After six stormy days, Simon Bridges bowed out, backing the novice to pilot a beleaguered opposition in a ‘big reset moment for the National Party’. Nicola Willis has been elected deputy leader.
“We are the reset,” Chris Luxon has declared in his first speech as National leader. Standing alongside his deputy, Nicola Willis, he addressed directly his recent arrival to politics. “Much has been made of my relative newness to parliament but to be honest, I see it as an advantage,” he said. “I bring a fresh set of eyes, and what I see is that this place and this country needs a shake-up. Nicola and I are fresh faces for a revitalised National Party.”
Speaking with the curved wall of the Beehive Banquet Hall behind him, Luxon made direct reference, too, to the recent turmoil in his party and its position in the polls. “Today we are drawing a line under the events of the last four years,” he said. “If you are one of the 413,000 voters who moved away from us, my message to you is: from today, National is back.”
Luxon added: “New Zealand is at a critical cross-roads as we grapple with, and emerge from, a global pandemic. We have a choice: a choice between our current road to mediocrity, or a pathway to a more confident, aspirational and prosperous future. New Zealand needs an alternative now more than ever to take us in the right direction – because frankly, the country is heading the wrong way.”
Hopes of repairing a caucus beset by internal division will be boosted by the Luxon-Willis combination, with an Auckland-based moral conservative leader joined by a Wellington MP from the liberal wing. The way was cleared for such an arrangement just over an hour before the 3pm meeting, when Simon Bridges signalled his withdrawal from the contest and pledged his backing to the former Air New Zealand chief executive. It meant Luxon could be elected unchallenged. He will now begin the high-pressure task of running the opposition – and repairing a splintered, dysfunctional caucus – just 58 weeks after he was elected MP for Botany.
Luxon, who was ranked 29th of 33 MPs under Judith Collins, went into Monday with a small but clear advantage, prompting Bridges to accept that the second stint as leader he sought was not going to happen. “This morning I met with Chris Luxon and had a great discussion,” Bridges announced on Twitter. “I am withdrawing from the leadership contest and will be backing Chris. He will make a brilliant National leader and prime minister.”
Luxon was widely reported to have aspired to the prime ministership for many years before he launched his campaign to take the National nomination in the safe blue seat of Botany, a vacancy created by the departure of Jami-Lee Ross. In keeping with the stranger-than-fiction nature of recent National history, Ross’s exit came after he attempted and failed to obliterate then-leader Bridges in a bizarre firestorm of vengeance. Luxon had a mentor and confidant in Sir John Key, by far the most popular National leader of this century, whose surprise resignation from politics five years ago signalled the start of years of leadership turbulence for National. Luxon will become the fifth leader thrown the keys by caucus since Key’s exit.
The perception of Luxon as heir to Key was illustrated graphically, mysteriously and perhaps unlawfully in a newspaper advertisement placed in June 2019 by a non-party-sanctioned National supporter. It showed Key’s face morphing into that of Luxon, who was then still at the helm of Air New Zealand. The captions: #Luxon2020 and #National2020. Only a year off, it turned out.
In a rare interview with the Herald last year, Luxon said he had struck up a friendship with prime minister Key when he became CEO of Air New Zealand. “There are a lot of similarities in our back stories and core beliefs and we get on very well,” he said. “We have a similar approach to life. But we are also different people and it’s important I get to do it as Chris Luxon, not John Key 2.0.”
As he prepares to eyeball Jacinda Ardern in parliament, Luxon can draw on some direct experience in engaging with the prime minister: in October 2018, when at Air New Zealand, he was appointed by Ardern as first chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council. His first speech as leader majored on economics, traditionally the party’s strong suit. “Growing our economy and raising productivity are the single biggest things we can do to improve the lives of all New Zealanders,” he said.
In comments that that may surprise some involved with the turnaround of Air New Zealand over the last couple of decades, Luxon said: “I have built a career out of reversing the fortunes of under-performing companies and I’ll bring that real-world experience to this role.”
