The new National leader is a millionaire, anti-abortion, ex-CEO who owns seven homes and is against increases to the minimum wage
In the end, the party of business picked the businessman. Former National party leader Simon Bridges is out – again – and former Air New Zealand chief executive and MP for Botany, Christopher Luxon, is in.
In hindsight it seems like it was always a done deal. Sir John Key, the former prime minister and National party leader, was a prominent supporter while outgoing leader Judith Collins was running an “anyone but Bridges” policy, effectively handing the leadership to Luxon (and making him a hostage to her and her faction’s demands in the process). Political commentators were picking Luxon as a future leader before entering parliament and, only one year later, here he is.
That captures the new National party leader’s central problem: he was always a big fish in a small pond. The C-suite executive. The slick communicator. The anointed one whose rise looks less organic and more ordained. Jacinda Ardern was the perpetual deputy – standing aside for Grant Robertson and Andrew Little before events (crashing polls in 2017), a desperate caucus (an election was mere months away) and her own sense of duty (there was literally no other viable candidate) took her reluctantly to the party leadership. That humility meant the public came to her with a degree of goodwill.
Yet Luxon came to the job with “future leader tags” attached to his tailored suit. He’s the National party’s apex predator, and like every big fish he comes with a series of smaller fish feeding off his entrails, whether it’s the Christian conservative right who, probably quite literally, pray for his prime ministership or the journalists invested in the “narrative” of his rise. This is a difficult space for any leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.
Where Ardern came to the opposition leadership with politics that were remarkably “indistinct” – she was simply kind – Luxon comes with an uncomfortable record. In 2019 he told media he was against decriminalising abortion and against euthanasia law reform. As of this week he refuses to say whether he’ll whip his caucus to vote in favour of banning conversion practices (personally, he supports the ban), although he is promising not to pursue abortion law reform again.
These positions – which are quickly changing as he discovers the demands of leading a centrist party – make for Luxon’s first test as leader. Does he keep faith with his evangelical base, continuing to take socially conservative positions in line with his beliefs? Or does he place his personal ambition first, supporting socially progressive reforms in line with the views of the vast majority of New Zealanders? So far, it’s a line the former CEO is crossing quite neatly, emphasising the sense of mission that his Christianity bestows while at the same time attempting to separate it from his political decision-making. The media will always invite him to trip over that line, though, and sooner or later he’s bound to do so.
But Luxon’s quite genuine faith isn’t his preferred selling point. Instead it’s his business background.
“I have built a career out of reversing the fortunes of underperforming companies and I’ll bring that real-world experience to this role,” he told the media after the successful leadership vote. The pitch is that, as a former boss of Air New Zealand, he can get the job done. In one sense, that seems reasonable enough. CEOs can make superb politicians. Both roles share a commitment to ruthless message discipline, lest one scare the shareholders or the voters. Both roles require experience making high stakes decisions too. But in another sense it’s a cliche, and like any other it collapses on inspection.
Does it take a corporate genius to run a government-owned company with an effective monopoly? CEOs turn their talents to private ends. Politicians, at least in theory, concern themselves with the public good. But CEOs find this habit hard to break, tending to mistake the ease of doing business for a strong economy and a healthy society. Witness Luxon, a millionaire and owner of seven houses, protesting against this year’s minimum-wage increase, a lift that gave a full-time worker an extra $40 a week. On the face of it this is hard to square with Luxon’s commitment to a “more confident, aspirational and prosperous future”. Hard to square, of course, until you realise the unspoken implication: National want to pursue a more confident, aspirational and prosperous future chiefly for business owners.
Perhaps this makes Luxon just another “neoliberal” leader. You can take this in the cheap sense – as a catchall description for a conservative leader your leftist correspondent disagrees with. But it’s meant more earnestly than that. If you pick the primary policies that make up the neoliberal family – privatisation, smashing trade unions and cutting personal and corporate tax – what they share in common is that they transfer wealth from working people to the owners of capital. Arguably, neoliberalism was never a coherent political or intellectual project. It was just a swindle. And so the neoliberal leader isn’t necessarily a pathetic Friedmanite or, like Judith Collins, an enthusiastic Thatcherite, but instead someone whose policies will continue or accelerate the wealth transfer to the owners of capital.
The minimum-wage rise opposing Luxon seems to fit that bill quite nicely.
But this makes him a man out of time. The world is confronting a pandemic, runaway climate change and all manner of democratic and authoritarian upheavals. And among it Christopher Luxon strikes one as yesterday’s man, both in his beliefs and his business background. Is this really the man to defeat Ardern?