New Zealand’s opposition has announced a new leader, former airline boss Christopher Luxon, after its leader Judith Collins flamed out of the role last week.
The National party emerged from its caucus meeting on Tuesday to announce Luxon, a political novice and former Air New Zealand chief executive, would be taking the party’s helm. He will be National’s fifth leader in as many years, and will work alongside deputy Nicola Willis. The party was forced into a new leadership vote last week, after leader Judith Collins self-destructed in an ill-fated attempt to take down political rival Simon Bridges.
Luxon promised a new era for the National party, which has spent much of its recent years embroiled in leadership battles and minor scandals and plagued by bleak polling.
“We are the reset,” he said. “Much has been made of my relative newness to parliament, but to be honest I see it as an advantage. I bring a fresh set of eyes, and what I see is that this place and this country needs a real shake up.”
“Today we are drawing a line under the events of the last four years and we are putting them behind us. And I want to say to all New Zealanders – if you’re one of the 413,000 voters who moved away from us, my message to you is very simple: National is back.”
Luxon is a relative political unknown, with just a year in parliament under his belt. He is the fastest MP in New Zealand political history to transition from entering parliament to leadership of a major party.
“It’s a huge risk for National. A calculated risk, but still,” says former National government staffer and political commentator Ben Thomas. “He’s an unknown quantity.” The swiftness with which Luxon has been pushed from new entrant to party leader reflects a narrow suite of options on National’s frontbench – and also drives home the risk the party is taking. Luxon may have preferred to hold off on a leadership bid, but the party’s chaotic leadership spill left them with few options going forward. If Luxon’s inexperience sees him toppled or stepping down from leadership before the next election, National may have burned through one of its brightest new talents at the outset of his political career.
“[Some]thing we haven’t seen in recent history is a party losing an election and their leader staying … so it’s a really tricky space for him to be in,” said Dr Lara Greaves, associate director of the Public Policy Institute. “I don’t want to use the cliche ‘do or die’ for 2023 but that’s really his position here.”
But the MP has some factors working in his favour – including his years at the helm of Air New Zealand, one of New Zealand’s best-known companies. Luxon emphasised that track record in his first comments as leader.
“I came to politics because I know how to solve problems and get things done,” he said. “I have built a career out of reversing the fortunes of under-performing companies and I’ll bring that real-world experience to this role.”
“He has the perfect backstory for a National MP,” Thomas said. “[Running] that kind of business and the implied fiscal and economic experience that that brings ideally bolsters National’s credentials as a traditionally strong economic manager, which is an area where it’s kind of fallen off the pace in the last few years.”
Luxon also came out swinging at Labour’s performance, saying it had been a government of slick PR and meagre results. “Jacinda Ardern is a fine communicator, but the reality is we need much more than that at this point in time,” he said.
“Talking about something gets you a headline, actually getting things done is what improves the lives of New Zealanders … New Zealand has had a government that’s very good at delivering PR, but woeful at delivering much else. Nice ideas and good intentions don’t pay the rent or the mortgage. They don’t educate our children. They don’t keep us healthy. They don’t keep us safe from crime and gangs. They don’t improve our mental health and they don’t lower our emissions or keep us united.”
In Luxon, the party will be hoping for a fresh start, after months of bleak polling and internal strife. He will have an uphill battle ahead of him – while support for Jacinda Ardern’s hugely popular Labour party has decreased in recent months to about 41 to 47%, Luxon will inherit a party that is still languishing about 20 percentage points behind, and shedding voters to its right. In a 1 News Colmar Brunton poll released in November, Ardern was sitting at 39% in the preferred prime minister stakes, while National’s prospects sat in the single digits: then-leader Judith Collins was at just 5%, alongside Luxon’s 4%. Both were being soundly beaten by David Seymour at 11%, the leader of the smaller libertarian Act party.
The MP has also taken the top job without a protracted battle over leadership, which Thomas said was a “promising sign” for the party’s hopes of unifying the caucus. Greaves said it was “Really positive that they figured out a way to do this that makes them look united – these kinds of processes can be disruptive and destructive to people’s political careers – and for public perception of the unity of the caucus.”
Bridges, the subject of Collins’ attack, had initially put his hat into the ring for leadership, but withdrew his candidacy on Tuesday afternoon, saying he would back Luxon for the role. “This morning I met with Chris Luxon and had a great discussion. I am withdrawing from the leadership contest and will be backing Chris. He will make a brilliant National leader and prime minister,” Bridges said.