Graham Adams: Chris Luxon, abortion and the gender divide

Graham Adams: Chris Luxon, abortion and the gender divide

Labour commands around 65 per cent of the female vote but it will be worried that some will shift back to National now that Judith Collins has been despatched.


The question of whether National made the right choice last week in selecting Christopher Luxon as its leader was immediately confirmed by the intense reaction from the left and much of the mainstream media.

Given the widespread squawking and flapping of wings, you might have imagined a fox had been dropped straight into the hen house. It is certainly impossible to imagine that selecting Simon Bridges to lead the party once again would have had the same effect.

The media didn’t muck around after Luxon’s promotion was announced. No fewer than three influential broadcasters — Ryan Bridge (The AM Show), Lisa Owen (Checkpoint) and Jenna Lynch (Newshub) — asked the new Leader of the Opposition whether he viewed abortion as murder.

It was an inflammatory way to frame the question but nevertheless a perfectly reasonable one to put to someone who aspires to be Prime Minister. Any leader’s beliefs — religious or otherwise — that might influence government policy are worthy of close scrutiny.

However, the broadcasters’ treatment of Luxon stands in stark contrast to the circumspect way the media usually treats religious views. It remains an open question why the media has taken such a markedly aggressive approach with National’s new leader.

It was a dramatic change from the debates that raged for five years over assisted dying until last year’s referendum on David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill. Religion barely got a look in. In particular, the question of whether religious opponents viewed life as sacred from womb to tomb because everyone’s life belongs to God and only He can interrupt it was very rarely raised.

Instead, the mainstream media allowed the assisted dying debate to be conducted almost entirely in secular terms — such as protecting the vulnerable from coercion and the unreliability of doctors’ prognoses — despite many prominent opponents being deeply religious.

The question of the influence of religion was not even put to one such opponent despite the fact he was known to be a member of Opus Dei, the ultra-conservative Catholic order (brought to wide public attention in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code). His devout Catholicism went unexplored.

So why the sudden forensic probing into Luxon’s views on abortion? Especially when — as he rightly pointed out — it isn’t a live political issue. Abortion was decriminalised last year, classifying it as a health issue rather than a crime.

Columnist and former Dominion editor Karl du Fresne sees it as the benchmark of progressive political values: “The truth is that abortion is an ideological shibboleth — a test of Luxon’s acceptability to the left-wing media elite.”

Du Fresne added: “It seems beyond coincidental that all three [interviewers] asked the same question… If you were of a conspiratorial mindset, you couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a co-ordinated set-up. It certainly looked that way.”

In a radio interview, Stuart Nash, Minister for Economic and Regional Development, Small Business and Tourism, also focused on Luxon’s views on abortion — although without the murder angle.

That Labour’s senior politicians should want to cast Luxon as hostile to the interests of women is very easy to understand. The Labour government’s support relies heavily on female voters and Luxon looks like he may threaten that loyalty in a way Judith Collins never could.

In early November, David Farrar, who runs the polling agency Curia, analysed the gender divide between the centre-right and centre-left.

He pointed out that the centre-left commanded a full 65 per cent of the female vote — with Labour accounting for 58 per cent and the Greens 7 per cent.

Among men, the centre-right had a 13-point lead over the centre-left parties but as National-aligned Farrar noted: “Men are already in favour of changing the government. However, it won’t happen unless the two centre-right parties can lift their share of the female vote.”

In last week’s Roy Morgan poll, the breakdown showed a similar gender skew. The centre-left attracted 17.5 per cent more female voters than the centre-right, while the centre-right attracted 13 per cent more males.

Support for the centre-left among women is most marked among those under 50, where it has a whopping 32 per cent advantage over the centre-right.

Farrar: “Younger women go massively for Labour/Greens — which is what is keeping them competitive.” But he also noted: “This poll was conducted before the election of the new National leader.”

As long as Collins remained National’s leader, Ardern could feel secure in holding onto the bulk of the female vote. Many women didn’t like the member for Papakura — possibly because they remember Mean Girls like her far too vividly from their schooldays or having to deal with them in their workplace as adults.

Luxon, however, is affable, personable, successful and wealthy. He also has a reputation as a dynamic problem-solver, who made the planes run on time at Air New Zealand, which is widely regarded as the nation’s most reputable company.

In fact, he appears to have many of John Key’s attributes that made him attractive to female — as well as male — voters. As such, he represents a real threat to Ardern’s political dominance.

Of course, the notion that being anti-abortion (or opposed to assisted dying for that matter) is a deal-breaker for a would-be Prime Minister doesn’t stand a moment’s analysis. In 2017, Bill English — a devout Catholic deeply opposed to abortion and assisted dying — won 44.4 per cent of the vote against Ardern’s 36.8 per cent.

And that was when the assisted dying debate was in full swing after Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill had been drawn from the member’s ballot in June that year.

Within days of his ascension, Luxon has quickly and effectively neutralised abortion being used as a weapon against him by stating clearly that there would be no change to the law under a government he leads and that he has decided to support safe spaces around abortion clinics after all.

Journalists and rival politicians keen to hold the new leader’s feet to the fire will need to find a fresh and more convincing line of attack.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.