Luxon takes the lead – can the former CEO of Air NZ get National to sit up and fly properly?
Raise your hand if you know anything about Christopher Luxon other than he was once CEO of Air New Zealand, he’s been hailed as the new John Key, and he’s the MP for Botany. Anybody?
Luxon takes on the role of Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition – the sixth since Jacinda Ardern took the reins of the political aisle (or seventh if you count Nikki Kaye’s one-day stint between Todd Muller and Judith Collins ) – at a time when the hardest of all political gigs is as hard as it has ever been.
From his new office he will face a global pandemic that has just taken an unfortunate turn (meaning media attention will move quickly elsewhere), a seasoned Prime Minister with 13 years of parliamentary experience (compared to 12 months for Luxon ), a fractured caucus and a struggling party organization.
You think there will be times in the weeks to come when he will fondly look back on his days at Air New Zealand.
Church and State
There will be little time for nostalgia. Luxon has work to do and is soon to do so. Topping the list, he will run for voters across the country, of which he is not well known.
His first parliamentary speech provides some useful information. He refers to his years with Unilever and Air New Zealand, which will seduce the faithful. (Although one should be wary of assuming that a successful career in the private sector necessarily translates into a decent political career. Of course, there’s John Key – but there’s also Donald Trump.)
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Some of the other issues Luxon has put into the ground may prove to be more controversial, most notably his religious beliefs. He may profess that his faith is “not in itself a political program”, but the question still arises as to how some of Luxon’s views will play out with the liberal wing of the grassroots party, including a number. defected from work in 2020.
National must bring these people back into the fold, but some will find Luxon’s conservatism – he opposes voluntary euthanasia and abortion law reform – off-putting. The nomination of Nicola Willis as an MP will help, but Luxon is the face of the party and he will have to make sure that he does not permanently alienate himself from the national dove voters.
In the shadow of Key and Ardern
But Luxon’s leadership faces bigger challenges on two other fronts. The first concerns the long shadows cast by two very different politicians – Jacinda Ardern and John Key.
National has a key problem, in that he is still looking for a replacement for the man who led the party during the golden years. Luxon just got the top job to a large extent because it’s considered the closest thing to National right now.
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But switching to Key-lite seems risky when the successor faces off against a Labor leader who – two years of lockdowns, despite MIQ and vaccines mandates – remains the streets to come in the prime minister’s favorite issues. National has already tried this tactic with Muller and he did not end well.
Going back to a playbook from the past for an answer to present and future challenges seems a bit unimaginative, especially when the past in question looks more and more like another country.
We may have avoided the worst excesses of political polarization and populism in Aotearoa, New Zealand (so far anyway), but we haven’t been entirely immune from it. In the era of COVID, these pressures are escalating. Key was prime minister in the past, and nothing in Luxon’s political CV suggests that he is equipped to face contemporary challenges of a kind Key never had to face.
A schism in the great Church of National
The second big challenge is whether National can once again become a large political church.
In recent years, the parliamentary party has become dangerously polarized. The urban liberal wing has been increasingly ousted by Christian conservatives – “dubbed ‘the Taliban’ by the party’s remaining centrists”, according to a commentator.
Some believe that just anointing Luxon will restore the natural order of things. But what if it doesn’t? What if the same commentator was right and National continues to transform into “a Trump-style cult”?
The party bled a significant number of votes both ways in 2020. Some within National must stay awake at night wondering if this was less of a blip than the start of the party’s own descent into the unfolding turmoil. is currently taking place in Canada, France, Germany, the UK and the US, where established center-right political parties are slowly being eroded from within by increasingly strident populist elements.
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A leader among leaders
This division is already apparent in the National caucus. Luxon’s success (or failure) in dealing with it may have existential consequences for the party that extend well beyond the next election.
If National is to survive, let alone prosper, the new leader will have to show that his predecessor Judith Collins’ taste for cultural wars is no longer endemic to the party.
Finally, Luxon offers himself the dubious luxury of having four former party leaders to help and guide him. Muller can be review your options now that Collins is gone Shane Reti may be feeling a bit helpless, Simon Bridges’ ambitions have just been thwarted (again) and Collins has made it clear that she has no plans to leave parliament entirely .
But this is all in the future. National is looking for a savior and has so far found her man. Christopher Luxon will simply pray that he did not accept a Hail Mary pass.