By Lamia Imam*
Opinion – Despite having the resume to be the next prime Minister, Christopher Luxon fails to add anything meaningful in terms of policy solutions.
I have been listening to Christopher Luxon’s interviews recently and summary of his complaints seem to be that ‘Labour’s position is too confusing for me’, ‘rich people are paying too much in taxes’, and the oldie but goodie ‘there are too many Wellington bureaucrats’. What strikes me with these interviews is that the National Party does not have any new ideas, and their old ideas seem woefully unprepared to meet the moment. Our society faces significant challenges that require a hands-on approach. We have insurmountable income equality, a planet on the brink of climate destruction, and the immediate need for race, gender, and disability justice. All of these challenges are taking place amid a lingering 2-plus-year-long pandemic that is killing people daily.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie The American President when Michael Douglas’ character stands on the White House podium and says, “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them”. The National Party seems deeply unserious after being in opposition for almost five years and going through multiple leaders. With their recent nitpicking and jokes about public holidays to their constant opposition to Covid-19 policies, they seem hellbent on trying to eke out a win “just to win” with no plan of action once they do. That is what politics has been reduced to – winning elections rather than solving problems.
Our journalists must cover our politicians through the lens of who may win the elections according to the latest polling. This is part of living in a democracy and I accept it. But we also need the public discourse to include meaningful engagement with the issues and tangible solutions to these challenges that go beyond reductive political posturing of ‘cutting public servants’ and ‘giving tax cuts’. Aside from Covid-19 response-related staffing, there’s bound to be more staff because fundamentally speaking left-wing governments traditionally have more work. A Labour government will always have a bigger bureaucracy because they believe in government whereas National and ACT do not. Refusal to engage with this salient point leaves us with news cycles of sound bites and quips about the size of the civil service with no clear agreement on what it should be. We need to get out of the mentality that the only worthwhile job is one that brings in profits for a corporation and accept the fluctuating size of government and move on.
I am in a tax bracket that would very much benefit from a tax cut. And I won’t pull a Luxon and say I don’t want it. I can always find reasons to be given extra money to spend on things or save for a rainy day. However, my tax bracket does not need a tax cut. Beneficiaries, minimum wage earners, disabled people need financial help right now. Inflation is at a 30-year high as supermarkets and power companies are only focused on profits. Next year, we will have had two terms of a Labour government that shepherded us through a pandemic in better shape than most developed countries but with many shortcomings. From the Māori vaccine rollout, to mask access, to ventilation in schools, the government could undoubtedly have done more. But other than complaining about faster vaccine rollout, MIQ, and traffic lights, the National Party is nowhere to be seen on these issues.
The latest alarm bells on climate change by IPCC and the data for sea levels specifically in New Zealand are ringing loudly. Meanwhile, Luxon can only complain about public transport cost reduction. At a time when public transportation usage can dramatically decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, the National Party is still singularly focused on building more roads. The artificial wedge between rural New Zealanders who have very different transport needs and urban New Zealanders who would be well served by greater investment in public transport is contributing to inaction on the climate disaster that we are experiencing in slow motion. In fact, one would think providing sustainable transport options for those in urban areas would actually ease the pressure off our rural cousins. The National Party would have us continue to be pitted against each other instead of working together.
By all accounts Luxon has the resume to be prime minister. He has had a successful private sector career that is alluring to high- and middle-income earners. Anyone who has ever had a job in an office setting recognizes their manager in him. He is familiar to us; imagining a middle-aged white man as a prime minister requires no imagination at all because we have lived this reality many times.
When it comes to policy ideas the real fight is still between Labour and the Greens. Our choice is between incremental small changes vs radical big overhaul of a system that is not working. Labour has brought bold ideas to the table with their policy and political decision to fight Covid-19 head on initially and the proposed overhaul of the health system. We need a similar approach to the standard and quality of living of all people but have yet to see that from them. In his pre-budget speech, Luxon also failed to bring any policy solutions saying he did not have one big-bang solution. In reality we need several big-bang solutions but the National Party is either for maintaining the status quo or going backwards. Both are untenable choices. Fortunately, the next election is still a long way away and we can hope that by then Luxon will do some homework and bring some real policy ideas that address our current challenges beyond giving himself a tax cut.
* Lamia Imam is a political and social commentator who has previously worked for the Labour Party and the Ministry of Justice. She has Masters from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and currently works as a marketing consultant in Wellington.