Law and order was top of the agenda for the several hundred people who turned up to a public meeting held by National Party leader Christopher Luxon’s on Auckland’s North Shore yesterday.
Luxon said the event didn’t represent the kick-off of his campaign, as he’d been touring the country on a weekly basis all year – but a shiny new set of hoardings and a new slogan did suggest that this was Luxon’s team gearing up in earnest for October’s big contest.
Luxon promised a packed out Birkenhead Bowling Club that he would get New Zealand “back on track”, citing tough economic straits, school attendance records and crime statistics as the main points of derailment.
They were popular points for the older crowd, who in particular were on the verge of applause at any mention of being tough on crime.
But at the same time, it seems that Luxon failed to win friends when it came to controversial issues such as co-governance or vaccine mandates.
One audience member rolled his eyes at Luxon’s answer when he was pushed on his interpretation of the first article of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Luxon tried to move the focus from these fiery issues over to the economy, which he said was the central issue of the election. Other more moderate answers sidestepped Linda from West Auckland’s allegation the country was acting under the impetus of a United Nations and World Economic Forum agenda.
It seemed Luxon was largely unwilling to court the favour of people with these somewhat controversial views.
But other audience members said they were happy with the political hopeful’s performance.
80-year-old Michael from Hillcrest said October couldn’t come fast enough, saying concerns around crime were his biggest worry at present.
Luxon provided plenty of fodder for the crime-concerned, saying he was prepared to give police additional tools to come down hard on gangs.
“This Government is soft on crime,” he said. “We are going to back our police and give them the tools they need.”
Those tools could include special abilities for police to break up public gatherings and perform warrantless searches on gang members.
“Gangs are not nice people,” he said to applause from the crowd. “We will ban gang patches in public places… why? Because violent crime is up 30 percent. Retail crime is up 40 percent. Gang memberships are up over 60 percent and in five of our police districts we have more gang members than we now have police officers.”
National Party police spokesperson Mark Mitchell released figures earlier this year that he obtained from the Police Minister showing 140 daily retail crime incidents in 2021 had gone up to 292 incidents a day in 2022.
But when it comes to addressing the causes of crime such as the widening divide between rich and poor in the country, most of Luxon’s provided solutions are economic.
“If you care about people you run the economy well,” he said.
When quizzed by a student who recounted situations of child poverty in his hometown of Te Aroha, Luxon conceded that social investment was also needed.
“We do have to get back into those root causes, and it’s all very well saying pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” he said, although he then added that if job-seekers didn’t take an offered job they should receive sanctions to their benefits.
“We need to set them up to be able to climb the rungs of social mobility,” he said.
Luxon commanded a healthy turnout despite the meeting being held in the middle of a workday. The result was a lot of retirees, with the vast majority remembering well the high inflation days of the late 1970s, which Luxon compared to today.
One woman even pulled out her knitting, before taking the microphone to ask Luxon’s take on the prominence of te reo Māori. Another woman asked whether Luxon thinks te reo Māori is given too much priority in the country.
Luxon has become deft in answering these questions without squarely alienating either side of the debate, and gave his usual miniature speech about how he himself is learning te reo and loves it as a language, but also respects people’s choice not to use it.
However, he did concede in the questioner’s favour that government departments have become “difficult to navigate” due to te reo names, and shared his experience in central Canada where French and English are given roughly equal priority.
It’s a difficult comparison, however, as the history of dual coloniser tongues now working in tandem is markedly different to the New Zealand story, where a colonial import continues to take precedence over the country’s indigenous language.
The centre-right road to victory has become a tightrope of late, with thorny issues appearing with regularity to remind politicians that they can’t please everybody.
And the crowd weren’t necessarily there to give him an easy time, either. “I don’t think selling dairy products to India is going to do it,” said Sharon from Birkenhead after Luxon had extolled the importance of a free trade agreement with the burgeoning mega-economy as a solution for New Zealand’s economic woes.
It was the kind of subtle pushback that reflects his recent polling, where personal favourability scores have continued to dwindle despite National as a party maintaining pace with Labour.
Another audience member wanted to know why ACC levies were needed and decried the system of provisional tax. He said he had returned from Australia two years ago and was finding it difficult to run his business here due to the tax system.
“I’m thinking of leaving again,” he told the people around him before the event began. “I’m doing well, but I feel poor.”
Luxon rejected calls for ACC reform, saying New Zealand’s system prevented a slide into the litigious environment of the United States, where liability lawyers are very busy. He said when he was living in Chicago, if the kids wanted friends to come around and jump on the tramp, he’d get the parents to sign a waiver first to avoid liability
Luxon was introduced to the crowd by former National MP for Northcote Dan Bidois, who is hoping to take back his old spot this October.
Bidois said in his door-stopping, 80 percent of the issues brought up had to do with crime or the cost of living.