Luxon and the messiah mistake
The unopposed appointment of Christopher Luxon as the new leader of the National Party seems more like an anointment. Many are seeing him as the salvation of the party — and the right in New Zealand more broadly — placing a huge burden of expectation on a professionally-accomplished, albeit comparatively-inexperienced politician.
Messiahs are so tempting. They promise change. They're exciting. They offer hope.
Aristotle has said that “man is by nature a political animal”. But the strong response to Christopher Luxon might be seen as part of a growing trend.
Increasingly, politicians are being framed as saviours. Think of Trump making America great again, or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro being hailed as “the saviour of the nation”. Consider Barack Obama and his “Hope” poster, or Jacinda Ardern being “the single source of truth”. The often-reported death of religious fervour may — in fact — be camouflaging its migration towards politics. As speechwriter Michael Gerson observed in 2019, “. . . politics has become a religion in so many lives . . .”
Of course, pinning both political and religious hopes on The One is risky. They're bound to disappoint us. A single individual cannot do everything.
Perhaps Luxon recognises this risk. When pressed about his lack of political leadership experience, he countered that he has a great team behind him. Critics note National's tendency to feuding, but Luxon is looking to rely on them, on their support, and expertise. Elevating Simon Bridges — who had been a possible challenger for the leadership — to the role of shadow finance minister was just one example of this strategy.
Yet teams, even if united, can only take you so far. Here's a thought experiment: How many ministers in the current Government's 20-strong cabinet can you name? How many are actually up to the job? To deepen the talent pool, University of Canterbury Adjunct Professors Sonia Mazey and Jeremy Richardson recently suggested that ministers could be drawn from outside political parties and Parliament. This would bring new talent in, but they would face the same problem of naivety.
They would also need to be part of a coherent, positive worldview. Previous leaders of National have lacked this, fumbling from issue to issue without a guiding narrative. Every party — to succeed — needs a story, and one that's not only plausible, but inspiring. So Luxon must formulate, then articulate, a compelling vision for both fellow MPs and the voting public to get behind.
If National's new leader can get these qualities in place then yes, his party's fortunes will improve, and so will politics in this country. A strong opposition makes for a strong democracy. We will all benefit.
During this time of so much chaos, pain, and struggle, it's understandable that we look to a strong leader to make everything better. Individual politicians can make a big difference. But there's so much more to political, and nationwide success. Let's do Christopher Luxon a favour. Let's not mistake him for a messiah.