Putting the National house in order, Luxon will aim at the real target

Jane Patterson

Jane Patterson

Wellington, December 4, 2021

                              
                                      National Party Leader Christopher Luxon in his new office (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

“It is easy to say the words ‘unify, unify, unify’ … but, you know, that is an intellectual rational thing – you have got to make it emotional and actually get people to reset and leave some of the baggage behind.” – Chris Luxon

It was just over a week ago that Chris Luxon took the National Party Leadership after only 409 days as an MP following Judith Collins losing a Caucus vote of no confidence.

The former Head of Air New Zealand negotiated a managed handover, seeing off rival Simon Bridges, and now faces the challenge of putting together a Caucus line-up that refocuses MPs’ attention from themselves to the Labour government while not inflaming old resentments.

He met me to talk about his views, ideas and plans for his Caucus, Covid-19, Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi.

This was his first interview on the third floor Parliamentary Office that has seen a revolving door of Opposition Leaders. He is operating on just a few hours’ sleep, figuring out what to do with the space and his 33-strong Caucus – among them, the three former Leaders Simon Bridges, Todd Muller, and of course Judith Collins.

Turning the Page

Luxon made it clear in his first statements that each would have roles in his Caucus – in part no doubt as a display of the newfound unity the party will need to show to regain lost ground – and he remains firm on that. 

“I want roles for Simon, Todd and Judith. You know, I want them all in the team because we’ve actually turned the page, we have said, ‘Righto, we have got 100% trust with each other, we go forward from this basis’, and we want to use their skills and talents bigtime.”

Bridges has already been given the finance portfolio and the number three ranking, providing Luxon a number of benefits: keeping a very recent rival close, making use of Bridges’ political skills and experience, bringing more diversity to the front bench with a Maori MP, and sending a message to the Caucus he can be magnanimous.

Muller, left out in the wilderness under Collins, will be brought back into the fold. Collins brought her own Leadership to an end in spectacular fashion but her proven tenacity will be an asset to this very new opposition Leader so long as she can remain contrite and loyal. 

 
(Victims of two different coups)


Balancing Covid-19 issues

Covid-19 is the big issue of the day and Luxon seems aware of the balance that needs to be struck between moving on from restrictions and keeping people safe. 

“It is a difficult one, right, because on one spectrum that you have got people saying ‘look, can we just open up and get over this’ … on the other hand you have got people in an incredible state of fear and anxiety and stress as well.” 

He says that it is not about just bashing the government, it is about solving problems. 

“What I am talking about here is execution, implementation. So, if you are going to announce something, then make sure that it is followed through and actually delivered at the end of the day,” he said.

Chris Luxon speaking to RNZ Political Editor Jane Patterson soon after being elected Leader of the National Party on December 1, 2021 (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

Relations with Maori

A big question hanging over Luxon’s Leadership is how his Party will handle Maori issues.

Luxon is often compared to John Key and has already alluded to Key’s partnership with the Maori Party and Whanau Ora as examples of working with Maori. It is a contrast with the approach of some Leaders – notably Collins and Don Brash. 

“We want an inclusive New Zealand, we are a country that should be very, very proud of our bicultural traditions but we’re also a modern multicultural country that has to look forward and go out in the world as well. So, we have to have one country, one system, but we have to be able to have ability to innovate and to target deprivation and inequality through really targeted, purpose-driven programmes … based on need, not ethnicity,” Luxon said.

He said that this is about innovation and targeted interventions rather than a Brash-like approach and notes the articles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi have been included in the National Party’s Constitution. 

Jane Patterson is the Political Editor at Radio New Zealand.

Russell Palmer, Digital Political Journalist at RNZ says:

Christopher Luxon is considered both an unknown quantity and something of a messiah for the National Party.

A first-term MP who won the National stronghold Botany electorate in the 2020 election after the departure in disgrace of Jami-Lee Ross, Luxon has kept a relatively low political profile since. He is an evangelical Christian though he does not like the label and is perhaps best known for leading Air New Zealand as its chief executive for six years.

Politics and business

He is 51 years old, and Luxon had long been hailed as a potential future Leader, including by the likes of National’s former Prime Minister John Key.

