Live: Luxon's biggest challenge - and the questions he didn't want to answer

Thomas Coughlan, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 1 Dec 2021, 8:14am
(Photo / Mark Mitchell)
(Photo / Mark Mitchell)

Live: Luxon's biggest challenge - and the questions he didn't want to answer

Thomas Coughlan, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 1 Dec 2021, 8:14am

National's new leader Chris Luxon wants a "reset", drawing a line under not only his party's chaotic and toxic past week - but each one of its four tumultuous years in opposition.

In just four years, John Key and Bill English's brand of competent stable leadership rotted under successive scandals involving sex, bullying, donations controversies and all manner of other improprieties.

That is in the past, according to Luxon, who in his first speech in one of politics' most cursed jobs pleaded the case for a clean break from all of that.

"We are drawing a line under the events of the last four years, and we are putting them behind us," Luxon said.

"We are the reset."

Luxon told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB today that he did write most of his own speech yesterday but had some help from his "22 year old" friends.

He was the head of Air NZ when Barack Obama visited New Zealand in 2018 and got to spend time with him.

Hosking said he was there too and told Luxon he felt he was "too woke", but he didn't agree with that.

"No, I wouldn't describe myself as woke. What I'm about is actually making sure we get things back on track in this country.

"I actually think we're on a path of mediocrity if I'm really honest with you, we're drifting, and we're playing a pretty small game and I think we're pretty fearful and unconfident and we've really got to unleash and get back to what we used to do - which was go out into the world really confident and making things happen and getting things done."

Luxon said that was the reason he ventured into politics - New Zealand has big challenges but also massive opportunities.

"You've either got to work and fix those things and make it happen or keep talking about it. That's why I'm here."

Iwi summer roadblock threat 'nuts'

Asked his thoughts about Northland Iwi threatening to set up roadblocks over summer, he said: "It's nuts."

"It's really not acceptable ... you've got tourism and hospitality businesses that have done everything right, they're probably very safe and everyone is in good shape. We need that to be resolved and you can't have that situation for summer".

Luxon said that situation was symptomatic of what was going on in New Zealand at the moment, "everything is just dreamt up on the fly".

Asked whether Police Commissioner Andrew Coster was tough enough on gun violence and gangs, he said "we've got a big problem with that".

"We didn't use to have a gun violence crime every week in the newspapers here in New Zealand ... and I think New Zealanders are quite worried about it. We need to give police more access to firearms."

As for general arming of police, he said that was a conversation that New Zealand should start to have.

However, he was open to the idea especially as over the last two years there were two or three now gun events each week.

Luxon told Hosking he would "totally repeal" the Government's Three Waters legislation.

"It's confusing and it's just the Government's drive for centralisation and control."

He wants New Zealand to be one country, one rule, one law and target people based on need rather than ethnicity.

"It's important we stay one people."

There were around 400,000 people in emergency housing to date, there's been a four-fold increase in the wait list for state housing, rent was up 30 per cent, part of it is all about consenting and unlocking land for expansion.

"It's crazy that we have a country the same size of Japan ... and we have house prices more expensive."

As for standing by the National-Labour deal on access to land which was confirmed recently about intensification.

Asked if the Government had overcooked economy, Luxon said every time Grant Robertson stood up and talked about unemployment and the country was growing fast, he was focusing on macro-economics.

"I can tell you ...[hospitality businesses] are doing it tough. There are many more going to the wall in February just because we have this Mickey Mouse traffic light system."

The Government was "anti-business, not pro trade".

Businesses can't get product through ports and there was no incentive for them to grow their business.

He said he would still use MIQ given the Covid Omicron variant but there was still a "heap wrong" with the MIQ system where decisions were made "always on the fly".

Luxon said he would open up the trans-Tasman border as it was now "quite low risk" especially if travellers were double vaxxed and had tested negative, they shouldn't have to isolate in a hotel room.

Luxon said he was feeling fantastic. "It was a fun day yesterday and now the real work begins."

Luxon told The AM Show there were a lot of tourism businesses in Northland and a lot of people who wanted to go there on holiday, so he thought they should let the conversations about roadblocks with iwi and community play out, but keep a close eye on it.

Gun crime was getting worse and he believed police needed to listen to the frontline officers who felt they needed to be armed.

On house prices, Luxon said they may fall or stabilise.

He wouldn't want to see house prices fall dramatically and said there was a lot of PR and spin from the Government and they needed to focus on getting things done. Luxon owns seven houses.

On the Covid response, everything had been rushed and no new ICU beds had been built in the last year, Luxon said.

"Our issue is there's a lot of execution not being done."

Luxon said he would have rolled out the vaccine a lot faster and introduced antigen and saliva testing faster.

On more personal questions, Luxon told the AM Show he was "pro-life" and didn't support abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty. When questioned if he thought abortion was murder, he said "he didn't want to go there".

Speaking to TVNZ, Luxon acknowledged having spent barely a year as an MP before assuming the leadership.

"All I knew was I wanted to come into politics because I'd got to a point in my life where I'd been fortunate, I've had a great upbringing here in New Zealand and I thought: 'Actually, public service rather than politics is really what it is all about'."

