The Birkenhead Bowling Club was stop one of Christopher Luxon’s new nationwide speaking tour, and Stewart Sowman-Lund was there.
“Kia ora everybody, I’m Chris Luxon. This is me in the real, this is not some artificially intelligent, generated, AI Chris Luxon. This is me”. If he wasn’t aware of National’s use of artificial intelligence on Tuesday, Christopher Luxon sure was yesterday. Or is it “Chris” Luxon now? That’s how he referred to himself as he kicked off his nationwide “Get NZ Back on Track” tour. The title sounds a bit like an election slogan as well. Was this all a soft relaunch ahead of the true election campaign?
If it was an attempt at refreshing his image – a suggestion Luxon strongly rejected when I put it to him – he picked an unusual location for it. Fronting a packed room of largely sympathetic, white-haired voters at the Birkenhead Bowling Club on Auckland’s North Shore, the National leader rattled through several pillars of the party’s election year talking points during an hour-long speech that, he later told me, was off the cuff. If it sounded well rehearsed, even without any prompts, that’s probably because these are issues he’s been talking about consistently for several months now. The cost of living crisis, concerns over crime, worries about New Zealand’s slipping standard of education. He knew the talking points and the numbers inside out and his audience lapped it up.
The catchphrases were rolled out, too, as you would expect. New Zealand was “going in the wrong direction”, the government was “addicted to spending”, there was “too much bureaucracy”. The speech itself was nothing new, even if Luxon topped it with an attempt at teaching the audience more about who he was as a person: “A boy from Bishopdale, Christchurch”.
What was most interesting about Wednesday’s event wasn’t the routine speech, it was seeing Luxon interact with prospective voters. He rebuffed the idea that a lunchtime crowd at a North Shore bowling club was “preaching to the converted” and said he encountered a range of views and positions on different issues. And he appeared to relish it, grinning broadly as he joked with one person about the prime minister “advertising for Australian citizenships” or offering to track down “some chips or a Cookie Time cookie” (did you know he used to work at Air New Zealand?).
There was little policy on Luxon’s agenda. He preferred to tackle big-picture issues, though he did tease a possible u-turn on National’s support for urban density rules embraced by his predecessor Judith Collins in 2021. “We’ve got MDRS [medium density residential standards) wrong,” he said, adding that he’d have more to say on that “in the coming weeks”.
Those in the audience largely ignored the key topics when it came to the question and answer session. Few wanted to ask about inflation or government spending. The first question came from a business owner who said he was earning a good income, but wondered why he had to pay the ACC levy for his staff members. He later asked another question about why he, despite his income, wasn’t able to get support for childcare. Luxon dealt with these types of questions with the flourish of a politician, sidestepping or gently pushing back without overtly condemning (ACC – and its levy – will be safe under National, in case you were wondering). After a particularly touchy question on race relationships, an audience member whispered “he didn’t answer the question at all”, prompting a few nods and murmurs.
There was more than just one question on race. Several of the questions, most of which received cheers and applause, were about the use of te reo Māori. “I’d just like to know where you and the party stand on the fact that the Māori language is given priority over English in so many walks of our life,” asked Rita, to applause. Luxon has been asked questions like this throughout his time as opposition leader, often diverting into a condemnation of co-governance. He did this again yesterday, reiterating the idea of “one system” and his pledge to scrap the Māori Health Authority. However, in what could have come straight from a Winston Peters speech, Luxon went a slight step further. “I agree with you. I think it’s incredibly difficult to navigate our government at the moment. I think that in a country where everyone speaks English and people can’t distinguish between Te Whatu Ora, which is Health New Zealand, or Waka Kotahi, which is the transport agency, or Te Pūkenga, which is the polytechnic – that is really difficult.”
He wouldn’t go so far as to scrap Māori names, as New Zealand First has pledged, but he said the English name should come first. “Personally I’m not up for changing the name of New Zealand” – applause – “we are a trading country and to go change your brand name for eight billion people to try and navigate and work out who we are, I just don’t think that helps,” he said.
Was te reo being “forced on us” through costly bilingual road signs? “How dumb is that,” said Luxon. “We’re going to spend all our money on doing dual language signs rather than fixing potholes.”
None of this, Luxon later said, was “dog whistling” on race. “I think that’s really unfair to make that accusation,” he said. “I’ve lived in countries with multilingual languages, and you have to be really clear. The people need to be able to navigate their government.” He hadn’t spoken to Winston Peters about any of this, by the way. “I don’t care what it sounds like. I’m just being pragmatic about an actual reality for our citizens to be able to navigate their government.”
National’s Northcote candidate Dan Bidois, who is of Ngāti Maniapoto and European descent, co-hosted yesterday’s event. He told me he wasn’t worried by the types of questions being asked of Luxon. “I think we’re all on our own journey with te reo,” he said. “It doesn’t worry me as a Māori. When I listen beyond what they’re saying, what they’re telling me is ‘I’m a little fearful, I feel out of place in my own country’. To me that signals this movement that we’re all on as a country is moving a little too fast… I think over time, our generational shift will see a lot more people speaking te reo and that’s a great thing.”
That was similar to how Luxon responded when asked the same question. “New Zealanders are entitled to their views and what they are entitled to is a straightforward response to those questions that they ask me,” Luxon said. “I am happy to disagree with them, but I think we can do it in a tone and a manner that doesn’t mean we become deeply polarised and personal.”
Where Luxon was quicker to shut down debate, however, was after one attendee used their question time to ask about the “United Nations and World Economic Forum agenda” and “everyone being jabbed”. It was, said Luxon, “more a statement than a question”. He avoided drifting into the conspiratorial realm, adding “We [National] act for New Zealand’s interests.”
Christopher Luxon loves to say he’s not a “career politician”. He said it again yesterday. But in the Birkenhead Bowling Club, as he navigated a myriad of questions often on prickly subjects, he sounded more like one than ever before.