Christopher Luxon is no slouch on the dance floor, it seems. As his wife Amanda told the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, the two prepared for their university ball with a ballroom dancing class.
The teacher said he had rhythm and I couldn’t believe she was saying that about him when I had done ballet for years. But that’s what clinched it for me!
As the pace increases in the campaign for New Zealand’s 2023 general election, and regardless of polls showing the National Party ahead of Labour, Luxon will need to find some of that rhythm in the weeks leading up to and after the election.
As a recent, unimpressive TV performance defending his party’s tax package demonstrated, he’ll need stamina and skill to make up for being a comparative newcomer to the political dance.
But this may be even more important after the election than during the campaign. If National leads the next government – and even if it doesn’t – the landscape on the right of New Zealand politics is changing.
In particular, ACT’s success in stitching together a coalition of urban low-tax-loving liberals and disaffected farmers is driving a wedge between National and voters it has long seen as its own.
The party Luxon leads is facing not just an election, but a generational realignment.
Rebranding an airline, as Luxon did in a former life, is one thing. Steering the National Party through what lies ahead may require more than fancy footwork.
The political unknown
This is no small task for a political novice. Luxon only entered parliament as the MP for Botany at the 2020 election. National lost the party vote to Labour in that Auckland constituency, and the 50% of the candidate vote he gained was lower than the 60% National’s Jami-Lee Ross had won in 2017.
If it was a baptism by fire, he fared better than a lot of National’s other candidates in that election, which gave Labour the first single party majority government since the adoption of the MMP electoral system in 1996.
That seismic defeat saw the end of Judith Collins’ leadership, and the search for a new face. A little over a year later, Luxon was installed as the party’s fifth leader in just four years.
It’s been less than two years since then, but much has changed. Most notably, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern has gone – as have all of the COVID restrictions and many of the policies with which she was associated.
During that time, Luxon has been working hard to construct a political persona, but routinely faces claims he is an unknown quantity.
His previous careers at Unilever and Air New Zealand are well known, as is the fact he’s a conservative Christian. Some might know he likes waterskiing and country music. Some may even rate his credentials on the climate crisis, gender pay equity and opposition to human trafficking.
Yet Luxon still lacks political definition in a way John Key – the former National Party leader and prime minister, whose political success it is Luxon’s job to reprise – did not.
The two things most people knew about Key were that he was born in a state house and grew up to become an international man of finance.
The first fact allowed Key to promote himself as an ordinary bloke, the second notwithstanding. Luxon – who earned NZ$4.4 million a year at Air New Zealand and owns seven houses – has yet to pull off that political sleight of hand.
Earlier in the campaign, that slight sense of fuzziness – the feeling that people are not quite sure who Luxon is or what he stands for – was a concern for National’s strategists, forcing them to distinguish the leader from the party on the campaign trail.
There were worries, too, about the gap between Luxon’s personal polling and those of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins (and, for different reasons, those of the ACT Party leader David Seymour). However, the head-to-head contest for preferred prime minister between Luxon and Chris Hipkins has since tightened considerably.
But the concerns about the extent to which “brand Luxon” has achieved cut-through with voters have not entirely abated. For one thing, the same poll which had Luxon just a couple of percentage points behind Hipkins as preferred prime minister suggested he is less popular among undecided voters – who often determine the outcome of elections.
Furthermore, in another relatively recent poll, only 25% of women respondents felt well disposed towards Luxon, whereas 39% expressed some degree of negativity towards him – which may speak to his socially conservative views on (among other things) abortion.
In 2020, National lost significant support among women to Ardern. It needs those votes back if it is to prevail this time, which goes some way to explaining the composition of National’s party list, even if Luxon was less than keen to acknowledge gender was a factor in drawing it up.
The ACT factor
It is worth recalling, however, that this time three years ago, National’s figures were in free-fall. Luxon has turned that around, calming a querulous caucus and ending National’s leadership musical chairs.
He has also made sure the party’s list more closely resembles the wider population, with fewer middle-aged white males per capita than previously.
That said, reflecting on the views held by a number of those on that list, one journalist suggested a National victory could produce “an unruly rump of zealots championing Christian identity politics” and pose “a significant risk to National’s cohesiveness and its ability to hold that power”.
But unlike Ardern in 2020, if Luxon is in a position to lead the next government, he will not be dancing with himself. He is going to need at least one parliamentary partner. This may be where the skills developed in his previous careers will be most severely tested.
For one thing, the polls suggest Luxon will have to negotiate some form of governing arrangement with ACT. That is unlikely to be a straightforward process, given the extent to which the parties diverge on various policy issues.
Luxon would also find the day-to-day management of a National-ACT administration a challenge – much less a minority National government reliant on ACT for parliamentary support, as ACT leader David Seymour has suggested could happen.
ACT’s own experience in office is limited to Seymour’s brief tenure – a decade ago – as minister of regulatory reform and parliamentary undersecretary to the minister of education. And some of its candidate selection choices raise concerns about the sorts of views held within a party that could shortly find itself in – or propping up – a government.
To lose one candidate might be put down to misfortune. To lose several, as ACT has during this campaign, speaks to something more than carelessness.
The post-election dance
Such difficulties would be partly of National’s own making. Since the 2002 election, ACT has cleared MMP’s 5% threshold for parliamentary representation just once (in 2020). For survival, it has relied on National either standing aside in the seat of Epsom or encouraging its supporters to give their vote to ACT’s Epsom candidate.
National is playing neither game this year, but may come to regret ever having done so. Because right now, Seymour’s party has the political breeze behind it.
A seemingly resurgent New Zealand First (NZF) also poses a threat. These days NZF is as much a populist party seeking to “take the country back” from sundry “elites” and “a small unelected cabal of opinionated virtue signallers” as it is a vehicle for economic nationalism.
But just as he did with Brian Tamaki’s Freedoms NZ Party, Luxon is equivocating on the question of whether or not he would countenance working with NZF leader Winston Peters after the election.
For now, National’s leader can keep his potential governing options open. But in a month’s time – assuming present polling trends apply on the big day – we may find out who on his political dance card will get the nod.
Christopher Luxon just has to avoid tripping over his own feet before he gets there.