Bryce Edwards: Opportunities and obstacles for National and Luxon

Bryce Edwards: Opportunities and obstacles for National and Luxon

This week might turn out to be pivotal in the National Party’s road back to Government, culminating in Prime Minister Christopher Luxon taking office in 2023 or 2026. Or it might prove to be a false start, typifying the hype that so often occurs in political commentary. Either way, the commentariat are abuzz with the possibilities and problems of the retiring CEO of Air New Zealand going into public office and leading National out of its doldrums.

For the best account of why the high-profile businessman is a great candidate, not only to be the National MP for Botany or Epsom, but also leader of the party and then PM, see Heather du Plessis-Allan’s opinion piece, Christopher Luxon – from national carrier to National leader?

Du Plessis-Allan has been a long-time Luxon-watcher, and was able to get her must-read opinion piece out within hours of his announcement. She clearly has some very good sources in National, and says: “Luxon is said to be firmly focused on becoming PM. I’m told he’s considered how to time his run in order to maximise his chances at becoming PM. He’s said to have studied Jacinda Ardern’s elevation from MP to leader to Prime Minister – with a view to emulating it.”

Here’s du Plessis-Allan’s main points about how Luxon is a near-perfect candidate: “He’s got economic credentials. He’s spent seven years running one of the most popular companies in the country. Economic credentials matter, especially to National voters. It’s at least part of what made John Key popular. He has green credentials. Under his leadership, Air New Zealand has pitched itself quite aggressively as something of a ‘green’ airline. That matters to the National Party which is keen on neutering any suggestion they’re being left behind on climate-change politics. And he’s got conservative credentials. He’s a Christian and a family man. Again, that matters, especially to National Party voters.”

In addition, she says “He’s good on TV. He’s got warmth and likeability. That counts for a lot. It’s what makes Jacinda Ardern popular.” And he’s certainly been doing the rounds on TV yesterday. For his best performance, see him casually chat and joke last night on TV3’s The Project. (Login and watch from about the eight-minute mark.)

Luxon was also interviewed by Duncan Garner on the AM Show yesterday – see the 12-minute interview: Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon ‘absolutely’ interested in standing for National. In this, Luxon says that if he chooses to go into politics, it’d “absolutely” be as a National MP. He says “It’s where my politics is and how I feel. I’m a pretty centrist kind of guy, and that’s where I’d go.”

He also talked about getting encouragement to go into politics from his friend John Key, saying “It’s just a conversation we’ve had over the years.” And he joked “John and I are good friends. I actually like his wife better than him, she’s really great. I have to tolerate John as a consequence of that relationship.”

Like du Plessis Allan, Garner also argues this is a big deal for National: “The National Party may just have cause to have some hope again with departing Air NZ boss Christopher Luxon, who, I am told has had an informal offer to stand for the party next election. It’s a detailed offer. Luxon would stand in Botany – where there’s a vacancy” – see: Christopher Luxon brings new hope to the National Party.

According to Garner, it’s all about National finding a new leader: “he’s been approached because these party people don’t believe Simon Bridges and Judith Collins can do it. Simon – not believable. Judith, well, she’s just Judith. Go the John Key way – who, by the way, is also on the Air NZ board and advising Luxon, not just on the ins and outs of politics but the crash course required to go from the private sector to the awful shark-infested waters of Parliament”.

Bernard Hickey has commented on Luxon’s media appearances: “There were no clangers and his live televisual persona will have done him no harm. He was notably keen to portray himself as an apolitical problem solver able to work with anyone. But the jury remains well out. The welcome is friendly now, but a few tough interviews from Corin Dann and Lisa Owen will put him to the test. I would pay money to see Kim Hill have a go at him.”

Similarly, talkback radio host Peter Williams was impressed with Luxon’s TV appearances: “Luxon is good, very good. Sorry, Simon, he’s better than you. He is fluent, confident, knowledgeable about a whole lot of things, and on the surface seems a thoroughly likeable sort of bloke” – see: Is Christopher Luxon really Prime Minister material?

Williams also reports on rumours about National helping Luxton into Parliament even earlier, and how all this might ruffle feathers in the current leadership: “There may even be some behind the scenes movement to get a poor performing National Party MP to resign before the end of the year, create a by-election somewhere and get him into Parliament this term. I suspect the National Party board might be thinking like that although you can be absolutely assured Simon Bridges is not thinking like that. Why would a turkey vote for Christmas?”

Commentators such as Williams still have strong reservations about whether Luxon could make the necessary transition into politics, and whether the apparent parallels with John Key are correct – especially questioning whether Luxon has the same “relatability” as the former prime minister (or our current one).

