Realities and challenges confront Christopher Luxon

Analysis by Jo Moir

Analysis by Jo Moir

Wellington, October 15, 2023

Something to celebrate for everyone but Labour. 

Christopher Luxon headed to bed in the early hours of Sunday morning as a Prime Minister with a National-ACT majority, having ransacked Labour in safe red seats. Whether he can safely keep New Zealand First at bay is a problem for another day.

As the big blue Party kicked on into Sunday morning Christopher Luxon was revelling in an election result that had delivered a change of government.

Clearly equal parts ecstatic, relieved, and exhausted, Luxon was celebrating the sweep of blue across the country as National flipped many safe Labour seats, but remained mindful that the hard work begins on Sunday afternoon when his team meets to map out the next steps.

His Deputy Nicola Willis and Campaign Chair Chris Bishop were on flights to Auckland to join Luxon, with his Chief of Staff, Chief Press Secretary, Campaign Manager, and other trusted MPs and Party strategists.

The ACT-NZ First Equation

That team will take a closer look at the lay of the land on Sunday afternoon and investigate how tight the majority may or may not be after specials and the Port Waikato by-election results are returned. The Electoral Commission’s preliminary results had National and ACT with the slimmest of majorities on 61 seats.

A call will need to be made to ACT’s David Seymour, and a decision will need to be reached as to when to phone Winston Peters.

In his speech to Party faithful at National’s headquarters, Luxon was mindful of just how in play will New Zealand First be. He was careful to acknowledge and praise comments from Peters, that he would be “willing to help where needed.”

Luxon told Newsroom he would not start work on what the government might look like until his team arrived but insisted that all negotiations would be done “quietly and respectfully.”

“The numbers are going to bounce around a little bit… we still got special votes to come through, but we will work our way through that,” he said.

A couple of weeks ago Luxon would have been quietly comfortable on election night to deliver a clear majority for National and ACT.

New and Untested MPs

But New Zealand First’s efforts to get clear of the 5% threshold and some complicated seat distributions as a result of so many safe Labour electorates flipping and Te Pāti Māori looking to have swept up more seats than predicted, has kept Winston Peters’ Party in the frame.

Luxon will be only too aware of how shaky a one or two-seat majority could be with a large caucus full of new and untested MPs.

Sir John Key told Newsroom that it would be for Luxon and his team to work out whether it is better to bring New Zealand First into the fold, but clearly, the former Prime Minister saw merit in it himself when he did an unneeded deal with the Māori Party to shore up seats.

Throwing New Zealand First a few policy concessions that can shut down some potential problem areas with ACT would work to Luxon’s advantage while giving him protection in the House when it comes to voting on legislation.

In addition to all the work that is about to come in forming a government and kicking into a 100-day work programme, Luxon now has a sizeable new caucus to oversee.

The extraordinary success in winning safe Labour seats like Mt Roskill and New Lynn and a number of others sitting on a knife edge and possibly requiring recounts has ensured Luxon’s caucus is more representative of New Zealand.

Heading into the campaign the majority of National’s diversity candidates were in un-winnable seats but the blue flood over Auckland, in particular, has brought in a number of new MPs the Party wouldn’t have ever imagined making it in.

They are seats even Key said he never thought National could take off Labour.

Nothing but defeat for Labour

Chris Hipkins will be doing some real soul-searching as to what went so wrong in his campaign and how the momentum he so desperately claimed had arrived in the final week never came to bear. The result is nothing short of disastrous and while Hipkins has safely won his seat of Remutaka, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that when his caucus meets at Parliament on Tuesday the message is sent that it’s time for someone else to lead.

Hipkins will be frustrated that he was dealt a tough hand inheriting a Party the country had already turned on as a result of the resentment many felt towards Jacinda Ardern and her handling of the second half of the Covid pandemic.

While South Auckland stayed true to Labour, the rest of the city has sent a very clear message to the Party and outgoing government that it wanted change.

Hipkins’ campaign had more bad days than good.

It is not entirely clear what caused Hipkins to be so slow to fire in the first two weeks, though Newsroom understands that a general difficulty transitioning from Prime Minister to campaigning as Labour leader certainly fed into it.

A new Partner for Hipkins

He has also been juggling two young children who spend most of their time living with him or his parents, and a new relationship with his partner, Toni, whom he formally announced to the country in his concession speech on Saturday night.

The relationship started about four or five months ago – the couple are old friends who reconnected in the past year and they both have children from previous marriages.

While she has been on the trail with him occasionally, her first big event was when she attended the Labour campaign launch in Auckland, Hipkins has managed to keep the relationship mostly on the down-low.

Finding someone to share the load with will be a silver lining in a year that started far better than it looks to be ending for Hipkins.

While Labour frayed at the seams as the results rolled in Te Pāti Māori was undergoing a grassroots revival with four of the seven Māori seats safely secured. It was predicted that the Party would hold Waiariki and pick up Te Tai Hauāuru, but nobody, not even co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, had anticipated a win in Hauraki-Waikato and Te Tai Tonga.

Speaking to Newsroom a week before election night, Ngarewa-Packer said that the Party had deliberately put its candidates for those two seats in the fourth and fifth spot on the list in the hope that the Party vote could bring them in because they would be difficult to snatch off Labour.

The biggest blow to Labour’s Māori caucus is the MP for Hauraki-Waikato, Nanaia Mahuta, bowing out in a surprise defeat to 21-year-old Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, after 27 years in Parliament.

Small goes big

The Greens had been polling at record highs in the lead-up to Saturday and are also celebrating after picking up two new electorates from Labour in Wellington Central and Rongotai.

Add them to the Auckland Central seat held by Chlöe Swarbrick, and suddenly the Greens are no longer just on the hunt for Party votes to get over the threshold in future, having firmly put down roots in three electorates.

It is the same for the ACT Party with Deputy Leader Brooke van Velden winning Tāmaki off National’s Simon O’Connor ensuring that the Party’s safety net is not squarely with leader David Seymour in Epsom. Van Velden’s win in the Auckland electorate means O’Connor is the only MP who will not return to the National Party Caucus in the blue wave of seat wins.

So many parties, other than Labour, found reason to celebrate on Saturday night, but none of the festivities would have kicked on as long as those in the Far North.

Winston Peters does it again

With more than 6% of the vote and a likely eight MPs, New Zealand First has yet again done the unbelievable and found a path back to Parliament.

Politics is in Peters’ DNA and his inability to give up is second to no other MP.

His Party tapped into a voter base that was so much broader than previous campaigns and the relatively low result for the two major parties created an opening for the centrist leader to slide back in. As to just how much leverage New Zealand First might have is still unclear, but the question that Luxon will be asking himself is whether having Peters in government is less dangerous than having him needling away from the opposition benches.

Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above Analysis, which appeared on the website of Newsroom has been published under a Special Agreement.

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