The media wolf pack knows when it smells blood.
Unfortunately, its sense of smell is not so well developed that it can differentiate between a mortal wound, a non-life-threatening gash, and a paper cut.
When it is denied a kill, the more excitable members of the pack howl in disappointment while the grey-muzzled old-timers who have trotted along at a more leisurely pace look knowingly at each other.
We saw the pack in action last week when it sniffed the blood of National Party leader Christopher Luxon following a couple of gaffes and an apparent plateau in the polls.
That culminated in pundits at opposite ends of the political spectrum acting as if they were closing in on a kill.
Right-of centre Matthew Hooton told his New Zealand Herald readers that, although Luxon would doubtless survive as leader until the next election, he was effectively dead meat. He ended his Friday column with this: “The election looks set to go right to the wire with the more experienced and nimbler political operator likely to have the edge. National is stuck with Luxon until then. But unless he has a lot more in the tank than is apparent so far, he’s starting to look more like a Todd Muller or Andrew Little than a Key or Ardern.”
NewstalkZB’s Canterbury morning host John MacDonald agreed, saying “If the honeymoon isn’t over yet for National Party leader Christopher Luxon, I think it’s about to be.”
From the other side of the pack, former Labour Party activist Shane Te Pou had told Herald readers the previous day that Luxon simply wasn’t up to the job. His comments followed a less-than-impressive interview Luxon conducted with AM host Ryan Bridge, in which “as has become his habit, rather than address the question head on, Luxon resorted to talking points, failing to address the crux of the question he was being asked.” Te Pou ended his column thus: “The AM interview prompted me once again to ponder this question: At what point will Luxon’s CEO credentials and superficial plausibility give way to the recognition he is just not very good at this?”
All of this occurred, of course, in the aftermath of Luxon messing with quantum mechanics to be in Hawaii and Te Puke at the same time, but finding the public knew more about theoretical physics than he thought. It also followed policy ping pong over National’s planned tax cuts.
Cuts? Do we smell blood? Clearly some of the pack did. And the timing was perfect – Luxon’s first annual National Party conference as leader. On the morning of the conference Herald political editor Claire Trevett reflected on the lead-up to his Big Day. Somewhat mixing her metaphors she said Luxon wanted to go into the conference appearing to have Labour “on the ropes” but “the ball slipped back under the net to Labour’s side of the court.” Trevett said Luxon delivered Labour the chance to have a go at his main Achilles heel: his inexperience.
“That has not yet manifested itself in one catastrophic instance, but like wasteful spending, an accumulation of events can have the same result eventually.”
Luxon wasn’t out of the woods. Steve Braunias opened The Secret Diary of Christopher Luxon in the Weekend Herald and, while he may be a lone wolf, the satirist wasn’t far from the pack as it circled Dodge City.
“Marshall Luxon travelled to Samoa with Governor Ardern. Observers noticed that he looked miserable as hell and wondered if it had something to do with the fact he had shot himself in both feet in one week in front of the whole darned town.”
Grey old wolf Richard Harman’s conference preview on his Politik website concentrated on the change of party president and the end of the Goodfellow era but he reserved his final paragraphs for Luxon. Drawing on decades observing party conferences, he correctly predicted Luxon would get a good reception (“He has brought order to the Caucus after the turmoil of Simon Bridges, Todd Muller and Judith Collins”). He added: “But the party will be hoping that his address on Saturday will project out beyond Christchurch to the wider electorate and, in a sense, begin their 2023 election campaign.”
Luxon’s speech was on Sunday, which gave Sunday Star Times editor (and former political journalist) Tracy Watkins ample opportunity to nip at Luxon’s heels by reviewing his recent performance before he took the stage.
“Luxon had a bad week. And he will have more bad weeks until he schools himself in how tough, and unrelenting, the job of Opposition leader actually is. If he doesn’t, the hard life lessons learned by David Shearer, David Cunliﬀe, Phil Goﬀ, Simon Bridges and Judith Collins await.”
She wasn’t prepared to concede his short time in the job: “Inexperience doesn’t wash as an excuse. And no one owes Luxon a soft ride for being a rookie anyway. He wore his ambition for the leadership on his sleeve a long time before he got the job. He needed a better plan than winging it once he got there.”
Watkins did admit he had time to recover, a point also conceded by her columnist Andrea Vance. Nonetheless, Vance delivered some savage bites, saying his leadership had hit turbulence “and every bump is etched on his face.”
She used his out-of-tune performance at the unveiling of his effigy at the Backbencher to draw blood: “With all the ﬁnesse of David Brent (Ricky Gervais’ character in The Office), he then blundered into an oﬀ- key, on-camera rendition of a hiphop song before unveiling an egg- shaped Humpty Dumpty puppet of himself. It’s fair to say all the King’s men are now wondering if they can put Humpty back together again.”
In the rival Herald on Sunday, Thomas Coughlan had less bite as he recounted a walkabout Luxon took in Christchurch during a conference break on Saturday: “The mood of the conference was positive, but not barnstorming, while those Luxon met on walkabout were also optimistic – but Jacindamania this ain’t.”
But if the pack thought the conference’s final day would deliver a carcass to feed on, it was mistaken.
Come Sunday and Luxon took the stage. His entrance was stock-standard beaming smiles and handshakes. There were no blunders. He announced a ‘carrot-and-stick’ welfare policy described by one observer as “National Party red meat”. His pregnant pauses for wild applause may have been overlong and the responses less than enraptured, but he emerged with his leadership intact.
Conservative columnist Liam Hehir, writing on The Spinoff rated the conference a success: “By all accounts, nothing remotely interesting happened, which is the main criterion by which these things should be judged.” A few days earlier, on NZME’s On the Tiles podcast, Hehir had said that he thought Luxon would become prime minister even if he didn’t have John Key’s “easy-going instant connection.” Nothing at the conference seems to have altered that view.
Richard Harman’s conference analysis on Politik on Monday painted a picture of Luxon working hard behind closed doors to renew the party. There was no better evidence of that than the departure of long-serving party president Peter Goodfellow and “a near-total clean-out of the party’s Pipitea Street headquarters.”
“Luxon has managed to move the party on from the Key-English years even though both would seem to be playing a role in the background. Now all Luxon has to do is win the next election!”
The young wolves in the pack were left to howl and wonder when their next meal was coming.
They watched enviously as their sporting counterparts tore apart the carcass of All Black coach Ian Foster after a loss to the Springboks, with the New Zealand Herald demanding his head in a rare front-page editorial.
Yet the media pack hunts in an environment rich in wildlife. The wolves sat back on their haunches waiting for the release of a 1News political poll on Monday night.
The poll showed National and Act could form a government while Labour and the Greens would need the support of minor parties to even get over the line. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s popularity was at its lowest ebb on 30 per cent.
As one, the wolves’ heads swung to the left. Was that the rusty tang of blood on the air?
Then stuff revealed National MP Sam Uffindell had a dark secret: He had been asked to leave King’s College after an assault on another pupil.
As one, the heads of the wolves swung back to the right. Then left. Then right again.
So confusing. So much blood.