Luxon said he was coming in without "a lot of baggage" from the past.

Put to him that he was the least experienced politician in the party, he said the good news was that he was doing it as a team.

He acknowledged new deputy leader Nicola Willis and the skills she would bring to the leadership team.

He also acknowledged the other members' talents and skills and the support they too would bring to his role.

"I think, you'll see as time develops ... we're going to earn back the trust of the New Zealand people.

"And we're going to do it - I have no doubt about it," he said.

The questions Luxon did not want to answer yesterday

Luxon shared the stage yesterday with the party's new deputy leader, Nicola Willis, both elected unopposed after challenger Simon Bridges dropped out of the race at the eleventh hour.

The pair visually drew a line under the past four years, holding their first press conference not in the old legislative council chamber, familiar as the location where Luxon's three predecessors began their cursed tenures, but in the Beehive banquet hall, usually reserved for functions headed by the prime minister, and rarely used by the opposition.

By most accounts, Luxon's first hours as leader went well. He delivered his first speech calmly and answered tough questions with self-effacing charm.

For questions Luxon really did not want to answer, like the role of Māori in Three Waters, the future of the housing accord with Labour, and his party's stance on conversion therapy, Luxon made wordy, non-committal responses - reminiscent of his opposite number, Jacinda Ardern.

On National's housing deal with Labour, Luxon told the Herald later, he wants to return some power back to councils, allowing them to do more zoning, but possibly at the expense of delivering the quantity of new houses the bill promised.

New National leader Christopher Luxon and deputy leader Nicola Willis after their caucus meeting at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Whether those changes will mean National part ways with Labour on the accord will be seen when the bill returns from select committee in the next Parliamentary sitting block, which begins next week.

On conversion therapy - essentially the practice of trying to turn a LGBT person straight - Luxon said it is "abhorrent", but would not commit to backing the bill to ban it when it returns from select committee, saying he'll "have another chat about it" when it returns back to Parliament next year.

Luxon was more explicit around his Christian faith - tellingly the first question that was put to him as leader, and one he was ready for, saying he felt his faith has been "misrepresented and portrayed very negatively".

"My faith is something that has grounded me and put me into a context that is bigger than myself," Luxon said, adding that he wanted to be "clear" he believed in the "separation of politics and faith".

That said, Luxon's brief voting record finds him in a group of just 15 MPs to oppose a law banning protests outside abortion clinics.

Luxon was unclear what the separation of church and state meant when it came to conscience votes.

He said people should not assume his faith means he has one position or another on an issue. But he did not say, when it comes to voting one way or another, whether he would vote with his own conscience, or the conscience of his constituents.

Having spent a little over 400 days as an MP, Luxon has made the fastest ascent to party leadership of any major party in living memory - possibly in history.

Willis too is fairly green, having entered Parliament shortly after the beginning of the last term, making it in after Steven Joyce retired.

Luxon made a virtue of his inexperience, promising a fresh approach, and drawing people's attention to his other famous job: he is former chief executive of Air New Zealand.

Willis isn't as fresh as she appears either: having worked as a staffer during National's last stint in opposition and government, she knows her way around Parliament.

Luxon's victory caps off a tumultuous period of instability in the National Party.

It is difficult to date when the instability began. Bridges' leadership was rocked by the Jami-Lee Ross scandals, a rumoured challenge from Judith Collins and an actual challenge from Todd Muller.

Muller's brief leadership then beget Collins' leadership, which resulted in an historic election loss and speculation over when, rather than if, Collins would be replaced.

That instability took an unexpected turn on Wednesday when Collins issued a late-night press release demoting Bridges and stripping him of his portfolios over a historic claim of "serious misconduct".

But questions immediately emerged about how serious the misconduct claim was and whether Bridges' punishment was genuine, or an attempt to force him out of the leadership race.

Caucus decided it was the latter and on Thursday morning deposed Collins after an unprecedented vote of no confidence in her leadership.

A day later, Bridges declared his candidacy for the leadership. Luxon was himself slow off the mark.

Questions swirled on Friday, Saturday and early Sunday about whether Luxon would enter the race. Former Prime Minister John Key was understood to have initially advised Luxon to wait, but he apparently changed this advice over the weekend, advising MPs to back Luxon.

By Sunday, Luxon was clearly running, and appeared to have an edge on Bridges when it came to numbers. Many MPs were keen for a deal between the pair, rather than have the race go to an open contest.

But as the race entered its final day, no deal was forthcoming. The deal was announced just over an hour before the press conference scheduled to announce the leader.

Earlier in the day, MPs arriving said the most important thing was to have unity after the caucus meeting.

MP Chris Penk said he believed National was in "a more healthy position now" than it had been last week, but "we can and we must" unite behind a new leader.

Bridges' backers, such as Mark Mitchell, were quick to throw their support behind Luxon, saying it was an "exciting new start".

Luxon now has asked for a fresh start, but there is no guarantee he will get one.

He now begins the task of reshuffling his divided caucus, with a new line up to be announced shortly.

The caucus is battered, bruised, divided and despondent - Luxon now has the task of forging those same MPs into the team that can take the fight to Labour in 2023.