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Philip Crump: New Zealand's Team of Rivals

Philip Crump,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 Nov 2023, 7:00am

Philip Crump: New Zealand's Team of Rivals

Philip Crump,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 Nov 2023, 7:00am

The new National-led coalition government has now been sworn in, and the hard work begins.

At the core of government will be three men - each a leader of his own political party and each of whom brings his own distinctive personality, experiences and strengths to the new government. How the trio operates will have a significant bearing on the success of the coalition.

Only time will tell but there is already good reason to be optimistic. All the signs are that Luxon is not simply a competent corporate executive, but that he does have genuinely impressive management skills.

Managing people, particularly those with large egos operating in high pressure environments, is notoriously difficult. More an art than a science, it is easy to spot bad management; but even when viewed up close, it can be very difficult to identify exactly what is being done that gets elite teams of people operating at peak performance.

After taking over the National Party leadership in November 2021, Luxon quickly reestablished discipline and unity within his caucus, turning around the fortunes of the party. And despite grumblings about a lack of connection with the public and concern that some conservative issues were being ignored, party unity was maintained throughout the election period.

As a result, media attacks on the party largely fell flat, including the press gallery’s attempts to paint Luxon as a Christian fundamentalist who would endanger New Zealand’s recently reformed abortion laws.

Having reunited the party and led it to an election victory, the next big test has been reaching agreement with Act and New Zealand First on an ambitious three-party coalition agreement. The time it took to form the coalition drove the media crazy to the point that some commentators ludicrously claimed that Luxon had been “humiliated” and may have to go back to the polls. What emerged on Friday, however, was in fact detailed coalition agreements between the three parties that were well received by donors and supporters of all three parties.

The friction between David Seymour and Winston Peters was there for all to see on the election trail but that has been transformed into the beginnings of a decent working relationship. All three men must take some credit for that outcome but, in particular, it is another feather in Luxon’s cap that he has achieved this three-party agreement with two other leaders who did not want to work together if it could at all be avoided.

Seymour and Peters would undoubtedly bristle at the suggestion that they are being managed by the incoming Prime Minister. They are, after all, party leaders in their own right. But Luxon is, at the very least, the first among equals.

And by not taking any significant ministerial portfolios for himself, he is clearly signalling his intent to be the chief executive and focus on monitoring performance across the government including managing ministers and his caucus. If the new Prime Minister can get the same level of discipline and performance out of the coalition that he has already achieved with the National Party caucus it could be an unexpected success.

If managed correctly, the competitive tension between the three leaders could get the best out of this team of rivals. The tone set at the top will be essential to establishing the culture in each of the coalition parties and their ministers. For many, it will be their first time as a minister, and they will need the reassurance that comes from a united leadership that they know has their back if they are to perform at their best.

There will, of course, be disagreements between the leaders, unexpected events will test the coalition and there will be missteps by ministers and MPs. The media - which faces its own set of challenges - will be all too quick to make the most of every disagreement or mistake whether real or imagined. Given the hysterical media coverage over the weekend, it appears that some in the media will be the de facto political opposition in the country until Labour can recover from its shellacking.

But what the press gallery is yet to understand is that neither Luxon, nor his coalition partners, are in the least bit interested or concerned about schoolyard tittle tattle dressed up as political commentary. It was a key reason Luxon was able to so quickly establish unity within his caucus after taking over the leadership of the party.

The public will rightly judge the coalition on results. New Zealand cannot suffer another three years of incompetent or dysfunctional government. The country has voted for its team of rivals and it’s now up to the team to deliver for New Zealand.

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