Christopher Luxon and a new era of political leadership for NZ

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
24 October, 2023

New Zealand’s election marked the end of Labour’s six-year Government. However, the final form of the next government remains unclear until the ‘special votes’ are counted. Special votes come from individuals who voted outside their residential area or from overseas, making up about a fifth of all votes.

Historically, these special votes often lead to losing a seat or two for the centre-right in Parliament. Such a loss would render impossible a potential coalition between the National and ACT parties alone. If they fall short, they might need to collaborate with New Zealand First, a smaller populist party led by seasoned politician Winston Peters.

Though the final election outcome will thus take a few more weeks, and coalition talks might extend even further, the challenges for the incoming government under designated Prime Minister Chris Luxon are evident.

National has revealed some early priorities, notably the repeal of certain laws introduced by Labour. They plan to discard the Three Waters reforms, which transferred local water assets away from councils. Fair Pay Agreements, a new wage negotiation system, and recent reforms to environmental and urban planning laws are also on the chopping block.

Luxon has hinted at a possible mini-budget before Christmas, coupled with an update on the Treasury’s view of the economic and fiscal state of New Zealand.

So, a comprehensive repeal bill will be introduced to overturn a significant portion of the previous administration’s legislation and re-evaluate the country’s fiscal policy objectives. These changes are expected irrespective of whether National forms a government with one or two partners.

But the interesting question is what else National will prioritise in its initial period back in government after six years of opposition.

Based on Chris Luxon’s statements during his campaign, reforming the public service will be a priority.

Typically, an incoming government is briefed by the public service to understand their respective roles better. It has been the norm for new ministers to receive detailed ‘Briefings to the Incoming Minister’ to familiarise themselves with their portfolios.

However, there is a growing sentiment among centre-right politicians in New Zealand that the public service has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better.

Notably, the size of the public service has expanded significantly since National’s last term, growing from 47,000 staff in 2017 to over 60,000 now.

Despite the increase in staff, there is a perceived decline in the quality of service, possibly linked to the recruitment of managerial, communications and human resources personnel over genuine policy experts.

Additionally, the public service in Wellington seems to have developed a collective mindset. This happened especially after Public Service Act reforms enhanced the Public Service Commissioner’s role and influence, leading to a tightly-knit bureaucracy. The network of officials might have agendas that do not always align with the elected Government’s.

With his corporate leadership background, Luxon will be aware of these challenges. He understands that effective change management requires strong leadership from the top. He will want to assert control alongside his ministerial team rather than let a group of unelected officials from the previous term dictate the course of his Government.

For Luxon to gain a solid grip on the government machinery, he has various strategic options. Initially, he might consider advancing the retirement of Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes. Even though Hughes has announced his exit for next February, Luxon might prefer an earlier transition and possibly look for a replacement from outside the public service.

Taking such a step could lead Luxon to emulate Australia’s model, placing the Public Service Commission under his direct oversight. This would involve integrating it with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, like the Australian setup, instead of maintaining it as a stand-alone entity.

A bold move Luxon could make to communicate his authority to the bureaucracy is directing his ministers to establish their offices within their respective ministries.

While this might not seem groundbreaking, it would be quite unconventional in New Zealand. Ministers are currently housed in a central building called ‘The Beehive’.

But this arrangement also means there are no chance communications between ministers and their department officials. Instead, the flow of information from the departments to the ministries is controlled by top-echelon mandarins.

Drawing from his corporate leadership experience, Luxon may value adopting Tom Peters’ ‘Management by wandering around’ philosophy. Having ministers physically present within the departments they oversee could disrupt bureaucratic norms, signifying a new era of political leadership and interaction.

Under Luxon, New Zealand’s bureaucracy may expect some changes to how it operates. These changes would enable Luxon to govern effectively, whereas the previous administrations under Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins were plagued by a chronic inability to deliver.

In a few weeks, New Zealand will be under new management. And New Zealand’s public service may be the first place to notice the difference.


To read the article on The Australian website, click here.

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