Public walkabout Luxon and press conference Luxon are very different. Which Luxon will voters believe?
When Christopher Luxon is out in public, he looks like he’s already won the election. The National Party leader is clearly relishing the campaign, coming alive in front of real people with real issues. It’s one of the reasons he spent weeks on the road before the election campaign had even started, kicking off his “Get NZ Back on Track” tour in May. At the time, National was polling neck-and-neck with Labour, in the low 30s, and Luxon’s personal popularity was nowhere near Chris Hipkins’. The first date of that tour saw Luxon deliver an hour-long monologue to a packed room without any notes – and it was incredibly well-received. Suddenly, it became obvious why people had for so long, well before he entered politics, talked of Luxon as a future prime minister.
Since the campaign proper started 10 days ago, Luxon has spent practically every day out in the community in a mix of safe blue, safe red and marginal seats. Just yesterday, Luxon spent the day in two parts of Auckland currently held by Labour. A walkabout in Papatoetoe may have seen a couple of heckles from angry members of the public, but it also saw shop owners address him as “New Zealand’s next prime minister”. He offered convincing sympathy about retail crime and the cost of living. “I am going to go to work,” Luxon told one shop worker. “We’ve got to get the economy fixed, got to get law and order under control and better health and education.”
From there, he visited a concrete factory in Onehunga. It wasn’t a particularly fascinating destination, but Luxon came across as an enthused guest, asking thoughtful questions about production and distribution, and labelling the business “the lifeblood of New Zealand”. He was a star, greeting a makeshift guard of honour and shaking almost every hand in the building. Like it was a royal tour and Luxon was the King, one worker exclaimed: “Amazing! I just shook his hand.” At the end, Luxon’s minders struggled to drag him away from the crowd.
All of this changes when Luxon gets in front of the media. After that public meeting in May, a press conference that Luxon gave generated about two weeks’ worth of headlines over remarks he made about bilingual names for government departments. Over the weekend, there was a trainwreck interview of no answers on Q&A. And yesterday, after that rockstar welcome to a concrete factory in a Labour electorate, Luxon gave a press conference that saw him refuse to answer the same simple question a number of times: will you release the full costings for your foreign buyer tax?
That issue kicked into a new gear today with a trio of economists releasing modelling that they say casts doubt on National’s proposed tax on foreign buyers. The party estimated the 15% fee on luxury properties would bring in more than $700 million a year, but the economists, who come from across the political spectrum, suggested it would come well short – closer to $200 million.
At a press conference in Christchurch this afternoon, Luxon faced at least a dozen more questions on the tax plan, with journalists largely ignoring National’s freshly announced rural policy.
Here’s just a snippet of how it played out:
Reporter: Are you still rock solid on your tax plan?
Luxon: Absolutely we are, we’ve looked at the numbers very closely, we’ve had them independently reviewed, and I’m very excited by the fact we’re going to raise foreign buyer tax… and most importantly we’re going to give it to hard working Kiwis.
Reporter: Economists say you’re about half a billion dollars short every year…
Luxon: I disagree… There’s a different set of assumptions, economists will have different disagreements about it but from our point of view it’s been very conservatively put together.
Reporter: You had economists on the left and on the right saying you guys have got a fiscal hole here…
Luxon: I disagree completely. We are rock solid on our numbers.
And it went on and on. Asked how New Zealanders could trust him, he simply said, “I know numbers”. Asked about whether residential property prices could go up under National, he used a confusing metaphor: “When Gucci take their prices up, I don’t see a lot of prices going up at The Warehouse.” At one point, through gritted teeth, Luxon asked whether anyone wanted to ask about the rural policy. “I think these fine people would like to hear the media of New Zealand ask a good question” – brief pause – “on farming.”
There are two Christopher Luxons on this campaign. The first term MP that is energised by every opportunity to meet with real members of the public and is thriving on the campaign. And the first term MP that struggles with his political judgement. There are also two Chris Hipkins, but they are the mirror image. There’s the veteran MP who is at home in the debating chamber or in front of the media spotlight, and the veteran MP that struggles to make small talk with ordinary people, or appear engaged during public outings.
Clearly, as the polls show National hitting the 40s, Luxon’s public persona is becoming increasingly more important than his media image. Not everyone is tuning into Q&A or live-streaming a press conference, but maybe they are seeing him at their local market sipping a hot drink and looking interested in others. The preferred prime minister polls now show the two in line, with Luxon rising and Hipkins having dropped.
Today marks one month until election day and five days until the first live leaders debate. Luxon has already pre-empted his performance by citing Hipkins’ debating credentials and further lowering any expectations of him as a leader who can handle being grilled. But Luxon knows it’s unlikely to matter, so long as both versions of him continue to smile and wave and not answer questions.