New Zealand Opposition Gets Fifth Leader in Four Years

The revolving door of National Party leaders . . .

Following a slow burning power struggle, New Zealand’s opposition National Party has a new leader, Christopher Luxon, its fifth in less than four years. Last week, the previous leader, Judith Collins, issued a late-night press release announcing the demotion of her long-time rival, Simon Bridges, in relation to inappropriate comments he made five years ago. The demotion was widely seen as a desperate move by a leader who had lost support in her party and from the public. She recently polled at only five per cent as the country’s preferred prime minister, and support for the National Party has hovered around 25 per cent during her leadership tenure.

New leader’s Canada connection . . .

As a first term member of parliament, Luxon assumes the position as a relative political neophyte, although most observers feel that is a blessing as he has been largely absent from the party’s internecine struggles of the last half-decade. And he brings a strong corporate pedigree to his leadership – an important asset for the leader of a conservative, business-friendly party. Luxon was head of Air New Zealand, the country’s flagship airline, for eight years before entering politics and previously had a long career with Unilever, the global multinational, including serving as the Toronto-based CEO of its Canadian operations.

New leader, what now?

Foremost for the National Party is the need to steady the ship after years of turbulent waters. If it is to pose a serious challenge at the next election in late 2023, the National Party can ill afford more internal conflict. And while the country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the governing Labour Party are still solid frontrunners in recent polling, both have taken a small hit in recent months amid criticism of their handling of the ongoing COVID-19 Delta variant outbreak. In an important step toward unity, Luxon made Bridges, a former party leader who had initially contested Luxon’s leadership, the party’s finance critic and third-highest ranking member. But a potential problem for the new leader could be his evangelical Christian faith, which could be highly divisive in a country that leans progressive on social issues. To mitigate potential criticism of his social conservatism, Luxon has already indicated he will now vote to support the governing Labour Party’s legislation banning protests in ‘safe zones’ outside abortion clinics. However, he voted against the bill before it went to committee.