Comment: Brought to a Canterbury paddock for a National Party announcement, the discombobulated farming audience got vocal when media questions zeroed in on a foreign buyers’ tax.

Leader Christopher Luxon announced a plan to scrap consents for on-farm water storage, calling our farmers the best in the world, who would help grow the economy.

However, the first question was: “Are you still rock solid on your tax plan?”

That’s the foreign buyers tax which National said would raise $740 million a year to help pay for tax cuts. Earlier in the day, three independent economists said the numbers didn’t stack up.

On the Canterbury farm, Luxon told the press pack the plan was independently reviewed and was “absolutely” solid. He disagreed with the approximately $500 million shortfall arrived at by the economists.

The National leader started to explain the assumptions, but a radio journalist tried to pin him down on a single point – whether the 4000 houses sold to foreigners before the 2018 ban was enacted included Australians and Singaporeans.

The follow-ups were quick and sharp, with the same question asked four times.

“Give it a rest!” yelled one farmer.

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A National Party staffer whisked into the crowd to bring calm. That was the same advice Luxon dispensed to the journalist – calm down.

Then came the politics. A National-led government would collect that fee on wealthy foreigners buying houses “and we’re going to give it to low- and middle-income workers who are slogging their guts out, waking up at 7am, getting their kids to school, paying their taxes, doing everything right, and still can’t get ahead under this government”.

(According to National, a full-time minimum wage earner will get “up to $20 more a fortnight”, so up to $10 a week, which is hardly a game-changer, while an average-income family with children will get “up to $250 more per fortnight”.)

The questions shifted, but not to rural matters.

Will he work with Winston Peters – “As I said to you, not in my consideration”.

Why not give a square answer? Chatter and a laugh of disdain from behind the media pack.

Part-way through his answer, Luxon made a nod to the assembled crowd.

“My job, on this side of the election, is to make sure, as the National Party leader, I’m making the case to these fine people about why I think I can back them better and support them better with our policies, plans and ideas.”

Lights, camera, cheese! Christopher Luxon in Christchurch’s Riverside Market on Thursday. Photo: David Williams

Then back to the $500 million “hole”.

It ain’t there, Luxon said, basically. Anyway, National had put its costings out there.

Reporter: “No you haven’t, there’s no costings out there yet.”

Yes, there is, Luxon said, a 32-page document that details costings.

Reporter: “It doesn’t include the methodology or anything.”

National had released its legal advice, and the numbers were checked by Castalia. “I appreciate there’s a range of opinions,” Luxon said. Also: “Economists are famous for actually having lots of different views.”

More than seven minutes into the press conference, Newsroom asked about the effect of increased water storage on greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater quality. It probably wasn’t the policy question the farming audience wanted, to be fair.

National’s agriculture spokesman Todd McClay stepped in to answer.

McClay withdrew, and Luxon stepped back to the podium. He was asked: “What are you expecting to happen to the price of luxury homes in New Zealand when you open it up to foreign buyers again?”

Then questions circled back to the 4000 homes. Murmurs and grumbling from behind.

How many of those 4000 houses were sold for more than $2 million? Luxon didn’t seem to know.

A National Party member said later: “I thought we were going to lose the crowd, for a minute.”

The National Party leader has a close shave with the media in central Christchurch. Photo: David Williams

Twelve minutes into the press conference, a reporter said they wanted to change tack.

“Do you want to ask a farming question?” Luxon asked, to applause.

“Because I think these fine people would like to hear the media of New Zealand ask a good question.” A slight pause. “On farming.”

It’s a very important question, the reporter said.

Luxon responded: “It’s a very important question to actually get our economy moving again, and actually to get our primary sector fired up, and that’s very important.”

The question wasn’t about farming.

Sixteen minutes in, and Luxon was about to walk off, but he was halted by a final question.

You guessed it.

“What do you say to New Zealanders who aren’t sure whether or not they can trust you on these figures around this foreign buyer tax?”

Luxon let out a long laugh, and made a definitive statement.

“I know numbers,” the National Party leader said, “and I can tell you that our assumptions, as I’ve said, have been incredibly conservative.”

Flashback to Covid pressers

During the live-streamed press conferences during Covid-19 lockdowns, the public excoriated the press pack and politicians for all sorts of things: the questions asked; the questions not asked; the opening line “Jessica, then Tova”.

I reckon the situation at the Kirwee farm – the grumbling, the calling out, the applause – would have been like if the Beehive theatrette had a live audience behind the journalists.

I’m going to defend the media. Of course I am. But bear with me.

The media gets late notice of the following day’s events. Newsroom received an email just before 6pm on Wednesday, detailing the three campaign stops on Thursday.

The third stop, at Kirwee, was listed as “policy announcement”. “A media stand-up will be held after the announcement,” the advisory said.

It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to work out it’s a farming-related policy, but the details were unclear.

Before Luxon arrived at Riverside Market in Christchurch at midday, I asked the media huddle if anyone knew the flavour of the announcement.

“A rural-related policy,” came the reply. “Nothing major.”

It can’t have been major, as there were not leagues of reporters from specialist farming publications on-hand.

Christopher Luxon caught on camera. Photo: David Williams

For a half-hour at Riverside, Luxon was in his element, riffing with business owners, trying cheese, joking with passersby (especially those with bald heads), and checking out the sticker on a Morris Minor windshield to see when it was made.

It took about 40 minutes to drive to Kirwee from central Christchurch, and even when the media got there, the embargoed policy announcement hadn’t arrived.

Newsroom asked, a bit grumpily, to be sent a copy, and it was emailed from phone to phone.

The email arrived at 1.27pm. Christopher Luxon’s car pulled up a few minutes later, and the National Party leader started working his way down the line of farming folk.

Soon after, the press conference started.

The public will probably view repeated media questions as a form of harassment but that doesn’t account for a politican’s propensity to waffle, or offer a non-answer. It’s also a well-worn and somewhat successful tactic to ask a question a different way to get a different answer.

Regarding the Kirwee kerfuffle specifically, it would be unprofessional of the media not to prepare questions for someone who could be the next Prime Minister.

And that had to be done in the absence of detail about the day’s announcement, which, some media were told, wouldn’t be earth-shattering.

In those circumstances, I think it’s fair to focus on an apparently gaping hole in a $15 billion plan to offer tax cuts to millions of people.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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