New Zealand has a new leader for its opposition, and – the party hopes – a new challenger to the enduring popularity of Labour’s Jacinda Ardern. The National party is pinning its hopes on Christopher Luxon, a former airline boss and a teetotaller, country music fan, waterskier, relative political unknown and – somewhat unusually for New Zealand politics – an evangelical Christian.
Luxon is the latest in a string of National leaders and will be tasked with uniting a party long plagued by poor polling, minor scandals and political infighting.
In their new leader, the party will hope to recapture the glory days of its long reign under the hugely popular John Key. Prime minister for eight years, Key was known for his affable, jocular and pragmatic persona. In his first appearance as leader, Luxon sought to channel a similar “everyman” image – asked to introduce himself to New Zealanders, he said he was a family man with a fondness for DIY. “I love waterskiing and I love country music and that’s not cool to say and I apologise to New Zealand for saying it. But I do like it.”
Luxon had the former prime minister’s backing for the leadership role, and like Key, emerged from a high-profile role in the private sector – he was CEO of Air New Zealand between 2012 and 2019 – rather than devoting his professional life to gradually coming up through the political ranks. Those years at the helm of the national airline have given him a degree of name recognition, and despite being a newcomer to New Zealand politics the MP consistently registers in “preferred prime minister” polling.
His political inexperience, however, could be his biggest challenge: Luxon has been in parliament for just one year. In that time, he’s kept a relatively low profile – and as a result, has little experience dealing with heated controversy, or a variety of substantive policy work, or being a spokesperson for the party.
“He’s very green,” says political commentator and former national government staffer Ben Thomas.
“We just don’t really know much about him or who he is,” said Dr Lara Greaves, associate director of the Public Policy Institute.
Thomas said that while Luxon was often heralded as “the next Key”, it wasn’t yet clear whether he would have the keen political instincts that made his predecessor so popular.
“Luxon hasn’t had the time to demonstrate the talents that Key clearly signalled to the public in the four years before he became leader … there’s no indication either way as to whether Luxon is or is not a supremely talented, natural politician,” he said. “We just don’t know.”
Supporters will also be hoping, however, that that inexperience could also work in his favour. As a candidate, Luxon brings none of the baggage – or history of losses – that a number of others on National’s frontbench would come carrying. After farewelling so many leaders in the last four years, the party desperately needs a fresh, solid face – one not associated with the chaos, infighting and toxic interpersonal politics that have plagued its caucus.
Luxon is an evangelical Christian, a relatively rare entity among New Zealand premiers, and his faith has been enough of a curiosity – or potential electability obstacle – that he devoted a chunk of his maiden speech to addressing it.
“It seems it has become acceptable to stereotype those who have a Christian faith in public life as being extreme, so I will say a little about my Christian faith. It has anchored me, given my life purpose and shaped my values,” he said.
“My faith is personal to me. It is not in itself a political agenda.”
Asked again about it in his first press conference as leader, Luxon said: “To be honest, my faith has been often misrepresented and portrayed very negatively. What I can tell you is that my faith is actually something that has grounded me. It’s given me context and put me into [the] context [of] something bigger than myself – but I want to be very clear, we have separation between politics and faith.”
Christian leaders are by no means unheard of in New Zealand politics, but over the past two decades its elected prime ministers have not been overtly religious. Both Helen Clark and John Key were openly agnostic. Ardern, while raised Mormon, left the church as a young adult, after disagreeing with the church’s stance on LGBTQ issues.
Religious New Zealanders are a steadily shrinking portion of the population – in the last census, its largest faith affiliation was no religion at all, accounting for 48.5% of the population. That portion is much higher than Australia, the US and UK, and has risen steadily. Christians of various denominations made up about 38% of the population.