Comment: National leader Christopher Luxon stands accused of refusing to answer media questions on the campaign trail – of walking from press gatherings without satisfying media queries.
He certainly has ended several media ‘stand-ups’, as they’re called, when questioning has been, in his eyes, repetitive or overly hostile.
The optics aren’t great. Television cameras follow him as he gives his usual ‘Awesome’ and ‘Thanks, folks’ before moving off with his loyal group of nodding MPs or staff.
But, as with most things political, the circumstances aren’t clearcut.
Luxon in particular, but also his deputy, Nicola Willis, and Labour leader Chris Hipkins, have faced exacting, persistent, and at times impatient questioning from travelling political journalists.
The politicians can knowingly deflect, mis-answer, repeat bland talking points or provide answers to questions no one in the media group is asking.
They decide sometimes to call sessions to a close while media are still calling further questions to their retreating backs.
Lately Newshub journalists have prominently reported that Luxon is making that call too early, too often, as they attempt to grill him on the party’s tax package. The ensuing scenes are not especially pretty, witnessed in person or on the TV news.
It can’t be said Luxon isn’t fronting. Every day on the campaign his schedule includes media stand-ups. He’s given his line on the tax package hundreds of times. And at times he called his exit correctly, with nothing gained by relitigating endless points.
But his rote repeating of answers that did not silence the journalists at the first, second, third or 17th asking does not contribute to a professional calm either.
Former Labour Party PM Helen Clark was relatively accessible but didn’t seem to provoke or tolerate a media circus. One of Luxon’s National Party predecessors, Sir John Key, would entertain journalists’ questions almost to the point of saturation and seldom engendered sarcasm or open doubt or gotcha traps from those in the pack.
Few would’ve tried the duelling for long with the next National leader, Sir Bill English, with his big brain and canniness over playing games.
And though Labour’s Dame Jacinda Ardern faced probably more live press conferences than anyone, standing her ground at times longer than the legendary Key sessions, she had a demonstrative glare of finality when finished with a questioner or a topic. She, too, walked away from press conferences at times of her choosing, questions still being attempted.
Hipkins similarly calls time when he feels enough has been enough. He is challenged in a vernacular manner more prominent now than it was in the past. Not quite familiarity breeding contempt, but familiarity breeding insistence and confidence to dismiss an answer as deficient.
The combative style of questioning for Luxon and persistence in not letting him off a topic have created tensions within the media pack itself, with over-talking and refusals to yield by some. One senior media figure at Parliament resorted to calling across the competing TV journalists that it must be someone else’s turn.
A leading MP has gone so far as to privately call the campaign media, in one instance, “feral”.
Adding to the edgy theatricality of the exchanges, parties have increasingly held their media stand-ups in zones already holding their political supporters, invited guests and fervent fans.
Grumbling, heckling, tut-tutting and even open criticism of the journalists does not make for effective media relations. Act leader David Seymour had to ask his supporters to move back from surrounding the media set-up after his campaign launch event on Sunday.
The parties have a responsibility to make these settings professional, and safe.
But the main reason for the sparks as the irresistible force (media) meet the immovable object (Luxon) is that National has inadequately answered one central issue: the allegations made by independent economists and its opponents that the big tax package has problems on the revenue-raising (new tax measures) and spending cuts (public service) sides of its workings.
Luxon and Willis released a four-page consultants’ report prepared before the package’s announcement, which gave it the thumbs’ up. Their consultants. But it left the actual detailed workings out.
The MPs have tried to argue the report is highly transparent, National is ‘rock-solid’ and ‘totally confident’ and the public doesn’t need to see spreadsheets of numbers.
Luxon’s problem is that unlike the normal parliamentary week where the press gallery may have the chance to question him only weekly or every few days, on a campaign, that comes around at least daily, often multiple times a day.
He has arguably succeeded once before in refusing, point blank, to release a sensitive document – the National Party report into allegations against his Tauranga MP Sam Uffindell. He dug in. The focus eventually ebbed.
That won’t happen on the tax package, facing constant, televised and often live-streamed campaign questioning.
Politically, National’s not been damaged yet by endless clips of their top two leaders being challenged on the tax package and failing to calm the farm. National’s gone up in the polls rather than fallen since the tax announcement.
But tomorrow night Luxon faces Hipkins and a 1News political editor Jessica Mutch-McKay direct and live in the first campaign leaders’ debate.
He’ll need to have a spreadsheet, or an effective way to change the subject.
There’s no walking away from that microphone and that studio in that moment.