My observation, as a former journalist, is that one of the most important traits for a successful political leader career is quick-wittedness.
It can’t be taught or learned – you either have it, or you don’t as David Lange or John Key had. It’s the ability, when thrown a left-field question, or a crisis blows up, to know instinctively, without hesitation, the correct response. It was best illustrated by Jacinda Ardern at the onset of the Christchurch massacre.
In his first week in the role, new National Party leader Christopher Luxon displayed quick feet that Will Jordan would be proud of. There’s been the odd slip – at the presser on day one he was well off target with figures on the living wage and the unemployment rate, while later in a tv interview he complained about extra costs for employers imposed by the new “mataangi” (sic) holiday. Though not a lay-down misère, the former Air NZ Boss piloted the turbulence of the curliest media questions in a way that suggests he could be in that select group of fast thinkers.
He cleverly front-footed a big defensive hole – his commitment to an evangelical church that is so far from centre that it could be labelled a cult. Luxon kept re-iterating the messaging of last year’s maiden speech to parliament that his faith “is personal to me” and not in itself a political agenda.
Despite this supposed separation of faith and politics, Luxon’s politics are conservative on moral questions like abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty.
His views on matters such as abortion are troubling to many of us, but even more troubling is his lack of judgement in supporting a “church” such as Auckland’s Upper Room. That church’s pastor, Craig Heilmann, has expressed extremist, far-right views on “globalists’” (code for Jews), George Soros’ apparently coaching of Greta Thunberg, Trump’s electoral loss being a conspiracy by “the administrative state” and that climate change isn’t real.
Obviously, Luxon doesn’t necessarily agree with all that claptrap from the Upper Room pastor but plenty of people legitimately ask why the content of Pastor Heilmann’s ravings on twitter and the related Upper Room website content were permanently removed on the day Luxon’s candidacy for safe seat of Botany was announced.
When Luxon was asked by Q&A’s Jack Tame on Sunday why he had stopped going to church, the former AirNZ boss gave the strange reply that it was because he kept getting hit-on for free flights to the UK, adding that his “faith is really personal to me and I don’t need to go to church to work my faith.”
Tame delved into Luxon’s other big weakness – his wealth. The Dominon Post splashed a spread about Luxon’s $21 million investment in properties – a family home in Remuera, a Waiheke Island bach, an apartment in Wellington, his electoral office and three investment properties – that has delivered him $90,000 a week in the last year in capital gains alone.
Asked why, if improving Aotearoa’s productivity was so important, did he put so much into a speculative, unproductive investment, the 51-year-old, whose annual remuneration was over $4 million at Air NZ, hinted property may only be a small part of his portfolio. “My investment goes across a series of asset classes and some of that’s in property.”
He refused to say how many homes were too many, adding it was not immoral to own multiple houses. “You are going to need people who actually have unique, great landlords. There is (sic) always going to be people who are always renting houses. We are going to need people to invest in housing.”
When asked to comment on former Prime Minister Jim Bolger comments that it was time to reconsider capitalism, Luxon said that while “some compassion in capitalism, is very, very important”, it was preferable to socialism.
“I think the bottom line is that capitalism has been a very good model for the world. It’s lifted several billion people, 2 billion people, I’d say, out of poverty in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Tame failed to note that communist China, using some capitalist methods, has lifted far more out of poverty or that Luxon’s former company, Air NZ would unlikely have survived the turmoil of the current pandemic without state support.
Luxon said he is a disciple of Bill English’s social intervention theory whereby people with “very complex, challenged and messy lives” are identified and supported. It was preferable to spend the money up front on social services and education to help them “participate”.
His views on the government’s fiscal position were in line with right wing convention. Taxes, debt and spending are all too high and he would like to cut each, but not yet.
“At this point we are not increasing taxes but I also couldn’t come to you and say we are going to lower taxes either. We would love to do that but the question is, at the moment, we need to get spending under control.”
Luxon’s solution is to invest in infrastructure to improve productivity. That will produce higher incomes and allow people choice.
He agreed with Ardern’s assertion that climate change is “our generation’s nuclear-free moment”, but criticised her government for not following up the declaration. When asked whether he agreed the Climate Commission that Aotearoa had to reduce its dairy herd, Luxon said that would open the way for dirtier dairy farmers overseas.
“What we do know there is no obvious pathway or technology today to get to the outcome we all want to get to in terms of reducing the emissions but we are the best [dairy farmers] and we should actually lead that development.”
Luxon passed Tame’s test on the articles of Ti Tiriti, saying he is open-minded on Maori solutions for Maori but then went down the rabbit hole of separatism.
“What we have been talking about and, I think in recent times, has been the notion that co-governance means 50:50 – you know separatism.” He said the proposed Maori Health Authority is a “separatist” concept.
“To me, I want to see us working as one country, equal, but actually to be able to deal with a lot of Maori inequities.”
Luxon admitted to Tame that he speaks to former prime minister John Key “several times” a week. Though at pains to tell media he is no John Key 2.0, that degree of contact suggests Key is pulling some, if not many, strings.
I have little doubt Luxon, backed up by his politically-savvy deputy, Nicola Willis, will be a far more formidable challenge for Ardern than Judith Collins was. It will be interesting, however, to see whether the electorate will again suppress its egalitarian instincts and vote for a smooth-talking rich man.
(Simon Louisson reported for The Wall Street Journal, AP Dow Jones Newswires, New Zealand Press Association and Reuters and briefly was a political and media adviser to the Green Party.)