The strange and the slick mixed at National’s campaign launch in Auckland. Toby Manhire went along.
Under a wash of blue light, National’s campaign launch yesterday came with the slick glitz of a US-style rally, together with a pinch of the mawkish. But they won’t mind that. Christopher Luxon told the crowd in South Auckland that they were going to win, the crowd shouted back in agreement, and they seemed to really believe it.
Luxon’s warm-up act was his children, Olivia and William, who dutifully delivered that most traditional of Father’s Day gifts: a glowing speech about your dad in front of about 1,200 people. They did a good and heartfelt job of it, even when saying aloud words that sounded very much as if they’d been written by a polling analyst. Has any human before ever voluntarily said of their father, “he is principled and trustworthy”?
The full retinue of National candidates were invited to the stage under a flurry of lights, their names read aloud in alphabetical order over the PA, some looking amped, others awkward. It was Las Vegas reimagined in the suburbs of Auckland, at times a UFC title-fight buildup, at others a school hockey prizegiving. That was followed by a hype reel which memorably included a terrifying egg timer and crash zooms, like a sinister HBO remake of The Days of Our Lives.
There was no policy to be announced. Instead the blue and white balloons came with bullet points, as National unveiled a “pledge card” sketching eight “bedrock commitments”. (The clap-o-meter suggests the law and order crackdown is the most popular of the eight.) If that prompted flashbacks of Tony Blair in 1997, so did the song. The UK Labour leader sailed to power on the back of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Luxon’s walk to the stage yesterday, which took three minutes as he pressed the flesh with his phalanx of candidates, was accompanied by ‘Day Is Gonna Come’, a song by an obscure US band called Royal Deluxe.
A taste – why not? – of the lyrics: “You know I remember, when I was young / My mama told me, that day is gonna come / You’ll get through the dark nights that feel so long / And then in the morning, that day is gonna come.”
Just as days in all their forms routinely arrive in the morning, there was a confidence in the hall and in the speeches. “National friends, we have come so far together over the last two years,” he said, and at least some, as they nodded in agreement, must have been casting their minds back to the last time the National Party held a big speech in this venue, at its party conference in 2021, just a few months before Judith Collins was removed as leader.
These days, with a widening gap in polling, Luxon has at least half an eye on cautioning against complacency. “I have to tell you, ‘power doesn’t concede easily’,” said Luxon. A student of leadership, he was invoking, perhaps, the words of the great slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Luxon’s cause is humdrum by comparison, but still. “The next 30 days until early voting starts, and the next 42 days to election day, will be challenging,” he warned. “We’ve already seen we’ll be up against a campaign based on fear and disinformation.”
Speaking of fear and disinformation, despite a large gathering of Freedoms NZ protesters outside and talk that some had been trying to find a way to get into the hall, there was no repeat of the pop-up audience protests during the Labour campaign launch on Saturday.
The risk for Luxon in opting for a campaign launch that is essentially a rally with a listicle attached is that you create a vacuum for the immediate aftermath, and that was followed by a media stand-up in which the questions moved swiftly to criticisms of National’s tax numbers, especially suggestions that plans to tax foreign property buyers 15% on purchases above $2 million could breach international legal obligations.
National had received “independent, full advice” on the legality of its plan, and was satisfied it was fit for purpose, Luxon insisted, though he avoided repeated questions about whether he might release that advice.
Luxon and his strategists will head into the first full week of campaigning more than happy, however, with yesterday’s launch. Luxonmania it wasn’t quite. But this was a room full of people feeling something they have not for a while. Not just determination, but expectation.