One Question Quiz
National's Christopher Luxon and his family on election night
National’s Christopher Luxon and his family on election night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

PoliticsOctober 15, 2023

Inside National’s election night party where optimism turned to joy

National's Christopher Luxon and his family on election night
National’s Christopher Luxon and his family on election night (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

In 2020 the mood was despondent. Last night, the election venue became the celebration ground for the party that will lead the next government. Stewart Sowman-Lund was there.

If National’s election night event in 2020 was a “funeral”, Saturday night’s celebration at Auckland’s Shed 10 was closer to a wedding. Or perhaps more aptly a 21st birthday, where initial nervous anticipation over who’d show up ultimately ended in a complete blow out. 

The words routinely used to describe the evening by party attendees were things like “awesome”, “pumped”, “outstanding” and “vibe”. It was, as senior MP Simeon Brown told me, “much better than expected”.

As doors opened at 7pm, a small collective of the most dedicated National Party faithful nervously settled in for the night ahead. They knew the result was probably going to be good. But there was little sense at the start quite how good it was going to be. Polls over recent weeks consistently put National in the mid to late 30s, with just one televised poll during the campaign showing the party cracking the 40s. 

When the dust has settled and the final results are tallied, these polls may prove to be more accurate than initially thought. But when, at about 7.15pm, it was announced that National was on 41%, the room went ballistic. 

National’s Melissa Lee was the first MP to arrive at the event, much the same as she was in 2020. Back then, she had little reason to celebrate, getting trounced by Jacinda Ardern in Mount Albert. But this time things were different. Not only was her party on track to lead the next government, but she was, at that time, poised to become the first ever National MP for Mount Albert (at time of writing it appears Labour will retain this seat by the slimmest of margins, which remains historic).

“I think everyone is really not very happy with the Labour government and I think that might have an impact,” Lee told me when I asked about the swing. “I think it’s a general shift to the right and I’m hopefully the beneficiary of it.”

The crowd watches the results come in (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

As the night went on and the results started to settle, the room’s sense of jubilation only grew. MPs started to trickle in, each more than willing to speak with the media – a stark contrast with 2020 when most evaded the cameras and some snuck in through the back entrance. 

Mark Mitchell, poised for a senior ministerial role in the incoming government, said the result was a reflection of the strong ground campaign National had run. “I’ve done over 50 public meetings all around the country … and the feeling on the ground hasn’t necessarily reflected what the polls have been saying,” he said. 

Simeon Brown, also in line for a promotion, said it was an outright rejection of Labour, particularly in Auckland. “The campaign plays a part,” he said. “But there has been three years of this government.”

MPs were happy to trash Labour at this point of the night, but they all stuck to their tried and true lines whenever Winston Peters was mentioned. They all said that it was too early to count him out, that it was up to Luxon to decide what to do next, and that the preference remained for an intertwined two-party National and Act coalition.

Given the ongoing special vote counts and next month’s Port Waikato byelection, it remains a distinct possibility that Peters will be needed – but it’s going to be much tighter than widely anticipated.

Around 9pm, some first-time candidates arrived to fanfare, notably Takinini’s Rima Nakhle who swept to a resounding victory in the previously red seat. She was surrounded by flag-bearing, chanting supporters as she made her way into Shed 10. Luxon’s victory speech later in the night was briefly interrupted by a spontaneous chant of “Rima, Rima” after the presumptive PM gave a shout-out to his party’s candidates. 

National's new Takanini MP Rima Nakhle arrives at Shed 10
National’s new Takanini MP Rima Nakhle arrives at Shed 10 (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Carlos Cheung, who is set to become National’s first ever Mount Roskill MP, received a similar welcome after a shocking and convincing win over the incumbent Michael Wood. “Our team put in a lot of hard work and it paid off,” he told my colleague Toby Manhire, while his campaign manager similarly touted the party’s volunteers in the electorate.

Not everyone received quite the same welcome. National was unable to snatch Auckland Central from the Greens, and National hopeful Mahesh Muralidhar largely stuck to the outskirts of the main party surrounded by friends.

The second largest applause of the night was retained for John Key. Notable for his absence on election night in 2020, the former prime minister had made it known in advance that he’d only turn up to the event if the results were tilting favourably. Key was widely seen as the master behind Luxon’s ascension in politics, and last night he reiterated his belief Luxon would be a “tremendous” prime minister. 

John Key surrounded by media (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

“I actually think, over time, a lot of New Zealanders who actually didn’t vote for National tonight or didn’t support Christopher Luxon tonight will ultimately, over time, come to be very proud of him,” Key told media. “Ultimately people vote positively for something and I don’t think [Chris Hipkins] left voters with much of a vision.”

In scenes reminiscent of his time as prime minister, Key pushed his way through a sea of selfie-begging fans, flanked by a cap-wearing Max Key. It took him 10 minutes to make it through the crowd.

By 11pm, the crowd was becoming desperate. Chris Hipkins’ concession speech was played, and they booed as the outgoing prime minister talked up his government’s record on child poverty and climate change. At one point the feed cut out and they cheered. 

As footage plastered across four large screens showed a silver Crown car pulling out of a driveway, a guard of honour formed. National president Sylvia Wood rose to speak as a pair of National banners were put across the entranceway to Shed 10. “New Zealanders have voted for change,” she told the assembled crowd, many of whom still had their eyes fixed on the door. “We have run the campaign of our lives. Our party has come a long the last couple of years and that is thanks to your work.”

And then the man of the moment arrived. With the same boundless enthusiasm he has brought to dozens of campaign walkabouts, Luxon shook hands, took selfies, hugged supporters and gave many thumbs up. When he finally made it to the podium, he too spoke of the result as a vote for change.

“New Zealand listened to National but more importantly National listened to New Zealanders,” he said. “You have given us the mandate to take New Zealand forward.”

Christopher Luxon greets supporters (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

The country would wake up today “to not only a new day, but a new government and the promise of a new future.”

Luxon has made it clear he’ll be getting to work as soon as he can. Like many, he’ll be up later this morning to watch the All Blacks. Then he’s fronting for the media and later in the day will convene his war room. That will involve key advisors and members of his campaign team.

The questions hanging over the days and indeed weeks ahead ahead mainly centre on Winston Peters. At the time of publication, National and Act would hold the slimmest of majorities without the need for Peters, though the New Zealand First leader has promised “he is willing to help where needed”.

Regardless of the agreement reached, it’s likely the two will talk. But the days ahead will make it clear whether or not he’s going to need to add Peters’ number to speed dial. 

Follow Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Keep going!