The government’s first 100 days have gone largely to plan – now comes the hard part

Although the notion of a government’s “first 100 days” in office is constitutionally meaningless, it has become part of the modern political lexicon.

Ever since US president Franklin D. Roosevelt used the phrase to usher in an era of unparalleled congressional activity in 1933, it has been adopted by administrations the world over to signal intent and energy.

As New Zealand’s coalition government approaches its 100-day milestone this Friday, then, much has been made of its 49-point action plan.

While billed as a platform to “rebuild the economy and reduce the cost of living”, “restore law and order”, “improve healthcare and education” and “deliver better housing and infrastructure”, many of the points begin with words such as “repeal”, “cancel” or “start reducing”.

In short, much of the first 100 days has involved undoing the former government’s initiatives. Nonetheless, some of this has still been substantive and significant.

Repealing fair pay agreements or taking action to “curb the surge in welfare dependency” are standard centre-right approaches to economic stimulation.

But other measures – notably the disestablishment of Te Aka Whai Ora (the Māori Health Authority), the repeal of world-leading smokefree legislation, or the cancellation of the cultural reports used during court sentencing – signal real change. How they will improve healthcare and economic growth, or restore law and order is another matter.

Tone and character

The real purpose of the first 100 days, of course, is to signal the government is “laser-focused” on what matters to its supporters. As lawyer Dennis Denuto put it so memorably in The Castle, “it’s the vibe” that matters.

On that count, the government will be reasonably pleased with recent polls indicating growing support for Christopher Luxon as preferred prime minister and for the administration he leads (the recent furore over Luxon’s short-lived insistence on claiming the MP’s accommodation supplement notwithstanding).

Read more: Do the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi really give Māori too much power – or not enough?

Missteps aside, the most important aspect of the opening period of this (or any other) administration is not what was done, but how it was done.

Shortly we will all stop talking about the first 100 days. But the tone and character of a government are established early on, and continue to shape its demeanour for the duration of its time in office.

The most consequential things that took place in the coalition’s first 100 days, in other words, were not in the action plan.

Tails wagging the dog

The first had to do with who made the early political running. For weeks David Seymour’s ACT party dominated the political agenda. Specifically, its proposed Treaty Principles Bill sucked the wind out of National’s sails.

There is a lull in proceedings for now, and the bill will probably not survive beyond select committee. But when it gets there, ACT will once again be front and centre – a good return on the party’s 8.6% share of the election vote and enough to carry Seymour through to his turn as deputy prime minister.

For a time, too, National’s other coalition partner was dominating headlines. NZ First will claim credit for the repeal of smokefree legislation and will be unfazed by the criticism this has attracted at home and abroad. All it will care about is a big win for its supporters.

Read more: After the election, Christopher Luxon’s real test could come from his right – not the left

If this seems more about a perception of two tails wagging the government dog, it has also undoubtedly created early tensions between Luxon and Seymour, in particular.

Cabinet collective responsibility is holding so far. But it’s not unreasonable to anticipate future challenges to the prime minister’s authority, and to the internal stability of his coalition administration.

The question will be whether Luxon can govern as first amongst equals, as is generally the case in parliamentary democracies, or is forced by Seymour and Winston Peters into something resembling a triumvirate.

New Deal or Waterloo?

Other challenges will move to centre stage, including a looming stand-off with local government over infrastructure funding, and the impacts of back-office public service cuts.

Luxon will also find it hard to square his narrative about reducing the cost of living with the announcement this week of increases in car registration fees and fuel taxes. That extra NZ$9.20 in the tank of an Auckland Hilux, delivered by the axing of the Auckland regional fuel tax, didn’t last long.

Read more: Nicola Willis warns of fiscal ‘snakes and snails’ – her first mini-budget will be a test of NZ’s no-surprises finance rules

Questions of governing style are also starting to emerge, particularly around the influence of lobbyists over government policy in the fisheries and health sectors. The identities of those with swipe-card access to parliament, including lobbyists, are now not publicly available under new rules set by the Speaker of the House.

The first real test of the government, of course, will be its first budget in late May. Finance minister Nicola Willis will need to demonstrate how her government’s electoral commitments will be paid for – and how it intends to improve what Luxon has called the “fragile” state of the nation.

It is also worth noting, perhaps, that while the “first 100 days” is usually associated with Roosevelt, its roots are actually in France. “Les Cent Jours” refers to the period following Napoleon’s triumphant return from exile on Elba. Roosevelt’s first hundred days delivered the New Deal. Napoleon’s ended at Waterloo.

Richard Shaw 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.