Gordon Campbell on the elusive charms of Christopher Luxon

36ee31565d2936e199c6Well, the first 36 hours of viewing the Christopher Luxon selfie were always going to be the best, before the repetitions set in. We get it, already. He’s an extroverted/big ego/high achieving/God fearing/country music lovin’/family man who is not at all averse to mansplaining to little ladies like RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan what “technical” words like “productivity” actually mean.

But wait, there’s more. National is back! Mind you, that’s not the Bad National of recent experience, but the Good National of days gone by. Except not that, either. Not old.Very modern, very forward looking, very inclusive. Pages have been turned, lines have been drawn. National is the same as always, but has also been ‘reset.” It now has “unity.” The bitterly divided bunch of um… Early Tuesday morning has now magically become a team.And if a lot of this stuff from Luxon sounds contradictory, no worries. Paradox is his jam.

One almost felt for Luxon as he did his TED-talk best to make the implausible transformation of the National caucus sound credible. The caucus gamely did its best to control their excitement. Yet watching the intelligent likes of Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis getting high on their own supply has been a pretty depressing experience this week. In its hour of desperation the National Party appears to have turned itself into a political version of the Church of Scientology, with its new leader all but jumping off the Oprah couch and into the nation’s living rooms.

In reality of course, caucus unity cannot be conjured out of thin air. It is entirely dependent on performance. (Disunity is merely a by-product of failure.) To National’s great advantage, there is a huge pool of fickle centre-right voters out there – some 413,000 former National voters – who went to Labour at the last election. A sizable chunk of them have since drifted over to the ACT Party. The good news for National is that these people seem to be up for grabs. As the last port of call for these lost and searching souls, the ACT Party stand to be the first loser from Luxon’s elevation. The five points that Act will almost certainly lose in the next political polls will put National up around the hallowed 30% level of support.

Until it proves otherwise though, National is still going to be an old restaurant under new management. It can expect an initial surge (driven partly by nostalgia) but that allegiance is no longer automatic, and it may not be sustained. Old voting habits have been broken. A few bad reviews, an uninspired policy menu and a few serious gaffes from Luxon and the customers are likely to be gone again. If so, caucus disunity will come roaring back faster than you can say the words “Todd Muller.” Back in the day, Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis were pretty excited about him, too.

Gaffes we have known

Talking of gaffes… John Key survived his repeated tendency to mis-speak by readily conceding the errors, and quickly moving on. Nothing to see here. Luxon seems cut from the same cloth. Luxon’s similarities to his mentor extend beyond the borrowed Key-isms (“What I’d say to you is..”) that pepper his speech patterns. Like Key, Luxon also has a tendency to land in trouble whenever he strays very far from the pat phrases and the standard message lines. Here are a few examples:

Example One. This goes back to something I wrote a year ago, after Luxon had gone on RNZ and started making up National’s welfare policy off the top of his head:

After being put under intolerable pressure in an interview with RNZ pomeranian rottweiler Susie Ferguson, Luxon went beyond the National Party’s routine bashing of beneficiaries (no full immunisation of your kids = no benefit). Lured by Ferguson into being logically consistent when applying the social contract to the welfare safety net, Luxon eventually agreed that yes indeedy, National’s draft welfare policy should also set about docking the middle income recipients of Working For Families if they failed to fully immunise their kids.

That’s not how National operates. He’ll learn. Harassing ordinary beneficiaries for political gain is fine and dandy because… Either they don’t vote at all, or they have usually voted for Labour or New Zealand First. They’re expendable. But bashing the middle class? Holy moly, what was Luxon thinking? Alienate the middle class, and voters might start thinking that National governs only on behalf of the corporate fat cats.

That’s interesting, right ? And not merely because Luxon went off the reservation and attacked the middle class. He was advocating cutting off benefits and Working for Families support for people that refused to immunise their kids. Yet this guy is now putting himself forward as a man intent on ending the divisions in this country between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, and bidding to attract the people tired of having Big Government telling them what to do. Put it this way: Calling for a crackdown on Working for Families recipients who fail to immunise their children is not a credible platform from which Luxon can now turn around, and attack the government over its vaccine mandates. It sounds more like he’s been all for them all along, provided they can be targeted at the people receiving any form of state assistance. So much for being the healer of what divides us.

Example Two: There’s a thin line between charm and smarm. On Tuesday, Luxon twice made the same misleading comments (at his initial press conference, and later on TVNZ) about MIQ. Here’s what he told TVNZ’s Seven Sharp, November 30:

“There’s a million New Zealanders that can come home on January 15 but who can’t come home on December 15.” Some of this stuff, Luxon added, just doesn’t make sense.