The 11th hour announcement from Bridges capped close to six days of bedlam for the National Party, which was prompted by Judith Collins extraordinary late-night press statement that attempted to cast Bridges, widely thought to be gearing up to a challenge to leadership, as a villain. The statement referenced – and substantially over-egged – a complaint made by MP Jacqui Dean more than five years ago in relation to a comment Bridges had made about supposed sexual techniques for conceiving a daughter. Bridges called the tactic “desperate”. Dean later said it had not been her intention to get “caught up in a political power-play”.
Collins’ intervention prompted the caucus to eject her in a no-confidence vote, firing the starter’s gun for a hectic few days of manoeuvring. Luxon said there was an important part to play for all his MPs, but was unable to confirm what that might mean for Collins, or whether Bridges had been offered the finance spokesperson job. “I’m not in a position to discuss roles,” he said.
Collins called it “a great result” in a tweet. “I am so happy for Chris Luxon, Nicola Willis, the National Party and New Zealand,” she said, adding: “Yah!!”
Speaking to reporters at parliament ahead of the caucus meeting, Bishop confirmed his support for Luxon. “He’s going to make a great leader of the National Party, he’s going to make a great prime minister,” said the Hutt-based list MP. “I can’t wait to serve in his team. It’s an exciting day for New Zealand, big reset moment for the National Party.”
It is just eight months since Luxon, 51, delivered his maiden address to parliament. In the speech, he emphasised his credentials as CEO of the national carrier, while acknowledging that “I understand, of course, that a country is not a company.” He continued: “However, New Zealanders look to the government to get things done. It’s not good enough saying you’re going to lower greenhouse gas emissions but not doing it. It’s not good enough saying you’re going to reduce child poverty but not actually doing it. Talking about it gets you a headline, but doing it makes a difference. I’ve entered politics because I want to make a difference, I want to solve problems, and I want to get things done.”
Luxon – whose moral conservatism is clear in his voting record to date – also addressed commentary about his evangelical religious convictions. “It seems it has become acceptable to stereotype those who have a Christian faith in public life as being extreme, so I will say a little about my Christian faith,” he said. “It has anchored me, given my life purpose, and shaped my values, and it puts me in the context of something bigger than myself. My faith has a strong influence on who I am and how I relate to people. I see Jesus showing compassion, tolerance, and care for others. He doesn’t judge, discriminate, or reject people. He loves unconditionally.”
He added: “My faith is personal to me. It is not in itself a political agenda. I believe no religion should dictate to the state, and no politician should use the political platform they have to force their beliefs on others. As MPs, we serve the common cause of all New Zealanders – not one religion, not one group, not one interest. A person should not be elected because of their faith, nor should they be rejected because of it. Democracy thrives on diverse thinking and different world views.”
For all his business experience and acumen, Luxon will need to show he can cope with the pressure cooker of the job, and the attentions of the media. The morning after he impressed in winning the Botany nomination two years ago this month, he endured an awkward interview with Susie Ferguson on RNZ, in which he, perhaps inadvertently, found himself supporting the idea of cutting Working for Families payments for parents who failed to immunise their children. ““He got Susie’d,” chuckled Bridges in defending the newcomer.
Simon Bridges’ tilt at the leadership came 18 months after he was jettisoned from the job in a carefully choreographed coup that saw Todd Muller installed. Muller survived in the role just 53 days, resigning citing mental health struggles. That fresh vacuum saw Judith Collins the option of last resort, leading National into a disastrous result at the delayed 2020 election. “The combination of events, mistakes and distractions meant we did not look like a credible alternative government,” Collins later said of the campaign. “We did not look like a government in waiting. And it was reflected in our election result and our reduced caucus.”
The turbulence did not abate in the new term, with Collins’ personal polling never escaping from the doldrums. It became accepted wisdom that it was a question of when, rather than if, she was replaced. The manner of her departure, however, took the party to depths of dysfunction that no one could have predicted. The goal for Luxon is to overcome inexperience and draw on the experience of those around him. The mission is to stop turning the spotlight on the party itself, to challenge Jacinda Ardern and the Labour government in the lead-up to 2023, to present National as a viable alternative.
Those priorities were reflected in Luxon’s concluding remarks. “I’m proud to lead a government-in-waiting that will work every day to represent all New Zealanders – a “national National Party” that earns back their trust and confidence, and actually delivers for them,” he said. “The National government I will lead will be a government of action. We will bring the tide back in and lift all boats.”