For a party that just days ago celebrated women making up the majority of its top 40 candidates on its list, gender seems to be the hardest word for National, writes political editor Jo Moir
Comment: Six times National Party leader Christopher Luxon was asked in his weekly RNZ interview if gender was one of the factors in how National curated its candidate list.
Six times Luxon refused to say yes or no.
The closest he got was listing some factors, including skills, abilities, experiences, profile, and how connected candidates are to the community – no mention of gender.
Luxon was being asked whether gender had been a factor in light of comments by his MP Michael Woodhouse in the Otago Daily Times, that “there was a contest between diversity and experience and in my case, diversity won”.
Woodhouse pulled himself from the party list shortly before it was announced by Luxon on Saturday, after getting a list ranking that he says would have given him about a 45 percent chance of returning to Parliament.
Given he is contesting the safe Labour seat of Dunedin, and his list spot indicated to him he wouldn’t be considered for a ministerial portfolio if in government, he chose to effectively leave Parliament.
Speaking to media when announcing the list, Luxon said he was proud of the “balanced team” of experience, seasoned MPs, and new talent on show.
He said he’d made a commitment to “improve diversity” and that had been reflected in the “gender balance we have in our top 40” and the candidates coming from “diverse ethnic backgrounds”.
Of the top 40 candidates on National’s list, 21 are women and 19 are men, which both Luxon and party president Sylvia Wood celebrated on Saturday.
Given Luxon says a diverse list was created with the help of a gender balance, it’s unclear why he’d refuse four days later to acknowledge it played a part in the decision-making.
Newsroom asked deputy leader Nicola Willis, who was also on the list committee, whether gender was a factor, and she reiterated the comments made by Luxon that there were a range of factors.
After evading the question three times and being asked if ‘gender’ was now a “taboo word” Willis told Newsroom it wasn’t taboo for her.
Finally, after also being asked similar versions of the same question six times, Willis listed off the factors once more and this time added “gender” at the end.
This is the same Nicola Willis who in May told Newsroom of her concerted efforts to attract female candidates for the Tauranga by-election to replace Simon Bridges.
Four males were short-listed and eventually Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell was selected and won.
While David Seymour told Newsroom gender hadn’t played a role in the make-up of Act’s list, because that would be a form of “discrimination”, it clearly had in National’s.
Luxon knows there’s a sizeable chunk of swing voters, and particularly women, who left National and flipped to Labour at the 2020 election, who he needs to win back.
On Saturday he not only saw merit in prioritising women in a way they hadn’t been on the 2020 candidate list, which had only 13 women in the top 40, but he admitted a gender balance reflected his desire to improve diversity.
If Luxon is worried National Party members who predominantly chose male candidates for safe winnable seats might be put off by him saying gender was a factor in the creation of the list – that horse had already bolted on Saturday.
It’s possible Luxon’s caution around such language is connected to the ‘anti-woke’ movement on the right, and recurring sentiments along those lines that pop up in his public meetings across the country.
But is he really concerned those people would jump ship to Act because they hear Luxon say gender was one of a dozen factors considered in deciding the candidate list?
Willis seemed conscious she needed to sing from the same, albeit new, song sheet as her leader on Wednesday.
She did a pretty good job of it up until the point she realised it was no longer tenable to deny gender was a factor when she had specifically called for it time and time again.
During a campaign, parties change their mind on issues, and language and nuances vary depending on what their polling and focus groups are saying.
Luxon may well alienate the much-needed women’s vote he’s trying to court if he is in fact backing away from calling out and fixing gender imbalances in any future caucus or potential Cabinet.
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