“We both share very similar economic views, we are economically conservative but we are internationalists – we want to see New Zealand engage with the world and trade with the world and have a harmonious, multi-cultural society operating in New Zealand,” Key said in April last year after Luxon announced his candidacy for the Botany seat.

The two have been often compared (including by Key himself) including for their casual but business-like manner. While Luxon said that he was not “John Key 2.0” when he went for the Botany seat, he admitted Key had encouraged him to stand.

Beginning of a new era for National: Christopher Luxon with his Deputy Nicola Willis (Getty Images)

However, while Key had four years to get to grips with politics and Parliament before taking the Leadership, Luxon has succeeded to the role in just over a year, after a tumultuous period for the National Party.

Infighting and Leadership spills

Luxon is the Party’s fifth Leader in four years, with infighting and low ratings prompting several Leadership spills.

Having spent months of his year so far of politics in lockdown, he could be forgiven for a limited impact on three of his four portfolios – Land Information; Research, Science and Manufacturing; and Associate Transport.

He has been more successful with his local government portfolio. With just 17 media releases in his name on the National Party website, almost all of them dedicated to his biggest hot-button issue – three waters reforms – and he has proved effective at criticising the government on that.

He has also largely evaded controversy except when Air New Zealand was revealed to have been contracted for repair work by the Saudi Arabian military.

Luxon was in charge at the time, though it was not revealed until he had left. He said that he had no idea about the contract at the time but admitted that it was a mistake not to establish a process in which the Chief Executive would be told about all military contracts.

“I have no recollection of that, no, none whatsoever. I was not aware of the issue,” he said.

He was backed on this by his successor Greg Foran, who said it was a small $3 million contract that – had he been in charge – would not have reached his desk.

Economy and related issues

His Leadership of the company has otherwise received plaudits, delivering record profits and customer satisfaction scores.

He has said New Zealand needs to have many more companies that operate on a global scale, and expressed concerns about productivity in New Zealand, and the potential to boost it through investment in research and development and infrastructure.

Economics was a theme he returned to today in his opening statements as National’s Leader – targeting supermarket and petrol prices – along with Covid-19 and the rural-urban divide.

His political philosophy is also very much in the mould of the National Party – as espoused in his very first speech to Parliament, in March.

“I believe in tackling inequality and working hard to find that balance between encouraging hard work and innovation while always ensuring there is social mobility and a safety net.”

Personal life and faith

Luxon also spoke about his personal life in that speech, including his faith – perhaps partly in an attempt to ameliorate the potential damage of being labelled “evangelical.”

“It has anchored me, given my life purpose, and shaped my values, and it puts me in the context of something bigger than myself,” he said, but he also tempered that with an affirmation of his belief in the separation of church and state.

“My faith is personal to me. It is not in itself a political agenda. I believe no religion should dictate to the State, and no politician should use the political platform they have to force their beliefs on others. As MPs, we serve the common cause of all New Zealanders-not one religion, not one group, not one interest.”

It was a sentiment he repeated in his first statements as National’s Leader.

He told Newstalk ZB in May that he reacted badly to the evangelical label “because I kind of to be honest just think of myself as a Christian rather than being a certain type – this or that type – of Christian.”

“It has never been an issue for me in my past… I was not a Christian CEO, I was a CEO who just happened to be a Christian and it is the same thing here,” he said and lamented the association of evangelical Christianity with the supporters of Donald Trump.

“Evangelical supporters, I guess, have not been speaking up enough around the cruel and dehumanising language which he is using or the bullying manner in which he is going about it,” he said.

Country Music and Skiing

Outside of his faith, Luxon today described himself as a man who loves country music and water skiing, and as an extrovert who knows how to lead people.

He was born in Christchurch and raised in Howick, Auckland before attending schools in Botany including Cockle Bay Primary and Howick College. He met his future wife Amanda when he was just 15 years old, and they have two children.

“She is my best friend … quite simply, the most extraordinary person I know: strong, wise, smart, and funny.”

He told Parliament that his father Graham had worked his way up from a Sales Representative to General Manager. His mother Kathleen became a psychotherapist later in life, studying for a Diploma the same year Luxon himself began at University of Canterbury.

There he studied a bachelor’s and Master’s in commerce (Business Administration), before beginning an 18-year career at multinational consumer goods company Unilever, where he rose to become President of its Canadian branch before his stint heading up Air New Zealand.

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