National Party leader Christopher Luxon appeared before a roomful of about 150 West Aucklanders last night to paint their side of the city blue on the electorate map come October 14.
With just 100 days to go to the big day, he’s already taken his ‘Get New Zealand Back on Track’ roadshow around the country.
He returned to Auckland like a stand-up comedian getting off a long stretch on the road, with his routine down pat and his crowd work skills sharpened to avoid uncomfortable public run-ins with audience members with more extreme views.
Politically speaking, this meant the big speech is a well-worn road for him, with each section divided into numbered points you can see him mentally tick off on his fingers.
There’s the big National promises, which he’s boiled down to three headlines: fixing the underlying causes of inflation, getting tough on law and order, and improving healthcare and education.
It’s a stump speech he can probably say in his sleep at this point, and little has been changed since the first ‘Back on Track’ show in Auckland at the end of May.
Even the jokes abide. He broke the ice with a comment that it’s Luxon in the flesh, not some AI apparition – a slightly aged reference to the minor consternation raised in late May about the National Party using AI to generate ads.
But at the aforementioned meeting in Northcote, it was the questions from the audience that got the headlines.
Statements made about taking another look at housing policy and questioning the necessity of bilingual names for Government departments were made on the hoof in response to passionate prods from the crowd.
It seems a lesson was learned. At last night’s meeting, Luxon fielded only seven questions, in comparison with more than 10 that he took at Northcote, and the microphones were removed from the crowd promptly afterwards.
At the beginning of question time, Luxon made a point of asking people to keeping to questions rather than statements.
And then there was how he dealt with polarising topics.
One man with a British accent said he had been in New Zealand for 50 years, but was worried about the growing level of ‘wokeness’, citing grievances such as the growing acceptance of Te Reo Māori usage and gender pronouns.
Luxon isn’t going to reel in the more fervently possessed of this quarter. His answer was peppered with phrases such as “we want to be focused on how we unite the country” and “we should respect each other’s identities”.
Luxon’s take on this hot button issue is endlessly diplomatic. He said he didn’t want to see the divided camps seen in the culture wars overseas, and his answer tiptoed the careful line between either side. But in doing so, he’ll likely please neither camp.
But at the beginning of the tour, he was drawn into engaging with people who had complaints about the Waitangi Tribunal and “pigeon [sic] English”. At this point, he gives his answer quickly and moves on.
A man in high-vis had a personal grievance involving the difficulty it takes for nurses to get registered, and said he had been emailing Luxon for eight years.
“I’ve actually been emailing you for the last eight years and never ever had one personal response from you ever once in my life,” he said.
That’s a potentially embarrassing moment for a politician, although the fact Luxon has only been a politician for half of that time raised some eyebrows.
The man went on to explain that he also had previous grievances with Luxon when he was head of Air New Zealand.
Luxon told the man that he would “take it off-line” with him and have a one-to-one after the meeting, as it was obviously a complicated and personal situation.
It was a move that took the potentially uncomfortable and incendiary situation out of the public eye, and certainly away from the ears of the press.
But though the Luxon show has become a well-oiled machine in the months on the road, it’s still one that’s relatively one-size-fits-all.
Luxon didn’t change the talking points much despite talking to a very different room.
At the beginning of this tour in Northcote, his audience were largely older white people, able to while away a few hours in the bowls club on a weekday afternoon.
Last night was a school holiday night in a young and diverse part of the country. Luxon was speaking to a crowd with a wider variety of backgrounds and ages than he is most likely used to.
And though at the meeting in Northcote he mentioned he’d need to do some work to start hooking young female voters, the patter wasn’t particularly personalised once he had them in front of him.
Last night’s meeting was square in the middle of Te Atatū electorate, currently represented in Wellington by Labour’s Phil Twyford.
He’s held that seat since 2011, taking it at the last election with a 57.6 percent share of the vote, more than doubling the yield of National’s Alf Ngaro.
In the past decade, Twyford has taken it even when National has come out ahead in party votes.
It’s a young area with Pacific and Asian populations double the average.
One mismatch was when a Chinese man who lives in the area asked about difficulties he’d had in getting a visa for his father. He asked Luxon if he would consider extending parental visas to make them commensurate with Canada or Australia.
Luxon’s answer was that his government would be pro-immigration, but spoke about making immigration settings competitive for the sake of businesses.
There’s certainly an opportunity for National to capitalise on that and promise to make life easier for the migrant community – “we’ve all been immigrants in some form or another”, he said somewhat curiously.
But focusing on the business angle and missing the untapped political capital of broken hearts among broken families shows Luxon may not even realise that that door is wide open for him.