There’s a smoothness to Christopher Luxon now that goes beyond his head, his tailored suit and militarily polished black shoes.

The National leader’s roadshow of policy releases and media photo ops is getting better oiled and more self-assured as it nears the start of the official election campaign. It had to, of course, from a once clunky and wide-eyed delivery as he tried to claim relevance and legitimacy.

But practice makes less imperfect and after months now on the road, Luxon’s presentation and interaction with a media pack has lifted.

On Monday he was in the Southern Cross hospital in Gillies Ave, Auckland, with a health policy release on cancer funding that was so box-ticked it could have come from a census form.

His team might have overlooked one sensitivity, dragging around 15 media and a half a dozen National people to the middle of an active health facility with no hint of a mask to be seen, just a week after the Government made them non-compulsory at medical venues, but recommended they be used.

As the media stand-up began in a doctors’ rooms lobby area, patients came and went to see their specialists and Luxon’s posse exited via a ward. Presumably the hospital made no requirement for masking, the wet weather prevented an outdoor gathering, and National is unlikely to follow Labour’s diktats.

Other than that, Luxon’s policy choice and performance was highly choreographed, his health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti filling in the medical blanks and list MP in Epsom, Paul Goldsmith, nodding on approvingly.

The policy announcement was that National would fund 13 treatments for cancers that had been identified as deserving by the Cancer Control Agency.

It will fund the $280m cost over four years by changing Labour’s Budget announcement of eliminating $5 prescription charges – reinstating them for all those who are non-superannuitants or not holding community service cards, but setting an annual maximum for fees of $100.

Luxon said that would bring in around $316m over that same four year period, effectively funding the new cancer treatments.

He reiterated his view that most people, including Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and himself, did not need prescriptions to be free and a targeted free regime was preferable.

Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti filling in the medical details at the cancer policy launch on Monday. Photo: Tim Murphy

Reti said the 13 cancer treatments related to ‘solid tumours’ but National would not forget those with ‘non-solid’ conditions such as Myeloma or Leukemia, and would await advice from the cancer agency on what was needed for those patients.

National says the 13 treatments covered in its new policy are those that are better funded in Australia. “We think benchmarking ourselves with Australia is a very good starting place,” Reti said.

Luxon said at present too many sufferers from these cancers had to either “give up or head overseas or mortgage their home” to pay for treatment. National wanted them to stay here and benefit from a world-class health system at home.

He estimated the policy could benefit 1000 people a year, of the 25,000 Kiwis diagnosed annually.

Politically, the announcement seems carefully sculpted. Who could oppose funding treatments for killer diseases? National was able to shun questioning about its role in directing what the drug buying agency Pharmac might fund by falling back on the recommendations of the Cancer Control Agency.

To fend off Labour’s criticism that its policies are unfunded, National came ready with its prescription-fees-to-cancer-treatments switch.

And Reti was ready for the ‘what about’ question on cancers beyond these 13.

Asked why superannuitants would all continue to benefit from continued free prescriptions, when some would undoubtedly be able to afford the fees, Luxon said: “It’s a commitment that we’ve made. We are doing everything through the lens of health needs… common sense, not politics.”

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ response to the National cancer announcement was to accuse his opponents of taking healthcare off one group of New Zealanders to pay for the care of others. He intimated Labour would find increased funding for Pharmac when it announced its own health policy, but not by compromising the free prescriptions decision.

Beyond the cancer announcement, Luxon on Monday handled the media pack openly and adequately. 

Facing journalists who are not part of the Wellington beltway and big guns in the press gallery can present its own challenges for party leaders out on a campaign trail.

On one level, being away from the deep knowledge of issues from the media pack in the capital, and the intense political lens applied, can be a relief. But on another, questions that might seem random or left field can pop up, being exacting and discombobulating in their own way.  

On Monday, Luxon was relatively footsure, handling queries on:

  • Labour’s education policy announced on Monday to mandate maths and reading teaching: “Labour has stolen our homework .. earlier in the year we released our policy of Teaching the Basics Brilliantly, which talked about an hour or maths, an hour of reading, an hour of writing each week day. Today what we’ve seen is Labour making it up on the fly.”
  • Education minister Jan Tinetti criticising National’s plans: “Well, no disrespect, but I’m not taking any lectures from JAN (emphasised) Tinetti, an education minister who has presided over 40 percent of our kids not being at school regularly and half our 15 year-olds failing the most basic reading and writing and maths tests. This Government has had six years, we are 53 days out from an election and nothing they say is believable or credible.”
  • TV3 owner Discovery seeking Government financial relief for its transmission fees “Not something that we’d be entertaining at this point.”
  • National’s taste for pushing more major sports events for NZ: “We’re very up for that. The events we’ve enjoyed over the last six years were actually put into play by the previous National government.”
  • Whether his party would look at reversing Labour’s changes to trust tax rates: “We want to have a look at that. There is some thinking that normally you align the trust rate with the highest marginal tax rate. We’re just a bit sceptical of David Parker and where he’s going so we want to understand that more.”
  • If Act leader David Seymour is on “another planet” as Luxon had suggested anyone would be for making unisex bathrooms an issue: “Look, I’m telling you, this election is not going to be about bathrooms. If we want to have a conversation about bathrooms we are not talking about the things New Zealanders are caring about. It’s not an issue … that’s relevant to New Zealanders. I’m telling you that out there, New Zealanders are doing it incredibly tough. The economy is job number one.”

Luxon has evidently not just learned his lines but is able now to deliver policy points and political criticisms with a fluidity and dexterity that so often deserted him several months ago.

That’s not everything, of course, but his handlers will be pleased that on the eve of his first campaign, the first-term MP is getting more towards where he needs to be to take on a Government, opponents and possible coalition partners from all sides and the intense media and public gaze.

National launches its campaign proper in Auckland in a fortnight, on Sunday September 3, the day after Chris Hipkins formalises Labour’s bid to retain power.  The phoney war is almost over.

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

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