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Luxon, At Last, Does His Own Thing For His Own Party

Christopher Luxon showcased his own party's agenda in the State of the Nation speech, according to commentators. Photo: RNZ/Marika Khabazi

Christopher Luxon comes out from under the shadow of his coalition partners with his State of the Nation speech, he sets his own agenda and it's quickly followed by action. Grant Robertson's decision to retire from politics leaves a huge gap on Labour's front bench and the sudden death of Efeso Collins brings Parliament to a standstill.

Luxon delivered his State of the Nation speech last Sunday and, for the first time since the election, the prime minister was where he should be - centre stage and out from under the shadows of David Seymour and Winston Peters.

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Luxon pledged he would be an upfront, straight-talking prime minister ready to make the hard calls needed to repair New Zealand's "fragile" economy.

He put beneficiaries who don't meet their jobseeker obligations on notice that the "free ride" would come to an end and said those who had been on a benefit for many years would be targeted.

"Sunday's speech was good," said Stuff's Andrea Vance.

"Better still was the presentation: Luxon sounded like a normal person. He was speaking informally, taking the audience by the shoulder and inviting them to see what he sees."

Vance thought there were shades of John Key's style. "Relaxed, if you like, or certainly more at ease in the role."

Vance, and others, noticed there was no mention of National's coalition partners.

Luxon was doing his own thing, for his own party, setting his own agenda.

The Herald's columnist Simon Wilson said the speech was well received by the party faithful.

"They cheered, often. They seemed to love hearing that other people would have to do it tough," he said.

"But if Luxon really wanted to present us with courage and leadership in these fragile times, he'd stop telling his supporters what they want to hear."

Wilson suggested Luxon's promised "straight talking" should include asking them to share the burden.

"Yep, he'd cancel the promise of tax cuts for the wealthy," he said.

"And if he really wanted to 'give Kiwis a reason to stay in New Zealand' as he said on Sunday, he'd name the biggest cause of migration to Australia: higher wages."

Wilson said the government's 100-day plan was doing the opposite of encouraging a high-wage economy.

"The fair pay agreements law has been scrapped, 90-day trials reintroduced and the just announced minimum wage rise is less than inflation.

"All of this will hold down local wages and widen, not narrow, the wage gap between Australia and New Zealand."

Ramping up benefit check-ins and sanctions

On Monday, Luxon brought Social Development and Employment Minister Louise Upston to his post-cabinet press conference.

He was not losing any time over the jobseeker benefit issue, and he wanted to show his government "gets things done".

They announced a ramping up of benefit sanctions would begin in June - particularly for young people, RNZ reported.

The ministry would begin "work check-ins" for jobseekers who had been on a benefit for at least six months.

It would begin the rollout of a more comprehensive system for benefit sanctions.

This would include mandatory re-application for Jobseeker Support every six months instead of each year, community-provided job coaching, needs assessments, a traffic light system, new non-financial sanctions, and action being taken for those who repeatedly failed to

comply with their work obligations.

Those measures have not just been thought up. National announced the traffic light system in September last year during the election campaign.

At the press conference, which was packed with references to the government's utter determination to get young people into jobs and not watch them become trapped in welfare dependency, Luxon and Upston gave figures to back their case.

Upston said remaining on a benefit had become the "rational choice" for too many people, with 70,000 more people on Jobseeker Support since 2017 and 40,000 more receiving the support for at least a year.

The weekly post-cabinet press conference is the big, kick-off event of the week and using it to announce the measures was deliberate.

"Choosing to make it the centrepiece of the post-cabinet press conference was more about pure political theatre rather than the substance of the move," said the Herald's political editor Claire Trevett.

"It was not news of anything new but rather a stop-gap measure before National brings in its own newly-packaged sanctions regime toward the end of the year."

Trevett said that did not mean it was not good politics.

"Talking tough about the jobless is almost always good politics for a National Party leader and Luxon does it well, talking about 'tough love' and telling the young unemployed that their 'free ride' is over," she said.

"He can do it safe in the assumption a fair chunk of voters will feel he is more than justified."

Trevett got that right, it will sit well with a lot of people and will not do National any harm at all. Opposition parties did not like it.

Labour social development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni said the government was unfairly assuming jobseekers did not want to start on employment education or training pathways.

"Rather than being stingy on the minimum wage and bashing beneficiaries, the coalition government should be focused on lifting incomes for the poorest New Zealanders," she said.

The Greens' social development and employment spokesperson, Ricardo Menendez March, said the government was creating another measure to penalise the poorest.

"Sanctions do not work… this government is quickly building a legacy of cruelty," he said.

"Instead of supporting people to provide for themselves and their whānau, this government has actively sought to push people further and further into poverty."

Welfare advocates pleaded with the government to back down, RNZ reported.

Luxon's speech and the announcement a day later began a good week for National.

Poll brings more good news for National

Another piece of good news was a 1News-Verian poll which showed National one point up since the last poll, taken before the election.

It stood on 38 percent with Labour steady at 28 percent.

Of more importance was Labour leader Chris Hipkins falling 10 points to 15 percent as preferred prime minister, with Luxon steady on 25 percent and solidly ahead of the pack.

ACT dropped a point to 8 percent, a contrast to the Taxpayers' Union-Curia poll taken in early February which showed ACT climbing 5.6 points to 13.7 percent.

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