9 Jul 2023

Christopher Luxon, the unknowable man

From Mediawatch, 9:07 am on 9 July 2023

Political reporters often say people need to get to know National leader Christopher Luxon. But he is ubiquitous in the media and has been in the job 18 months. Is it possible he is unknowable? Or is it time to retire the narrative?

Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Back in November last year, 1News political editor Jessica Mutch-McKay delivered some frank political advice to National leader Christopher Luxon during a panel discussion on RNZ's Morning Report.

"We've been encouraging him to do some more photo opportunities," she said. "People need to get to know him."

The idea that voters have not got to know Luxon has become a kind of received wisdom in the press gallery and political circles.

Newsroom political editor Jo Moir cited some on-the-street evidence for the theory on the site's weekly podcast Raw Politics back in April.

"Certainly I do my best to talk to people in the regions, have done a little bit of that lately," she said. "They still say they don't know who Chris Luxon is and what he stands for."

That sentiment hit the headlines again this week after Luxon was confronted on his lack of cut-through with the public by cafe owner Michelle Cam during a carefully choreographed walkabout in Tawa.

She recounted the conversation to Newstalk ZB's Nick Mills later that day.

"I just feel like I never see him out," she said. "It always seems to be Labour you see on TV and doing stuff in the media. We need to get to know him more. We need to know what he's about."

Luxon's own MPs say the same thing. 

On Mills' show, National deputy leader Nicola Willis told him people just need to see the 24/7 Luxon she does.

"She was just really clear - 'more people need to get to know you'," she said. "And I think she's right. The more people get to know Chris, the more people hear National's plans, the more support we will get in this election."

In March, National health spokesman Shane Reti blamed a poor preferred prime minister result for Luxon on voters not sharing his up-close, all-hours experience of the party leader. 

"I see the man that you don't see. I see the man after hours, and get to have those conversations and I think if New Zealanders can see that, they'll be as impressed as I am," he told RNZ.

"There are still many parts, many facets of Chris Luxon to be revealed to the public, and I'm impressed and I stand behind him."

The 'people don't know you' line is so regular that Luxon appears to have developed a stock response.

"People know what I've done. They still don't know exactly who I am," he told 1News at Six after that same poll in March.

"It's an interesting one. People know what I've done. They don't necessarily know who I am," he told host Rebecca Wright on Newshub Nation the following month.

All this begs the question: what actual evidence is there that people do not know Luxon?

The answer is, some, but not all that much. There is those aforementioned comments on the street. And last year, Newshub compiled a word cloud of its poll respondents' takes on the major party leaders.

'Don't know' and 'Unknown' were Luxon's two top results, followed by 'Good' and 'Average'.

But that was eight months ago. Luxon has now been in his job for more than 18 months.

He has been ubiquitous in the media, fronting Morning Report and Mike Hosking Breakfast every week and turning up for a host of regular TV news slots.

He posts often on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and must at least be considering signing up to Threads.

All this is to say, it seems implausible that people have not picked up anything about him.

The New Zealand Herald's Michael Neilson put it to Luxon on the streets of Tawa: "We've been hearing that for a while now. When do you think you've done enough to cut through?

"We've been hearing that for months. What's been going on?" 

But it seems more likely that National's leader has revealed slivers of his true self over the past year-and-a-half.

As such, it could be time to take what he has presented to us at face value and stop reading the tea leaves on voters' minds and mining for more revelations about his true innermost character.

After all, in the end it is not most important whether we – to use Luxon's words – know him or just what he has done in the past.

As leader of the opposition heading into a very winnable election, our paramount concern is what he plans to do in the future.