Claire Trevett: National leader Christopher Luxon and Act’s David Seymour battle for the ‘battlers’ and farmers

OPINION:

National’s new leader Chris Luxon has taken to using variations of the phrases once beloved by Sir John Key, but none have been quite as clunky as Luxon’s take on Key’s “brighter future” slogan.

On Wednesday, Luxon issued a tweet in which he declared National (or New Zealand, it was unclear which) would be “happening to the future, not letting the future happen to us.”

The next day, he re-happened his past. He went to his old school, Christchurch Boys’ High School. He strutted his stuff on the cricket pitch and announced a less than startling policy position: he considered education was important.

He set out his own maths problem, saying his challenge was “to make sure one in two people vote for us.”

The day after that, Luxon happened upon Jacinda Ardern’s past – he went to Morrinsville.
He stood under the Mega Cow and issued what he hoped would be a Siren’s call to rural New Zealand to return unto National.

The Mega Cow has become something of a symbolic venue for farmers protesting – and for politicians wooing the rural vote.

It was where the famous farmer’s protest of 2017 happened. At that point, farmers were mainly protesting Labour’s plans for water charges. That was scrapped but Labour has generously given farmers a lot more to protest over since then.

So Luxon identified his first targets early: the “punters” and the farmers.

Alas, he has some competition.

Both are also groups Act leader David Seymour has also been pitching to – and both have a similar pitch.

Luxon’s “punters” are Seymour’s “battlers” and both leaders are pointing to the squeeze on “everyday New Zealanders” from rising inflation and stalling wage growth.

It’s ripe territory. The Covid-19 debate will change in 2022, shifting to the hangovers of Covid. That will include the ongoing toll to sectors such as tourism, and issues such as cost of living and housing.

That holds out a much more promising opportunity for the Opposition parties.

If the last week is anything to go by, the battle for the punters will be fought as much between Act and National as between the Opposition parties and Labour.

Let the battle begin.

Luxon’s ascension could well mean people are now willing to listen to National again.

However, it was evident this week that Seymour won’t let his hard-won new support base slip to National without a fight. He happily rained on Luxon’s parade in Question Time.

In a speech the next day, he noted that voters had gone to Act because the other choices were “a Government that leads by spin, that dissembles” and a National Party “that vacillates and goes from one jibe to the other, sometimes playing “me too” and sometimes criticising with negativity.”

It raised some frustrated eyebrows in National, who had clearly hoped Seymour would at least give Luxon a clear start.

That frustration is not least because the ultimate goal of both parties should be to get into Government.

That is less likely to happen if National cannot get its own polling back to the high 30s or early 40s.

In National’s view, Seymour should be leaving the middle to them and steering back into his own lane – out there on the right.

Seymour, however, has reaped significant gains in the polls by pitching to the middle and the rural voters. While National was distracted, Seymour moved in and made himself a credible alternative.

To use a suitably rural metaphor, he made hay while the sun shone for him – and the rain was hosing down on National.

Seymour will still have opportunities, one is the National-Labour accord to allow more intensification of housing in city suburbs. Act is the NIMBY’s champion – and is making sure people know it.

Seymour also has the advantage of having had a clean run up to now – and a disciplined caucus. He has been relentlessly on message, made few gaffes, and he has been clever.

Luxon is trying to achieve the same uncluttered field as Seymour to get the voters National has lost over the last four years by telling them all National has “turned the page” on those four years.

The week had started with MPs making valiant efforts to show they were indeed following that order to “turn the page.” There were mixed results.

Luxon had not specified whether the page was turned forward or backward, so former leader Todd Muller turned back one page and revoked his earlier (forced) decision to resign in 2023 before turning forward two pages again.

“The thing about turning the page is that you actually have to turn the page,” he said.

Simon Bridges – who will be crucial in turning Luxon’s own aspirational quote-train into something more concrete – had some time-distorting bon mots too.

He announced “yesterday is yesterday and today is the future.”

Still at least all that handling of the baggage of the last 18 months or so has given them some practice for packing up their troubles in the old kitbag – or as Muller coined it “putting the backpack of grievance down.”

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