Nor do his numbers. Luxon was (mistakenly, deliberately?) conflating the number of Kiwis who live abroad – and as the New York Times said recently, these do indeed amount to about one million people – with the number of Kiwis actively trying to come home, and trying to get into MIQ. But not every Kiwi expatriate is itching to return to this country. Duh. If National really thinks there are one million Kiwis trying to get home by December 15 – and who are only being stopped from doing so by the feckless Ardern government – then maybe he can tell us what National has in the way of housing policy to cope with the one million Kiwis that would (apparently) be allowed to return overnight, on his watch. In fact, Luxon was vastly over-egging the current blockages at MIQ. He was also urging risk-taking with MIQ, before the full extent of the threat posed by the Omicron variant was known. All pose, no responsibility. Who said that being the leader of the Opposition was the toughest job in politics?

By way of useful contrast… Yes, Australia also has a million expatriates living elsewhere in the world. As this BBC article shows, exactly the same claims of “chaotic” and “ arbitrary” access to quarantine and calls for a purpose-built facility have been levelled at the centre-right government in Australia as has been levelled at the centre-left government in New Zealand. In both countries, there has been an imperfect response to an unprecedented challenge. But is there any good reason to think that a National government would have excelled where the Morrison and Ardern governments have not? No, there isn’t.

For the record… After the pandemic left Australians stranded offshore the number of Aussies registered for government action to help get them home was not a million. For almost all of 2021 it sat between 36,000 and 45,000. As for New Zealand… In late October, “up to 19,000” New Zealanders were reportedly trying to get into the MIQ virtual lobby to book MIQ spots. Not a million. The figure was 19,000 tops. Call me a ruthless smiling assassin, but if the CEO of a major corporation publicly misrepresented a maximum of 19,000 as 1,000,000 on the company balance sheet, he’d deserve to be fired.

Example Three: During the same Seven Sharp interview, Luxon asked a rhetorical question about why would you restructure the health system in the middle of a pandemic? Implication: this is an obvious case of wrong priorities by an incompetent government. Well no, it isn’t. This government at least, has the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Here’s the reality: New Zealand is a country of only five million people, yet it has 20 separate DHBs competing for the funds and the facilities necessary to deliver a range of modern health services.

National championed this insanely fragmented system in the early 1990s and John Key and Bill English systematically ran down its funding during National’s last term of government. For these and other reasons, New Zealand was left woefully ill-equipped to cope with the pandemic. The DHB system is no longer fit for purpose either for this pandemic, or for the ones that are bound to follow in its wake. To use the language that Luxon might be able to comprehend, the new health reforms are what is called “future proofing”– so that New Zealanders can enjoy a more effective, more affordable, and less ruinously replicated health system in future.

In particular, the proposed health reforms aim to better serve the needs of Maori and Pasifika communities long neglected by the current health system – and it will do so by putting more funds and more decision-making powers in their hands. Amid all his spin and bluster, Luxon has just made it perfectly clear that these sort of forward-looking improvements to public health delivery would not happen on his watch. National is back alright, and it is still facing backwards.

Freedom To Not Choose

The National caucus did not have a contested vote for the leadership. It has even congratulated itself on this achievement. Clearly, National’s fragile sense of unity would not have survived this basic exercise in caucus democracy. On Tuesday afternoon, centre-right political commentator Ben Thomas was even suggesting to RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan that Judith Collins should perhaps be “excised” from the caucus. In the name of unity, of course. No wonder John Key regards Xi Jinping as a “friend.” Like Xi’s focussed, can-do team in Beijing, National appears to stand for everyone feeling free to promote the same message.

We’ll never know for sure (unless she tells us) whether Luxon may have Judith Collins to thank for the fact that his final path to the leadership proved to be so smooth. Clearly, Simon Bridges still felt – on Tuesday morning – that the numbers were so close that he still had a chance. As RNZ reported on Tuesday:

There was a widespread desire within the party to avoid a contested vote but neither sides were backing down as late as Tuesday morning, with the party having to book two different press conference locations in Parliament as each contender wanted a different space.

So, sometime on Tuesday morning, it was made clear to Bridges that he couldn’t (quite) win. As the likely close loser, he would cop all the blame for dividing the caucus and spoiling the new leader’s attempt to present the public with a façade of unity. Did Collins and her small but faithful team of MPs make the vital difference between the two aspirants? If so, what will she receive in return? What will Bridges get as a consolation prize for picking up the revolver left on his desk, and doing the decent thing?

Taking him on faith

It is an easy peg, but the media has probably put too much emphasis on Luxon’s religious faith. IMO, it seems more worrisome that his self-chosen favourite song is country singer Tim McGraw’s ode to an early forties identity crisis called “Live Like You Were Dyin’’ Besides being a dreadful song, McGraw’s message – sky dive, rock climb, ride bulls and be a nicer person as if you have cancer and there may not be many tomorrows – is a pretty odd one for an alleged Christian to take so much to heart. I mean, what about the afterlife? It isn’t a song indicative of an other-directed value system, either. Packing in as many sensory challenges and personal triumphs as you can before your time is up sounds more (to me) like the gospel of Tom Cruise.

