Luxon settling in for his long job interview

National Party leader Chris Luxon has now been in his new job for six months, a milestone not all of his many predecessors in the role achieved.

While visiting Dunedin this week he spoke to political reporter Mike Houlahan about the merry-go-round his party has been on, and where National hopes will be a stable future.

It has been hard for southerners to avoid new National Party leader Chris Luxon.

Unlike some who went before him, Mr Luxon has been a regular visitor to the region since being anointed as party leader six months ago: two trips to Queenstown, trips to Waitaki and Invercargill, and two visits to Dunedin in the past few weeks.

He is keeping up a punishing schedule of provincial tours and the novelty is yet to wear off, going by the Tigger-like enthusiasm with which he bounced up to people at his Dunedin meet-and-greets on Thursday to introduce himself.

"The whole country is seeing a lot of me: I am in Wellington Tuesday and Wednesday and then I get out of Wellington as fast as I can and spend Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday seeing two or three towns across New Zealand," Mr Luxon said.

"I think a big part of my job is getting out and about and meeting people ... to find out what is happening, from real New Zealanders, and I think there is a real temptation if you are in Wellington to end up being caught up in the beltway there and lose touch with real New Zealanders about what their challenges are."

The Christchurch-raised, Auckland-based MP is well aware his life experience is different from many of those whose votes he is seeking: as a high-flying Unilver executive he lived in Sydney, London, Chicago and Toronto before arriving home to become chief executive of Air New Zealand.

National leader Chris Luxon addresses media in Dunedin on Thursday. PHOTOS: LINDA ROBERTSON
National leader Chris Luxon addresses media in Dunedin on Thursday. PHOTOS: LINDA ROBERTSON

A deft use of humour helps build a connection — the chrome-domed Mr Luxon draws an easy laugh by referring to how many shampoo companies he has bought, and another by confessing to acquiring a potentially vote-losing love for country music while he lived in the US.

He has a common touch too ... when confronted by a truck full of power tools the DIY enthusiast in Mr Luxon could not resist a conversation about drills.

But he also retains his businessman’s rigour for detail and head for figures: while addressing Business South he was able to reference a range of statistics, impromptu.

It was that ability, among other things, which prompted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to appoint Mr Luxon as the head of her business advisory council ... a somewhat ironic hire as things have turned out.

"You compartmentalise it," Mr Luxon said.

"I’m old-fashioned in the regard that if a prime minister or a president asks you to do anything, that you do it ... for me, it was about New Zealand, but as I saw from up close, I decided that there was a real opportunity for us to go to work and to get things done and to get solutions for the problems we have in this country."

Although only becoming an MP in October 2020 and party leader last November, Mr Luxon is fast learning his new craft: during a media stand-up in Dunedin he resolutely refused to be drawn on whether the name of New Zealand should be changed to Aotearoa, despite being asked three times.

The question, occasioned by a Maori Party petition on the issue, had extra spice due to a minority of outraged social media responses to Mr Luxon choosing to post a farewell to the late Joe Hawke on social media, in Maori.

Mr Luxon, who has been taking a weekly te reo class for some time, refused to back down then and is sticking to his principles despite it possibly costing him some votes.

"For me it was very simple: Joe Hawke was a great New Zealander, he was an outstanding leader for Maoridom, I wanted to acknowledge his passing in te reo and I thought that was entirely appropriate; it was his first language," he said.

Mr Luxon talks to collabHQ founder Andrew Elliott at the official opening of the new Kaikorai...
Mr Luxon talks to collabHQ founder Andrew Elliott at the official opening of the new Kaikorai Valley business.
"Yes there was some reaction: I didn’t read all the comments and frankly I don’t spend a lot of time online looking at comments ... some of the comments were racist and I condemn them outright, others were people saying ‘I have a different point of view, Chris’.

"They have the right to free speech and I will defend their right to say something I disagree with, but at the end of the day I thought it was appropriate."

But what Mr Luxon really wants to talk about, and he has his talking points meticulously memorised, is the cost of living.

Inflation is dogging the Government’s rosy economic message about record-low unemployment, and has been the stick with which National has been beating Labour with for months.

Mr Luxon has suggested indexing tax thresholds to inflation, and other adjustments to tax to put more money in people’s pockets, while at the same time criticising the Government for inflationary spending.

Why would his plans not be inflationary, but the Government’s would be?

"There is an inflationary component, I get that, but the New Zealand public have a choice to save that money as much as to spend that money and given the way that [Finance Minister] Grant Robertson is addicted to spending, the public will spend that money much more wisely than he will."

At his party’s caucus retreat in Queenstown earlier this year Mr Luxon vowed to lead an Opposition which proposed solutions rather than criticised: does he feel the party is delivering on that promise?

"I think we are opposing the Government where it makes sense, we are being constructive when we think there are good things that they are doing, and we are proposing ideas.

"Take law and order for example. We have a major problem with crime in this country. We have had a 21% increase in serious violent crime and a 40% rise in gang membership, every day there has been a shooting or a ram-raid, so what has been our solution?

"We would really like to have a dedicated gang unit, we would like to have firearm prohibition orders with warrantless search powers so we can go after the problem, which is illegal guns, and we have been talking about the police reviewing its pursuit policy — the police announced two days ago that they would review that policy, that’s a good outcome, that’s what I meant by proposing."

Mr Luxon’s novelty as National leader has yet to wear off: latest polling suggests the party has a realistic chance of winning next year’s election, although there is still a long way to go before polling day.

"I can look at all the MPs in my caucus and look at the contributions they are making, the engagement that they have, the way that they are working together, the way they are engaging with industries and the community sector, and I am pleased with our progress," Mr Luxon said.

"But it’s not about us, it is about our ability to have ideas that actually take this country forward and actually deal with our problems and realise the opportunities that we have.

"That is the job over the next 18 months, and it’s a big job interview for myself and my party."