National and Luxon caught off guard on abortion comment

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Protestors outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC Photo by Alamy

Momentum is everything in politics, but it is very fragile.

There are times when unexpected actions can produce big shifts and changes in the political landscape. In 2017, for example, the Labour Party appeared headed for another hefty defeat in that year’s election until the abrupt decision of its then Leader (Andrew Little) to step aside just weeks before the election. That decision changed the political landscape and set in train the events which led to Labour being anointed by New Zealand First to form a coalition government just a few weeks later.

Stalled momentum

Likewise, momentum can be stalled by happenings that are unexpected. A political Leader on a roll may suddenly find themselves caught off-balance by a loose comment or action from a colleague that requires their full and immediate attention, and detracts from their momentum. National Leader Christopher Luxon may well have felt that way in recent days.

As the six-month anniversary of his rise to the Leadership of the National Party came around, Luxon had reason to be more than satisfied with the Party’s progress under his leadership. After all, it had gone from an electoral basket-case, where any thought of winning an election had seemed fanciful, to being, according to recent opinion polls, at slightly better than even odds to form a government after next year’s election.

An important aspect of Luxon’s performance to date had been the perception that the internal divisions which had previously plagued the party were over, and that National’s sole focus now was on persuading people it was ready to lead a government next year. With the mounting cost-of-living crisis, polls were showing it was now winning the critical “best economic manager” argument. Momentum was very much in its favour.

But then came the United States Supreme Court decision overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion decision of 1973. Because of Luxon’s personal views on abortion, there was initial interest in what he thought of the decision which he was able to bat away with assurances that, his personal views notwithstanding, there would be no change in New Zealand’s abortion laws if he were to become Prime Minister next year.

Ill-advised social media comment 

Unfortunately for him and his political momentum that was not the end of the issue. An ill-advised social media comment from a National MP was hurriedly removed, causing a former National MP to react angrily. Suddenly, the abortion issue was centre-stage in New Zealand too, in a way it had not been for many years, and Luxon found himself having to defend National’s position as though an immediate attack on New Zealand’s abortion had been foreshadowed.

For an increasingly besieged Labour Party, this was a godsend. Its political momentum has all been downhill in recent months. Neither the Budget nor the Prime Minister’s overseas tours appeared to be doing it any political favours, and the former Covid-19 Minister’s admission that last year’s lockdown went on for too long confirmed the gnawing feeling that the government was getting out of sync with voters.

The Deputy Prime Minister went into overdrive, claiming that Luxon was not telling the truth about abortion. According to Grant Robertson, not only would abortion laws not be upheld, but also a number of other progressive social changes would be at risk if Luxon became Prime Minister.

The lack of evidence for any of these claims did not matter – what mattered more to Labour was putting National on the back foot, having to defend itself, rather than attack the government for its shortcomings.

Doubts of unity rises

And, for the time being, the strategy has succeeded. National is once again having to defend itself against accusations of disunity in its own ranks, sowing doubts once more about its reliability in government. While the particular issue of the social media post is a storm in a teacup which will die down soon, if not already, it has exposed a vulnerability in National which Labour will continue to exploit, especially if its own political fortunes continue to deteriorate.

Probably the most annoying thing for Luxon is that he risks being damned if he does, and damned if he does not when dealing with the issue. Were he had done nothing and ignored the social media post he would have been accused of both supporting the post and the Supreme Court decision, hence his decision to have the post quickly removed. But in doing so, he has incurred criticism that he is intolerant of diverse views being expressed within National (somewhat ironic in the circumstances.)

Overall, this diversion was the last thing Luxon and National need right now. The Party has been making good progress in recent times – endorsed by the more than solid Tauranga by-election result – and talk of a potential National-led government next year is becoming more serious.

Luxon is off on his first overseas trip as Opposition Leader to look at various policy options that might apply to New Zealand.

His absence should have been the time for National to consolidate its recent progress, ahead of what Luxon might have to say on his return. Now, though, it is more likely to be a time of making sure that no more National MPs commit a faux pas that disrupts its progress. And, all the while, like the angry political vulture he has become, rather than the amiable and relaxed figure he used to be before the polls turned sour, the Deputy Prime Minister will be waiting to pounce and scatter the entrails.

While real, the knock to National’s momentum over the last week is nowhere near terminal, and should not lead to over-reaction. At the same time, National should be mindful of what happened to it in 2019-20 when wheels loosened and fell off the chariot at regular intervals, not just stalling but ultimately completely reversing its political momentum at the time.

It cannot afford a repeat in 2023 if it wants to be a serious contender for the government.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from December 1999 and September 2017. He lives in Wellington.

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