Voters get a two-hour look at former Air New Zealand chief Christopher Luxon in a candidates’ debate in the Botany seat that carried him into Parliament and the National Party’s future. Tim Murphy watched him in action.

“I was not part of the past. What I am part of is … I’m part of the future.”

Christopher Luxon made that declaration in answer to a potentially tricky question at last night’s Botany candidates’ forum about National selling off state houses when it was in office.

But he might just as well have been talking about his late entry into politics, avoiding all the tribulations the party has gone through these past three years in Opposition – and the hope that he offers, once out of his parliamentary training wheels, to help National back to a governing future.

This was a more confident, slimmed-down Luxon from the tightly-held, almost plastic, political ingenue who had leapt from stellar success running the national airline for eight years into the unknown in 2019 to replace MP Jami-Lee Ross in one of National’s safest seats.

Ross was absent from this debate organised by the Howick Youth Council, having announced on Tuesday morning that he would no longer contest the seat against his old party, instead choosing to focus on campaigning for the party vote for his Advance NZ grouping.

Luxon appeared at the Ormiston Senior College venue with Labour’s Naisi Chen and Act’s Damien Smith, socially distanced and seeking votes from an online audience which numbered up to 1500.

In two hours in front of the camera, Luxon showed he had been soaking up politics and policy. He even began answers with the: “What I would say, is…” phrasing commonly used by his friend, former Prime Minister Sir John Key. He spoke at Key’s rapid clip, to get as much across in each 45-second slot as he could, and he stood out.

Key and others have spoken openly in the past of Luxon as a potential National leader. As the party’s leaders fell over this year, he was not in Parliament and too new to the game to be considered yet, in any case.

For those who have lost track of Luxon as he has been learning the ropes and street names in Auckland’s far east, this performance would have been a reminder of the talent and x-factor so many spoke of from his time at Air New Zealand and, before that, in global roles for Unilever.

He still favours corporate speak, with plenty of “best practice”, “lived experience”, “going on a bit of a journey” and “mission criticals” dropped into his candidate’s repertoire.

But Luxon was on point politically, at one point going hard and early at Chen when she tried to brush off the Green School funding saga firmly onto the Greens co-leader James Shaw while talking up Labour’s “historic investments in every state-owned school”. 

Luxon cut in: “Oh that’s massive hypocrisy in the extreme. Ormiston Primary School has a roll of 750 but it has 950 with 10 students enrolling a week. It needs a new hall but you go spend $12 million on a private school. That dog did not hunt. It was not a good idea.”

When Chen repeated it was Shaw who signed the Green School funding, and in the state school system Labour was repairing nine years of underfunding by National, Luxon pressed again: “Will you be funding more private schools?”

Throughout the debate, he tried to de-skunk the economy for the youth council audience. “I just say to you as young people, with the economy, it’s not just dry and hard and left-brain. It is about people.” And, earlier, “The economy is not just dry and abstract. It is not just statistics and GDP. It’s about real people.” 

“Who is best to manage the economy?… Don’t be cynical about the process. The National Party has great economic credentials. You’ve got a great future, all of you guys, in these next 30 years, but the next three to five are mission critical.”

Questions from the moderators and from viewers via Facebook put the candidates on the spot. Luxon, a well-known fundamentalist Christian, was asked whether he believed religion had a place in politics and his answer was emphatic.

“There should be a very strong separation between church and state. Someone like me could have a very strong faith but not be proselytising. We want to be able to govern for all New Zealanders of whatever faith. For me, yes it gives me massive amounts of personal benefits in having a personal faith, but as a politician there is no place for mixing religion with the state.”

Chen had earlier been asked directly to comment on reports she was seen as linked to China’s overseas influence efforts. She said she had spent almost her whole life in New Zealand, since coming here aged five with her doctor parents; she called it home and “my allegiance is in becoming an MP of the New Zealand Parliament. That’s my top priority and I don’t think I need to comment any more about that.”

Another question seemingly aimed at Chen, seeking views on the situation in Xinjiang, China, where the ethnic Uighurs face a campaign of re-education camps and crackdowns from Beijing, had Luxon on the spot as well. 

Chen’s answer was split, labelling the situation “atrocious” but then noting in that area of China there had been concerns about security for a long time. She told the audience people needed to consume different media. “Do not consume just the western messaging but look for all perspectives on that issue.” Chen, ranked 38th on Labour’s list and a possibility to enter Parliament, then quickly mentioned that New Zealand has a strong diplomatic view on the issue “and I fully support it”.

Luxon’s answer on Xinjiang and China was that the world was changing and New Zealand faced a geopolitical scene in which there would be China First, the United States First, India First and nationalism and populism. “New Zealand needs to protect its interests and there needs to be a good call-out of the standards we want to see.”

The candidates were asked for their views on both cannabis reform and euthanasia ahead of the twin referendums next month. There was no surprise the socially conservative Luxon will vote against both, but his reasoning on legalising recreational cannabis use gave an insight into his judgment.

When he left Air New Zealand last year, he was approached to run a global cannabis company based in California because of his marketing background growing the personal care category for Unilever. “That told me it was about consumption” targeted at new niches. Luxon also pointed to his time at the airline and the difficulties with cannabis staying up to three weeks in people’s systems as against two days for alcohol. Uncertainty in drug testing would be no comfort “when a plane falls out of the sky”. Third, Luxon believed the risk to young people’s mental health was too high. “I do not want to write off a whole generation of young New Zealanders.”

(For the record, Chen will support cannabis reform and Act’s Smith said the party’s policy was to decriminalise use.)

Luxon was forthright on climate action, citing his leadership on sustainability at the airline and in business environmental lobby groups, and spoke of a need for strong advocacy for small and medium businesses. “Private enterprise is going to be driving us out of this whole year….” he said, pointing to needed changes in employment law and regulations to make government departments and big businesses pay their bills quickly. “You’ve got to wake up each day as an MP thinking ‘I can unblock this thing and get this moving’.”

He backed the former Prime Minister Sir Bill English’s social investment approach of early interventions to change young people’s lives and prospects, and favoured a cross-party approach to reducing suicides. 

A well-organised and structured format tested the candidates across the policy spectrum. Luxon claimed the home ground advantage, having attended primary school in Howick and secondary at St Kent’s College in Pakuranga before university in Christchurch and up to 18 years around the world with Unilever. “I’ve always wanted to come into politics. I’ve always thought I would run in Botany. Botany is the new New Zealand.”

In his closing statement, Luxon seemed to be thinking wider than east Auckland, talking of the need to resolve the challenges of Covid-19 and the economic crisis strategically, not tactically.

“What I bring is setting a vision, and having people follow.”

Spoken like a leader. In waiting.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

Leave a comment