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National leader Christopher Luxon is on course to become prime minister, (Image: Tina Tiller)
National leader Christopher Luxon is on course to become prime minister, (Image: Tina Tiller)

The BulletinMarch 10, 2022

An interview with Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon is on course to become prime minister, (Image: Tina Tiller)
National leader Christopher Luxon is on course to become prime minister, (Image: Tina Tiller)

The rookie National party leader speaks with Justin Giovannetti and The Bulletin, reflecting on what he now views as a deeply frustrated country

The fourth leader of the opposition in two years.

This is Christopher Luxon’s 100th day as leader of the opposition and while it hasn’t been an easy initiation, he’s significantly outperformed his two immediate predecessors. 

The National leader sat down with The Spinoff and reflected on what he’s learned so far and what’s coming next. If he’s got two quick observations: The country is tired and deeply frustrated with unclear Covid plans, oh, and house prices need to come down.

After a career in business, Luxon is a numbers guy. But he’s not thinking about budgets or depreciation, instead he’s keeping track of how many kids slept in emergency housing last night. His speech is peppered with aviation metaphors, but there’s less mention of Air New Zealand than you’d expect. Instead, there was an odd element of therapy during an interview that went well beyond its allocated time slot. Most politicians ask personal questions and try to create a bond. He was actually good at it and asked the right questions. Maybe he’s more than just another blue suit. 

Not backing down on his society divided speech.

Luxon gave a major speech in late February where he described New Zealand as a “society divided” by the government and prime minister. He seemed to be linking the occupation outside parliament to other reasonable grievances about the Covid response. The response was brutal. Writing in the NZ Herald, Audrey Young said his speech “reeks of opportunism” and he’d misread the country’s desire for unity. Following the end of the occupation, Luxon said it was never his intention to show any support for what was happening outside his office: “There’s nothing about that protest that I endorsed or supported,” he said.

He stands by the speech. He wouldn’t rewrite it. The country is divided, he repeats. “People across New Zealand didn’t support the protest, but they have issues about where we’re going with Covid,” he said. “Across the country, the sentiment is obvious”.

The opposition’s victories shaped the Covid response.

Dealing with that growing sense of frustration is now his main mission. He claims National has been right on most of its criticism so far, whether it’s rapid tests, isolation periods or border settings. Days after he started talking about the end of mandates, the prime minister announced similar plans. Is Jacinda Ardern copying the opposition’s good ideas? Yes, he said.

We see that with this government, unfortunately. After a very good period of communication in 2020, in the first year of covid — and I fully admit I think the prime minister and government did a good job — the reality is what we’ve seen is everything being made up on the fly, 10 steps behind. We have last mover advantage, being one of the last countries on Earth to deal with this,” he said.

He stops and sips a Pepsi Max. There’s a very specific type of person who drinks a Pepsi Max, and they often become politicians. They don’t want the caffeine or calories, but they’ve got to drink something that isn’t water.

“The clarity isn’t there, the execution is poor, that’s why people are frustrated,” he said of the government’s planning for the next phase of Covid. “As an opposition we’re doing our job, which is to oppose the government, support the government when necessary and offer new ideas.”

‘In every aspect, they’ve made it worse.’

What’s dominated Luxon’s time in parliament over the past week wasn’t Covid, but the cost of living. Polls have shown New Zealanders deeply concerned about rising prices at the pump and grocery stores. On Monday morning, the prime minister declined to say a cost of living crisis was playing out. The opposition attacked, with both National and Act sending nearly identical press releases minutes apart. One thing that looms large in Luxon’s mind is housing.

“Since this government has come to power, despite all the lovely words and jawboning, on home ownership the average price is up $350,000. Rents are up $7,300 on the same house you were renting four years ago and in state housing we have a four-fold increase, up to 25,000. Last night we had 4,500 kids in motels and emergency accommodations. We’ve got challenges.”

“This government hasn’t managed the housing situation at all, they’ve made it worse. By a dramatic amount, in every aspect, they’ve made it worse. We live in a country the size of Great Britain or Japan, with far fewer people and much higher house prices. This is a problem completely of our own making,” he said.

So what can be done to fix housing?

Government ministers have two stock phrases they use when talking about housing. The first: They’ve pulled on all the levers. The second: There’s “no silver bullet” but things are improving. Like American generals in Vietnam who always promised victory was nearly at hand, the government says affordable housing is just over the next hill.

According to Luxon, there are a lot more levers left to pull. Of course, consent regulations are horrific and need to be quickly remade — there’s cross-partisan agreement on that, although the definition of quickly varies. But he wants to see a reinvention of the relationship between central and local government as well. The Beehive gets most of the immediate taxes back from new homes but puts up little cash, while councils put in the infrastructure and don’t see revenues for years. “We need to reinvent central and local government and the incentives to ensure we’re on the same page,” he said.

He also wants more rent-to-build schemes—Labour is also keen, but has shown no progress on the idea. The point is to look at anything that lowers deposits, including co-ownership ideas from Europe. Newsroom has looked at what that might look like. He also thinks the government could try to attract international developers with experience in dedicated rental to build in New Zealand. It’s a more expansive view on housing than his predecessor’s near one-track focus on ending the resource management act.

What will that mean for house prices?

“There may well be a period of time where house values fall. I think most people who own a house would say that a $350,000 growth in your average house price in less than four years is not a sustainable return. The average person in New Zealand, I think, whether they are a grandparent or parent, understands that,” he said. 

That might go even further than the prime minister’s latest message on house prices. After years of calling for “sustained moderation” in the housing market, which translates to slow increases, Jacinda Ardern told One News that she’d be willing to see prices go down, as long as there wasn’t a crash. Neither leader wants to put a number on it, but the two largest parties in parliament clearly want your home’s value to fall.

The loss of New Zealand’s mojo.

Having spent years overseas, in the US and Canada, Luxon has a sense of how people around the world view New Zealand. Not just the glowing portraits of the prime minister and Milford sound, but migrants who need to move here to build homes and fill shortages in hospitals. He’s worried the country is losing the war for talent as other countries forge ahead into the 2020s.

“The world is taking off big time. Some countries have come through Covid and are looking at how to put the afterburners on. They are thinking quite intently and purposefully about the country they want to see emerge. Others have become so obsessed with Covid, as we have, and haven’t got a sense of direction, of where we’re going. And to be honest, there is no reason to come here at the moment. It’s not an attractive place, you know,” he said. “The world is moving on and we are playing a very fearful, very small, very inward game.”

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