Christopher Luxon may want to emulate John Key’s path to the National Party leadership and the ninth floor of the Beehive. Bernard Hickey argues he will have to be careful to avoid copying Don Brash instead. Or Emmanuel Macron.

Not everyone who is successful in business or finance inevitably succeeds in politics. And 2019 is a vastly different era to the one facing the National Party in the early 2000s.

Understandably, John Key blots out the sun of the centre-right of politics in New Zealand right now. The National Party and most of its caucus are desperate for a return to the stability, popularity and clarity of the Key era, when an easy going, young and energetic success story was able to win the trust of most New Zealanders and command the loyalty of his caucus.

The apparent failure of Simon Bridges to do either and the lack of alternatives who are both popular with the public and his or her fellow MPs has intensified that desperation.

The parallels seem obvious and the temptation will be great for both National and Christopher Luxon, who many have believed for years harbours a not-so-secret ambition to become Prime Minister.

Like Key, Luxon, 48, is still young and has demonstrated success both internationally and at home as a business leader. If anything, Luxon has been more successful and had a more substantial career than Key, and his corporate background is more voter-friendly than Key’s.

He progressed through the ranks at global consumer goods firm Unilever over 18 years, eventually becoming Chief Executive of Unilever Canada. It had over 1,000 staff and was part of global group with over 18,000. Air New Zealand has over 12,500 staff and both businesses are doing real things and delivering real things for millions of people a year. Key came from one arm of an investment bank having spent most of his career trading currencies.

Both Unilever and Air New Zealand also have better brands and cultures than Merrill Lynch ever had, with both emphasising their more enlightened approach to their people and the environment. Luxon can talk the sustainability and wellbeing talk with the best of them, which Key never did, or more importantly, had to.

Key’s era in business was starkly different and it’s hard to imagine he could repeat that success now, given what happened during the Global Financial Crisis. Corporate and non-political leaders may seem like ‘clean skins’ able to surmount the public’s reflexive distrust of politicians, but corporate leaders from globalised companies in a post-GFC world will never be able to resonate with the public in the same pre-GFC way.

That may be one of Luxon’s biggest obstacles, especially given the problems Air New Zealand has had in the provinces and with many of its customers in recent years. Ask anyone in Nelson, New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Napier how they feel about Luxon’s leadership of the national airline and the answer will be mixed. They saw what happened to air fares when Air New Zealand finally got some competition from Jetstar.

Residents of Invercargill, Gisborne or Kerikeri feel even less enamoured when flights to our biggest cities cost the same as flights to Australia.

Luxon professes to a different sort of CEO, but his record looking after shareholders is a typical one of focusing on profitability first. 

‘Reverend Luxon’

He also may struggle to emulate Key’s easygoing style with the public and deft touch with the media.

Luxon is derided by some internally at Air New Zealand as ‘Reverend’ Luxon for his occasionally preachy style.

Authenticity is impossible to create or fake in the televisual era and Luxon has yet to demonstrate that on the wider stage. His more socially conservative background and approach may also stand in the way of emulating Key’s socially liberal way of appealing to the centre.

Luxon’s first audition as a politician in his resignation letter didn’t quite get the tone right, and he will have to iron out the corporate-speak before he gets anywhere near Parliament.

 “I have absolutely loved the responsibility and experience of leading this company over the last seven years. It has been intellectually challenging, people-centred and an absolute privilege to do this job,” he was quoted as saying (or at least dictating) in the statement.

Some free advice from the press gallery. Avoid ‘people-centred’.

“However, I do feel it is the right time for a new leader to take over and preserve and enhance the good things from our past, but also to put their own stamp on the organisation bringing their own personality and emphasis to the role as I did,” he said.

More free advice. The self referential thing may not work in a political speech, although it’s clear from this sentence he is trying to appeal to a wider audience.

“The culture at Air New Zealand is unlike any other company and it has only strengthened as the airline introduced performance management and leadership development programmes, pioneered High Performance Engagement (HPE) with its union partners, chose to pay a Company Performance Bonus, improved its safety record and lifted its commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Luxon said.

His pitch was at least transparent when ending his resignation letter.

“I am now 48 years old and my wife Amanda and I are at an interesting time in life. Our children will both have finished high school and so we will have a new degree of freedom, including career choices. Thus, I would like to think more about how I can best use my skills, abilities and experience to make a further contribution to the success of New Zealand whether that be through corporate life, politics or a not for profit.”

Don’t do a Don

Luxon will also have to be careful to avoid the fate of Don Brash, who was also seen as a political clean-skin with a track record of success in financial life.

Then-Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash carried some of the baggage of the ideological battles of the 1980s and 1990s with him when he became leader of National in 2003 after just over a year in Parliament as a list MP. National was similarly desperate then to find a leader able to compete against a popular Labour Prime Minister in Helen Clark.

But eventually Brash proved himself to be too dogmatic in his views and politically tone-deaf to the wider electorate. 

Nationals back-benchers may think Luxon can do a John Key, but they and Luxon should also be careful with the timing.

Brash was elected as National’s leader in 2003 at a similar stage in the electoral cycle to now, but then lost the 2005 election (just) and failed to unite the party. Key then replaced Brash after a caucus revolt.

Luxon may want to wait in line for a Paula Bennett or a Judith Collins to lose in 2020 before taking his moment. But before that, he’ll have listen to his caucus, loosen his style and connect with a wider community than the rarefied atmosphere of corporate head offices and the Koru lounges of the world. 

Key was a masterful retail politician. Luxon has yet to demonstrate that.

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