Interestingly, Williams cites some online reader comments to backup this notion: “A few Air New Zealand workers or ex-workers remarked about him never being seen around the workers, about always wanting to cut costs which invariably had an impact on staff morale, especially in recent times. The theme seemed to be that he was always mixing it with those of his type, and not so much getting down and dirty with his staff. That’s a worrying thought.”

The difficulty of businesspeople and other high profile individuals going into politics is very well examined by Bernard Hickey in an important column on the obstacles for Luxon’s rumoured new political career – see: Luxon readies for political takeoff. Comparing Luxon to John Key, he points out that “Not everyone who is successful in business or finance inevitably succeeds in politics. And 2019 is a vastly different era to the one facing the National Party in the early 2000s.”

Hickey does, however, admit that Luxon may have something over Key in regard to his reputation – as the Air New Zealand CEO actually runs a company that produces a real product rather than just trades currencies, and Luxon “can talk the sustainability and wellbeing talk with the best of them”.

But his background in Air New Zealand could also be a problem for National’s electoral appeal in the provinces: “Ask anyone in Nelson, New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Napier how they feel about Luxon’s leadership of the national airline and the answer will be mixed. They saw what happened to air fares when Air New Zealand finally got some competition from Jetstar. Residents of Invercargill, Gisborne or Kerikeri feel even less enamoured when flights to our biggest cities cost the same as flights to Australia.”

Hickey also points out that Luxon’s “more socially conservative background and approach may also stand in the way of emulating Key’s socially liberal way of appealing to the centre.” On top of this, “He also may struggle to emulate Key’s easygoing style with the public and deft touch with the media. Luxon is derided by some internally at Air New Zealand as ‘Reverend’ Luxon for his occasionally preachy style.”

There could be a problem with rank-and-file National Party members, too. Traditionally it’s the local electorate branch who get to decide the candidate, and rumours that party president Peter Goodfellow has stitched up a deal for Luxon in either Botany or Epsom will go down badly.

In fact, the idea of a Johnny-come-lately candidate parachuted into a safe seat could be seen as arrogant. And, of course, the way that Luxon’s publicity has pushed him into the public imagination as National’s next leader will be resented by many. Although some are drawing parallels with John Key in this regard, the former leader actually came into public life very quietly and made his way to the top without a lot of publicity.

Former leadership contestant Amy Adams has warned Luxon that such a high-publicity arrival into politics could do him damage. The NBR reports that “she also had a warning about what he might confront if he opted for a political career. She said in her experience people who come into Parliament with huge reputations tend to have the hardest road” – see Brent Edwards’ Adams unaware of any Botany electorate deal for Luxon (paywalled).

Adams says: “If I think back over the time I’ve been here, people who’ve come in here, with this big media interest in how this person is going to be the second coming, often tend to perform on the downside.”

This article also reports that “Adams said she had no idea beforehand that Luxon would resign from Air New Zealand”, and she says: “If Simon and Christopher have talked about politics that’s a matter for them, but I’m certainly not aware of any deal being done. And that’s not the way our rules work.”

Furthermore, “Adams said National Party members choose electorate candidates and for Botany, like every other seat, it would come down to the local members to decide who would be their candidate. The party leader could not anoint someone in the seat, as has been portrayed from the outside.”

For the best outline of “the absolutely enormous number of obstacles” facing Luxon in his supposed quest to be the next National prime minister, see Alex Braae’s very good: Revealed: Christopher Luxon is not definitely the next National PM.

The first obstacle is getting a nomination for a safe seat: “It stands to reason that if there’s a good National safe seat like Botany going, then every aspiring centre-right politician will be gunning for it. That could be former mayoral candidate Victoria Crone.”

The existing National Party caucus is the second hurdle: “Are we really expected to believe a bunch of people who have been patiently waiting for their chance will just stand aside and allow a newcomer through?… What about MPs who were formerly known as the next National PM, like Nicola Willis?”

Braae concludes by admonishing political commentators for hyping up the whole story: “There’s always a race with these things. Have the first take, be the most savvy, call it before it happens, make a prediction that will look like genius if it comes off. But it’s just noise. Let’s all just have an in-flight lolly and calm down.”

Finally, if a successful airline CEO isn’t quite right as the fantasy new leader of the National Party, what about an outspoken conservative breakfast TV host? Today Finlay Macdonald discusses celebrities moving into politics in his opinion piece, Is there a problem with Mark Richardson’s transition into politics?