16 Dec 2022

Christopher Luxon's bold vision pale on detail: 'Rest assured, we will have policy'

7:36 am on 16 December 2022
Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

National leader Christopher Luxon is pledging to be "much bolder" than the incremental approach favoured by his forerunner John Key, as he prepares his pitch for next year's campaign.

The election year gameplan includes beefing up National's slender policy manifesto and refreshing its MP line-up with new roles, to be assigned in January.

In a sit-down interview with RNZ, Luxon describes 2022 as "really productive" and notes the party's "good momentum".

Indeed, as 2022 draws to a close, the prospect of a Luxon prime ministership is looking increasingly likely. Since National's leadership change, the opposition party has climbed some 10 points in the polls to secure top billing and the once ill-disciplined caucus now presents as a cohesive and motivated team.

Luxon's personal polling, however, still lags behind Jacinda Ardern's, bouncing around the low-to-mid 20s.

"People in New Zealand are still getting to know me," the former Air NZ boss says. "A lot of people know what I've done. They don't necessarily know who I am."

Who is Christopher Luxon?

Before even arriving at Parliament, Luxon has been compared to Key. Perhaps the party's most popular leader, Key oversaw a long period of stable and unified National government.

Bill English once described both his and Key's style as "incremental radicalism" involving the gradual building and maintaining of support for policies. But many on the right of the political spectrum still mutter that Key should have used his immense capital to greater effect.

In his end-of-year interview with RNZ, ACT leader David Seymour says there's so far "nothing to indicate" Luxon will be any different.

Asked whether he too is an 'incremental radical', Luxon says he believes the current times demand a "much bolder" response than that.

"The situation we're in is incredibly alarming. When you see a rapidly deteriorating economic picture for the next three years, that's a real challenge and a worry for New Zealanders.

"We're in a turnaround situation. And that does mean that you have to be bolder."

But when it comes to what that might look like in practice, Luxon is scant on detail.

"You need to know where you're starting from, and actually call it out, and then have the plan to be able to march yourself to a much better place."

National has begun outlining that plan this year - with policies on inflation, welfare, and law and order - but its overall manifesto is so far very light on details.

Show me the policies

Luxon rejects the criticisms of a policy vacuum, suggesting they are little more than empty government attack lines.

"It's a bit rich coming from a Labour government that had no policy three months out from an election in 2017, formed 232-plus working groups, and clearly has got nothing done over the last five years," he says.

Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon dismisses the suggestion the current paucity of policy might leave voters unclear what he or National stands for. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"I'm not taking any political lectures, thank you very much, from the Labour Party ... we've been working hard on our policy over the last six months and over the course of next year, we'll be revealing more of that to New Zealand."

The issue, though, becomes clear when you start running through some specific policy questions.

Will National dump the first-year fees-free tertiary scheme? "I'm not going to get into any of that."

Will it freeze the minimum wage? "We'll talk about that next year."

Will National halt contributions to the Super Fund? "We'll talk about our policy when we want to talk about it."

Luxon pushes back at the suggestion the current paucity of policy might leave voters unclear what he or this iteration of National stands for.

"The public knows exactly what we stand for. We're a party that's built on equality of opportunity, making sure that, irrespective of your circumstances, you get a shot at the Kiwi dream - and we're the party that helps enable you to do that.

"Look, we are one year out from an election ... rest assured, we will have policy."

Slip and slide

When I suggest to Luxon that he might be more of a 'big picture thinker' than a 'details man', he bristles: "I've got a lot of attention to detail."

How then to explain some of his slip-ups this year?

Last month, while discussing superannuation, Luxon was unable to answer how much a pension payment was. Before that, he got in a tangle over whether National supported the clean car discount, and then the clean car standard. And earlier this year, Luxon appeared unaware that public transport was heavily subsidised.

Luxon brushes off the mistakes as immaterial and quickly dismisses suggestions the tendency could be a vulnerability in the heat of an election campaign.

"I appreciate from a beltway-Wellington inside-Parliament perspective that that may be big news for you," Luxon says.

"If you want to play gotcha and have that sort of conversation, that's actually not the material stuff... I'm very confident that when you come with some real world experience from outside of this place, it's going to serve me incredibly well."

Luxon had previously signalled a team reshuffle before Christmas, but he says the Hamilton West by-election delayed some of the conversations he'd planned to have with MPs. He has now pushed that back until mid-January.

Ardern has also promised a Cabinet reshuffle early next year, but Luxon says he is "not interested" in what she decides.

"It's obvious to me: they don't have the talent, they don't have the ideas, and they don't have the policies."

Bring on 2023. "Ready to go."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs