The 60 wise delegates of Botany chose their next National Party candidate last night, and they picked the man touted as a future leader to take on the blazing, unpredictable incumbent, Jami-Lee Ross. Toby Manhire was there to watch the anointment.
As the sun disappeared over the fairways, upstairs at the Pakuranga Golf Club last night the five contenders for the 2020 National candidacy in Botany went turn-about from the stage, making their last pitch to party faithful. But among the 150-odd members and the posse of high powered National MPs, the two people that filled the room most weren’t in fact there at all. Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges hung in the air, whispering in the ears of the 60 voting delegates.
Each of the would-be Botanists delivered 10-minute speeches and took a pair of identical questions. I can’t tell you what they said – a condition of attendance was not reporting on this part of proceedings – but suffice to say that it was no huge surprise that the 60 voting delegates chose Christopher Luxon, on the first ballot, albeit after an excruciatingly long tallying period – I can only assume scrutineers held every yellow ballot form up to the moon to check it – during which National MPs Dan Bidois and Paula Bennett had to dig very deep into the standup back-catalogues to keep the crowd awake.
The result was no surprise because Luxon is a former CEO of one of New Zealand’s most celebrated companies, and an impressive, accomplished speaker: fresh from Seat 1A at Air New Zealand, he’s at ease before crowds. He’s polished, but like the man he’s most often compared to, usually flatteringly, not too polished.
Key was a mentor, he told media afterwards, but he was his own man: he wasn’t on a beeline for the leadership, he was eager to learn, he was keen to play whatever role he could – you get the idea.
Christopher Luxon is the second reason that Botany will be a media priority in next year’s election. The first reason is Jami-Lee Ross, the now-independent member for the constituency and the man who departed National as decorously a nuclear meltdown just over a year ago. He’s the one, you might recall, who attempted to politically disembowel Simon Bridges. He failed to do that, and on balance probably made Bridges stronger.
He hasn’t given up trying, however, and the arrival of Luxon – who wasn’t by any means “parachuted” into the seat, he insisted last night – just trains another floodlight on the south-east Auckland electorate. The words “media circus” were uttered more than once.
Luxon has been a different sort of thorn in Bridges’ side. The appearance of an advertisement in weekend newspapers playing on Dick Frizzell’s Mickey-to-Tiki image, with John Key’s face morphing into the Air New Zealand CEO’s, commissioned and funded by a payday loan merchant, was fundamentally weird. But it also pointed at the time to a distinct dissatisfaction with Bridges among National supporters. That wasn’t helped when Luxon, before he’d even committed to jumping aboard the National bus, popped up in the preferred PM stakes in a Colmar Brunton / TVNZ poll.
At that moment, the idea of Luxon getting the nod in Botany would have looked very bad for Bridges. It’s a measure of how much firmer Bridges’ footing has become – despite making little gain in his own personal poll numbers, National’s are rock solid – that the headlines this morning aren’t aquiver with speculation about how long Bridges can hold on.
Luxon batted away media questions about his appetite for leadership adroitly last night. In fact he dealt pretty well with everything thrown at him. Simon Bridges was “an awesome leader”, he said, Keyishly. He avoided any temptation to take potshots at Jacinda Ardern, whose Business Advisory Council he until recently chaired. He didn’t even want to “be mean” to Phil Twyford. When pushed on his religious conservative commitments – against abortion, against cannabis legalisation, against euthanasia reform – Luxon, an evangelical Christian, ran the line that while personally he felt strongly on these issues he’d “listen to constituents”. (God was unavailable for comment on this time honoured politician’s fudge.)
Things didn’t go so well this morning, however, when RNZ’s Susie Ferguson got Luxon in a tangle over his position on National’s mooted social welfare reforms. Tacking to the draconian right of National Party’s policy discussion documents, he found himself supporting the idea of cutting Working for Families payments for parents who failed to immunise their children.
For the National leader, it couldn’t have been scripted better. All this making him look like the reasonable centrist. Nothing could be sweeter than seeing a Herald headline reading, “Simon Bridges quick to defend Christopher Luxon on his first day as candidate”.
“He got Susie’d,” chuckled Bridges, in reference to the interrogation of RNZ’s Morning Report star Susie Ferguson. There may yet be a day when Luxon appears a threat to Bridges’ status, but today his stumble made him look like just another novice. Bridges got to look assured, unflummoxed, leaderly.
But for all that, there remains the unknown of JLR. Yeah, he’s a long, long, long shot to win in these blue-tinted suburbs, but if we know nothing else it’s that he doesn’t go down without a blazing, all-toys-overboard fight.
Ross seemed to enjoy the announcement on Twitter, saying, “welcome to the jungle”, a presumed reference to the Guns N Roses released in 1987, when Ross was one year old, and presumably already scheming the political conquests to come. On November 5, on any day of the year, Ross is the Catherine Wheel of New Zealand politics, liable to fire balls of fire in any direction. Luxon’s main task, at least as far as the National Party is concerned, is to operate as a flame retardant.
And if the National Party Botany branch and the senior MPs in attendance were in any doubt about what awaits them in the seat next year, there were about a dozen reminders stapled around the gate of the golf club. Freshly erected yesterday, the billboards were unmissable, three-deep across the street, reading “Jami-Lee Ross for Botany, General Election 2020”. Just a few minutes’ walk down Botany Road, sites Lee-Ross’s freshly painted constituency office, just next door to Hell.