Or more accurately… It sounds as though Luxon’s faith has the same basic contours as the prosperity gospel preached by the US tele-evangelist Joel Osteen. To Osteen, prayer can make you rich. Wealth and power are not the product of privilege, but are to be taken as a sign of God’s endorsement of your personal brand. Poverty, on the other hand, is a sign of mediocrity, or of godlessness. Dwelling on past mistakes is only a distraction, and one of the many lies put in your path by the Enemy. Be deaf to the negative, people. Here for instance, is a randomly chosen Osteen tweet from a week ago:

If you start letting the negative play, you’ll get discouraged, give up on dreams, live below your potential. Don’t fall into that trap. Start tuning out the lies.

And here from the UK Financial Times, is a pitch perfect echo of Luxon’s can-do attitude to life and to politics. Osteen was asked by the FT whether God would have hesitated before creating the universe:

“He didn’t check with accounting and say, ‘I am about to create the stars, galaxies and planets,’” says Osteen. He just went ahead and did it. All that is holding the rest of us back is a lack of self-belief: “God spoke worlds into creation,” says Osteen. “He didn’t Google it to see if it was possible.” We, too, can achieve anything we set our sights on.

Amusingly, there is also a sizeable serving of Luxon-speak in a New York Times profile this week of the actor Matthew McConaughey. The similarities are striking. Both McConaughey and Luxon seem equally at home with a version of masculinity that says “I’m vulnerable, but I also have a big ego.” To the Texan dreamboat, “ego” and “ service” are not necessarily horses that pull you in opposite directions. He talks a lot about something called “responsible freedom” that Luxon would endorse:

So when I say responsible freedom — take responsibility today to have more freedom tomorrow. Now, that sounds like McConaughey’s putting me to work. But I look back and go, because I did choose responsibility, son of a gun if I didn’t get this reward because I took that risk, because I went to Peru or Mali chasing a wet dream.”

This is exactly the thinking that enables Luxon to rationalise owning seven homes while presenting himself as someone in tune with the struggles of ordinary New Zealanders. Reader, he earned it. He forced himself to dream, and then took the actions necessary to make it happen. You can, too. You may not, as Luxon does, have God on your team. But getting onside with National is the next best thing, right?

Luxon’s worldview has made him at least, a very wealthy man. But it is going to be a difficult message for him to sustain. It is nearly two years until the next election. How will two years of exposure to Luxon’s Energiser Bunny quasi-religious spin going to wear on us all, over that time? It feels overbearing already, after only two days. We shall see. For better or worse, the National caucus has chosen to settle down with Luxon, while still barely on its first date with him. They have elected to follow someone without having any idea about the policy directions in which he might lead them. Whatever else that is, it looks like the very definition of desperation.

Footnote One: I mentioned above how Key-isms crop up in Luxon’s speech patterns. Time and again, he sounds remarkably like John Key risen again from his ermine-lined political crypt. Yet given that in the intervening years, the shine has gone off Key’s confident method of dissembling, the public may be less susceptible this time around.

Footnote Three: Will the new National be able to offer the electorate anything that goes beyond the usual neo-liberal policies in gumboots? Impossible to tell. At this stage, Luxon is a blank slate on policy. We don’t yet know what his approach to tax, to social spending and to debt repayment will look like. His potential coalition partner, Act, has extreme policies on all such matters. No-one can yet imagine how the twain shall meet. For his part, David Seymour has yet to meaningfully comment on what Luxon’s promotion may herald for the centre-right.

Already though, Luxon has strongly endorsed Bill English’s so-called “social investment” approach to welfare provision. This approach envisages a reduction in the state’s responsibility for maintaining the welfare safety net, and it does so mainly by fostering competitive bidding between private providers for the contracts involved in the delivery of social services. Apparently, Luxon thinks the way to do “social investment” in welfare is by privatising its delivery. After all, that approach worked so well for us when we experimented with letting some prisons be privately run, right?

Footnote Three. And finally on a lighter note… When RNZ’s Lisa Owen asked Luxon to name his favourite animal, he surprisingly replied ”guinea pig.” Given all the wonders of Creation, what can explain the sense of kinship that the new leader of the National Party evidently feels with the humble guinea pig? Both of them do have rather large heads relative to their body size. For further insight, I looked up the Anti-Cruelty Society website to learn more about some of the characteristics of this animal:

Guinea pigs are usually very expressive, vocal animals that will whistle or grunt when they see their favourite people enter the room.

Good to know. And then there’s this cautionary information about how they behave if they get annoyed:

They are generally gentle and not prone to biting, but they will nip at threatening animals or people that are mishandling them…you should build a rapport slowly, by hand feeding them small treats in the cage.

No doubt, the parliamentary press gallery will keep all of this in mind.

Who Are You When He’s Not Looking?

Here’s a song by Blake Shelton for all the country music lovin’ control freaks of the world. Who are you when he’s not looking? Can women, can voters, can anyone be trusted to keep to the programme if he takes his eyes off them for even one minute?