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 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.
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
As the six-months anniversary of his rise to the leadership of the National Party came round Luxon had reason to be more
than satisfied with the party’s progress under his leadership. After all, it had gone from 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.
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 Covid19 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 on 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
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 if in government. While the particular issue
of the social media post is a storm in a tea-cup 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
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 to have 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 be applicable 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 no more National MPs commit faux pas that
disrupt 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 government.