Thomas Coughlan: Christopher Luxons National Party caucus reshuffle spells fixes not factions

OPINION:

Chris Luxon has delivered on his promise to bring a more corporate-style performance-based approach to his caucus.

His top-10 lineup included MPs regarded as caucus’ hardest workers, and breaks a recent trend to reward factional affiliation above all else.

Faction isn’t totally gone. Indeed, members of the caucus’ three definable camps are all present in the top 10, but Luxon has balanced the faction with merit, rewarding hard-working MPs from each faction, rather than allocating top spots based on faction alone.

Finance spokesman Simon Bridges might be seen as an exception; he appears to be a purely political appointee. The former leader has been almostinvisible in Parliament, devoting his time to building up a social media profile and promoting his book.

His place appears to have a lot to do with the fact he pulled out of the leadership race last week, handing the crown to Luxon. Both men deny there was a deal to give Bridges finance in return for dropping out, but no one believes them.

While Bridges has not exactly exerted himself in the year since the election, he has an immense capacity for work (and a track record as minister and leader) and is likely to apply himself now he’s working under Luxon, rather than his bête noire, former leader Judith Collins.

Deputy Nicola Willis retains the housing portfolio where she’s enjoyed multiple successes this year, likewise Willis’ close ally Chris Bishop who keeps Covid-19 and gets another reward: the return of his shadow leader of the house portfolio, of which he was ignominiously stripped by Collins.

The big winner from the new rankings (other than Luxon himself) is Erica Stanford, who has vaulted onto the front bench, ranked 7, up 18 places.

Stanford’s elevation means all three most prominent liberals are now in the top 10 – Collins’ top 10 included just one liberal (Bishop, then number 8).

This could potentially irk the Bridges and Collins camps, who have done notably less well out of the reshuffle. The big winners from the Collins camp is hardworking former deputy, Shane Reti who has sensibly retained health and avoided serious demotion (he’s still number 5). He’s joined by Simeon Brown (ranked 9), a fellow member of camp Collins, although his loyalties were understood to be shifting as the sun began to set on her leadership.

The challenge Luxon has had to grapple with in this reshuffle is one that’s dogged the caucus for the last year: the liberal camp of Willis, Bishop and Stanford, though small and politically embarrassed by the collapse of the Todd Muller experiment, are consistently among the harder working and most effective MPs.

Collins found it difficult to keep her allies close, while also promoting merit from outside her own faction. She ended up stripping Bishop of a coveted portfolio in the middle of a Covid outbreak – right when she needed her Covid-19 spokesman the most.

Collins herself is a challenge; given a low ranking, she may become bored and disruptive, but Luxon could hardly have ranked her higher for fear of appearing to condone or reward the way in which she left the leadership.

Luxon won’t get the opportunity to do a reshuffle like this again. He’s buoyed by the goodwill that comes from being new and apparently popular – to say nothing of the hope MPs have he’s the answer to their prayers.

It’s unclear whether Luxon’s decision to not rank MPs below 20 will have any payoff; all other parties do this, but most are more stable than National and use the party list ranking they take to the election as their parliamentary caucus ranking.

It’s possible this will sooth potential tensions among newer MPs (many have remarked that most modern workplaces wouldn’t operate on a system in which every employee was ranked), but it could also make it more difficult to promote hard work. Time, as ever, will be the judge.

On assuming the leadership, Luxon said bloody, Tudor-style infighting had to stop.

Having had now had one fewer leaders in opposition as Henry VIII had wives, Luxon said it was time for the infighting to end.

“I don’t see Parliament as a place that’s all about the House of Cards type stuff,” he said.

But whether or not the bloodletting ends is down to caucus, not Luxon, and caucus, as Francis Urquhart might say, “couldn’t possibly comment”.

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