people you meet and the books you read.”
And he said any potential salesperson would get 20 rejections before they got any success.
Young Luxon took Jones’ advice to heart and set out on his chopper bike to promote himself as a window washer.
On day one, he was rejected by the proverbial 20 businesses, but true to the inspirational doctrine of Jones, he kept pitching, and by the end of day two, he had six customers.
National Party members love this sort of story; they are the party of self-help.
Luxon pitched into that with the conference’s only real policy announcement; a plan to make under 25-year-olds on jobseeker benefits either get their acts together under the guidance of a job coach or progressively lose their benefits.
It was another play on Shane Jones’ proposals to get “the nephs off the couch.”
But interestingly, in the background, it contained two elements that may be more important than the policy itself in the future of the Luxon-led National Party.
Both were inspired by former leader Bill English.
Luxon told a media conference that the proposal was “social investment” and that a National Government would work with community providers to deliver it.
To highlight that, he is today scheduled to visit VisionWest, an Auckland social delivery agency founded by the Glen Eden Baptist Church.
There was little doubt at the conference that the delegates were responding to Luxon’s new brand of enthusiastic National Party self-help thinking.
At a closed-door meeting of electorate chairs on Friday, some of the party’s most experienced and hard-bitten political operators came out singing his praises.
He had summed the meeting up with six points that had struck home as the essence of what they were trying to do.
He seems to have now got the party organisation onside, in part because there has been a near-total cleanout at the party’s Pipitea Street headquarters.
Most notably, Peter Goodfellow, the party’s longest-serving president, has finally retired after 13 years in the post.
On Saturday, the party farewelled him with video tributes from former leaders and even 95-year-old former President, Sir George Chapman, along with a series of gifts from the party’s various ethnic subgroups – though no one was rude enough to point out that his name had been mentioned in the current Serious Fraud Office trial involving allegedly illegal Chinese donations to the party.
It is an open secret in the party that the Caucus wanted Goodfellow gone some time ago.
MPs – and party members – blamed him for the series of selection embarrassments that punctuated the run-up to the 2020 election.
Luxon’s hand has to be seen behind his decision to retire as president, though he will remain on the party board.
His replacement, Sylvia Wood, is a mild-mannered employment relations consultant who is a former chair of the heartland National Epsom electorate.
She will preside over a much-changed party headquarters with a new general manager, William Durning, and, importantly, the return of Jo de Joux to her old job from the Stephen Joyce days as Campaign Director.
Though delegates were happy with Luxon, they seemed to positively fizz over his deputy, Nicola Willis.
She got hefty rounds of applause when she appeared or was name-checked, and she opened the conference with a solid speech on National’s plans for the economy.
Quoting former National leaders Adam Hamilton and Sydney Holland, she tried to clear up the confusion over National’s tax policies, saying tax reduction was central to the party’s philosophies.
So, the 39 per cent top rate would go, and indexation of tax thresholds would happen within the next term.
But she left some wiggle room in the indexation policy.
“We will deliver those tax reductions in our first term of government,” she said, but what she didn’t say was what the base for indexation would be.
That makes trying to cost their impact difficult. (the Reserve Bank is forecasting inflation to start falling from the end of 2023, so the longer National left it to index tax thresholds, the less they would have to move and the less tax revenue would be lost.)
Neither Willis nor Luxon can convincingly say where the savings they claim they can make in government spending to finance the cuts might fall.
Both talk about Labour’s extravagance in hiring 14,000 extra bureaucrats. but Luxon seemed unwilling to commit to any mass layoff of those bureaucrats.
When he was asked how he would deal with redundancies in the Ministry of Social Development if much of the management of the under-25s on the Jobseeker allowance were contracted out to community providers, he said there were already a number of vacancies in the Ministry of Social Development.
And Social Development spokesperson Louise Upston said they would expect that as vacancies occurred, they wouldn’t be filled.
There is plainly a reluctance on the part of Luxon and Willis to commit to large-scale cuts in spending.
Many of the examples they put up as evidence of the current Government’s extravagance are one-off payments like the TVNZ-RNZ merger or the creation of Te Kupenga, or the Three Waters Reforms.
But Willis says they can make it all add up.
“When we put together our fiscal plan next year, you will see us be very careful not to be building the capacity of the public service, not in terms of the number of backroom bureaucrats that we will have a rigorous focus on the front line,” she told POLITIK.
“And you will see from us that we will prioritise education, health funding, going to the front line.
“And we’re confident that we’ll be able to put together a plan that will fund our tax cuts.”
That fiscal plan will undoubtedly be a central feature of the election campaign, and if Luxon and Willis get it wrong, then Grant Robertson will have the opportunity to echo John Key’s famous 2011 slap down of Phil Goff: “Show us the money.”
What Luxon and Willis are not saying is that any number of National spokespeople have ideas on how to spend more.
Health spokesperson Shane Reti, in a powerful presentation on the crisis in health, frankly admitted it could not be solved without considerably more health workers, which would obviously mean more cost.
Even Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee wanted more funding for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade so they could build up the staff in the Delhi Embassy.
And delegates enthusiastically approved a remit calling for 20 hours of free Early Childhood Education hours for pre-schoolers.
However, Luxon was equivocal when asked what the fate of the remit might be. It would be looked at, he said.
The conference remit debate was a thoughtful affair, part of a trend that has been increasingly evident in the party’s regional conferences.
The most contested remit was partly the product of an administrative decision to join two remits together even though they didn’t quite fit. Both related to how farmers used land.
One called for restrictions on highly productive land being turned into housing, and the other wanted a limit on farmland being converted to forestry.
The second part of the remit on forestry drew widespread opposition from farmers who objected to being told how to farm.
“We are a party that believes in markets determining what we do,” said Grant McCallum, the chair of the party’s Primary Industries Policy Advisory Group.
It is maybe a reflection of the times that the farmers who opposed the remit failed. It was passed but only narrowly after a hand count.
National has come a long way in 12 months. It hasn’t seen such a cohesive and positive party conference since probably 2016
The party’s next big challenge will be selecting candidates. A clear message seems to be circulating through the party ranks that more diversity is wanted, and there was a notable number of Indians, Chinese, Pasifika and even Maori at the conference.
Perhaps the biggest impression was underlined by the departure of Goodfellow. Luxon has managed to move the party on from the Key-English years even though both would seem to be playing a role in the background.
Now all Luxon has to do is win the next election!