Little cars fire up Luxon’s personality

National Party leader Christopher Luxon casts an eye over a Mini pick-up at Bill Richardson...
National Party leader Christopher Luxon casts an eye over a Mini pick-up at Bill Richardson Transport World during his visit to Invercargill on Thursday. PHOTOS: GREGOR RICHARDSON
One of the biggest hurdles politicians have to clear is the mysterious, undefinable quality of likeability.

It is not as high a bar as charisma and not as low as being tolerable. It sits somewhere in the "someone I could have a coffee or a beer with" or "a decent dinner party guest" zone.

Both Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins have battled to rate in the likeability stakes, hence why they sit at 23% apiece or so in the preferred prime minister rankings, depending which poll you prefer.

For all that Mr Luxon likes to play the political-outsider card, he has the same handicap as the ultimate insider, Mr Hipkins: they are both too well drilled in their talking points and too self-controlled to let their guard down often, for fear of making some kind of slip-up.

They are not Helen Clark, who for all that she could be formidable would let her human side show (think tears at Waitangi) or John Key, who was quite prepared to behave like a goof and ham things up as he was quite aware he could switch back into "PM mode" in the blink of an eye.

When Mr Hipkins was in Dunedin last week little chance was left for spontaneity: gatecrashing a student flat for some forced banter was close as things got to an authentic "Chippy" moment.

Mr Luxon with his 10 out of 10 cheese roll.
Mr Luxon with his 10 out of 10 cheese roll.
For a while there in Invercargill on Thursday, Christopher Luxon looked like he was heading off down the same well-beaten track of sterile campaign moments.

National’s strategy throughout the campaign has been for Mr Luxon to make his daily announcement nice and early, get the press conference out of the road and then know well in advance what the likely images on the 6pm news are going to be.

Thursday was no different as Mr Luxon fronted at 9am for an announcement on overseas students, flanked by Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds and his party’s immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford.

This is a drill Mr Luxon has got down pat and he confidently dealt with questions on a range of issues, mostly by not actually answering them but switching to his usual — and by now somewhat wearisome — attack lines on Labour’s economic management, or the perceived lack thereof.

Then Mr Luxon was whisked off to the day’s planned photo op, him making a cheese roll at the Majestic Tea Room.

This was a pleasing novelty for the northern members of the trailing press pack — the southern brigade was rather wishing we could have had Wednesday’s photo op — of Mr Luxon milking goats — instead.

Snappers crowded into a very small kitchen to try to catch of glimpse of Mr Luxon’s culinary skills, and he turned out a delicacy which he, unsurprisingly, rated a 10 out of 10.

Mr Luxon’s final stop of the day was Bill Richardson Transport World museum, a terrific attraction which is a world treasure, let alone a gem in the Southland tourism crown.

And, blessedly, Mr Luxon suddenly veered off the well-worn script.

It turned out, to borrow a line from Winston Peters, that this was not Mr Luxon’s first rodeo.

Mr Luxon addresses the media, alongside MPs Erica Stanford and Penny Simmonds
Mr Luxon addresses the media, alongside MPs Erica Stanford and Penny Simmonds
This was the latest of many, many visits to Transport World by Mr Luxon, who seemingly has dragged generations of his family around the vast complex.

He was able to point out new exhibits, direct journalists to vehicles he thought they would be interested in and discuss the differences in the window configuration of various 1960s models of the Mini.

Columnist Steve Braunias has taken to describing Mr Luxon as "truckin’ Luxon" — and has done so again in these pages today.

It turns out that much smaller vehicles are what really fires him up — ’60s classic British cars are his thing, to the extent of having imported a 1966 Riley Elf (which he drives when in Christchurch) as an homage to his first ever car, a 1962 Elf.

Who knew?

Discovering that the National leader is a bit of a petrol head might not make him more likeable to some, but his utter enthusiasm for the subject was an eye-opener.

As was the later discovery, in the museum’s replica phonogram shop, that his first records bought were the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks. Definitely a vote loser there, he might have been better off sticking to his first cassette purchase, Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run.

But Mr Luxon’s guard was finally down, he was just being himself and connecting on a personal level with a very small audience: National’s media team must have been wishing he could do that every day.

It should not decide an election — that should be based on the best presentation of a policy platform — but if knowing a young Christopher Luxon fancied himself as a teenage Travolta informs your vote in any way, that is no bad thing.

It was lovely yesterday

As "Southern Say" has noted before, Mr Luxon does not have the best of luck weather-wise when he brings his northern colleagues down to the deep South.

Earlier this year he brought a posse of MPs to Taieri for the National southern region conference, only for it to lash down with rain all weekend.

Then, a few months later, he dragged health spokesman Shane Reti to Dunedin for an announcement on the new Dunedin hospital and picked one of the coldest days of the year — Dr Reti, wearing only a suit jacket, was visibly shivering.

Then on Thursday he brought East Coast Bays MP Mrs Stanford down to Invercargill from Auckland and, you guessed it, widespread flooding across Otago and Southland.

Mr Luxon has yet to make it to Dunedin this election campaign, and given the long-range MetService forecast is for fine weather next week we might not see him in the next few days either.