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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Suze Wilson, Senior Lecturer, School of Management, Massey University

Christopher Luxon’s sacking of two struggling cabinet ministers last week was praised by pundits as a sign of decisive – even “brutal” and “ruthless” – leadership. But this week’s 1News-Verian poll suggests the public is far less convinced of his leadership performance.

Based on those poll numbers, the National-led coalition would be out of office if an election were held now. And Luxon’s “preferred prime minister” rating fell further to 23%.

Politics is often a brutalising business. Machiavelli famously argued it is safer for leaders wanting to keep their job to be feared rather than loved. Countering perceptions of weak leadership may have been the motivation for Luxon’s decision to demote two ministers this early in his government’s term.

But those perceptions have been fuelled by the manner in which the prime minister’s coalition partners have tested, if not undermined, his authority and credibility.

We can trace this back to November last year, with the press conference announcing the coalition agreement, the ministerial swearing-in ceremony and the first cabinet meeting. NZ First leader and deputy prime minister Winston Peters repeatedly stole the limelight with a series of provocative, headline-grabbing statements.

Peters is a highly experienced politician, so would have known he was taking centre stage from the prime minister. But the mere fact he could do this was an early indicator of Luxon’s tenuous grip on power.

Coalition collisions

ACT Party leader David Seymour has also more than once undermined Luxon’s authority and credibility.

When the prime minister finally confirmed National would not support ACT’s contentious Treaty Principles Bill beyond its first reading, Seymour’s response was to openly state he didn’t believe Luxon’s commitment to that position.

Luxon brushed off the incident. But more recently he sought to publicly reprimand both Seymour and NZ First minister Shane Jones for critical comments each had made about the Waitangi Tribunal, which could have breached the cabinet manual.

Seymour’s response this time was to say it was Luxon who had erred by publicly stating those concerns.

Some of this can be put down to the policy tensions and competing political ambitions inherent in a three-party coalition. It’s the first such arrangement since New Zealand adopted the MMP proportional system.

But does Luxon’s leadership style make him unusually vulnerable to these kinds of tactics from his putative parliamentary allies?

Leadership and power

Power is a fundamental aspect of both politics and leadership. Complex, dynamic and multifaceted, it is neither a zero-sum game nor solely rooted in laws or formal authority.

Leaders can enhance their power, in the sense of securing more respect and influence, through personal characteristics that garner admiration and support. They can demonstrate expert knowledge and skills, and use reason, logic and evidence to persuade others.

They can gain power through rewarding supporters. But least effective in most circumstances is the power to punish others, which risks turning erstwhile supporters into enemies.

In theory, Luxon has access to all these bases of power. But so far he has struggled to mobilise them in ways that command the respect of his coalition partners.

According to this week’s 1News-Verian poll, this is also increasingly evident to the public: only 51% said Luxon is the decision-maker in the coalition government.

Luxon’s relative lack of political experience (compared to Peters, in particular) may be a contributing factor. But his continued low poll rating as preferred prime minister also likely weakens his sway over cabinet – possibly even his own caucus.

Live by the sword …

Should that lack of popularity continue, it imperils National’s chances of success at the next election. Regardless of the formal reality that he has the lawful mandate to be prime minister, Luxon needs to convince the public he deserves their support.

The signs so far aren’t promising. His party did not see a post-election bump in the polls and hasn’t enjoyed a traditional honeymoon effect.

Lack of judgment over his “entitlement” to an accommodation allowance preceded Luxon’s drop in “net favourability” (favourable minus unfavourable results) in the March Taxpayers Union-Curia poll – to below Labour leader Chis Hipkins, who recently led his party to a historic defeat in the election.

In a subsequent poll from Talbot Mills (one of whose clients is the Labour Party), Luxon’s net favourability was –7%. By contrast, former National prime minister John Key scored around +58% at a similar time in his tenure.

In that same survey, the words people associated with Luxon’s character are indicative of the problem. While “business” and “leader” likely hold reasonably positive connotations, “greedy”, “unsure” and “arrogant” clearly do not.

Luxon claimed his sacking of the cabinet ministers demonstrated an ability to “adapt very quickly and dynamically to changing circumstances and situations”. He will need those qualities if he is to turn around public opinion about his character and his government’s performance.

Unless his personal standing with the voting public becomes a key source of his political power, such that his colleagues feel he can carry them to re-election, Luxon may learn the hard way what “live by the sword, die by the sword” means in politics.

The Conversation

Suze Wilson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Luxon’s leadership test: what would it take to win back unimpressed NZ voters? –