It’s an open secret in top business circles that Chris Luxon has been courting businessmen Fraser Whineray and Andrew Grant to be part of a potential Luxon administration.
Like any incoming prime minister before him, intent on transformative change, Luxon will have to make sure he has the right allies and change agents in place.
Both men served with him on Dame Jacinda Ardern’s Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council. When Luxon stepped down as chief executive of Air New Zealand to start preparing for a political career, Whineray took his place as chair.
Luxon confirmed to me this week that he had wanted both businessmen to make a public contribution to New Zealand’s future. But each has credible reasons for declining a public role at this stage.
A former CEO of Mercury Energy, Whineray had put plenty of muscle into the infrastructure work the council developed, some of which has clearly played into National’s policy agenda. Strong on renewables policy — and energy security, which is often overlooked — he will no doubt be persuaded to play a role (if not in the inner Cabinet sanctum) if Luxon gets to drive change.
Grant is a long-time McKinsey partner who leads the consultancy’s public sector practice, and drove a great deal of council policy on the Future of Work.
When the list MP system was created, it was seen as offering an opportunity to bring highly talented individuals straight into Cabinet without having to first serve as backbenchers. Sir John Key did this with Steven Joyce, and Ardern similarly with Ayesha Verrall.
But let’s not get too much ahead of ourselves here.
The 2023 election is now Luxon’s to lose.
National is clearly ahead on all polls, with most predicting National and Act will between them have sufficient voting support to form a cohesive Government.
That’s assuming Luxon is not tripped up or wrong-footed by a major political disaster, or own goal, in the intervening four weeks ahead of the October 14 election. Even valid questions over National’s tax cuts package seem to have been discounted as the mood for change grows.
Luxon presents with a great deal of determination.
But the challenge of turning around the ship of state and lifting the spirit and tempo of the country should not be underestimated.
Yesterday’s announcements on the tech sector — paving the way for more talent to play and work in New Zealand — were well-received.
In recent days Luxon has also been focused on the public sector.
By any calculation it is far too fat.
Nicola Willis told me her first action as Finance Minister would be to call the chief executives of all of the government agencies into her office and say, “I need to hear your efficiency dividends and what you are going to be saving straight away because I need to be delivering tax relief to New Zealanders and I want you on board”.
During an interview with me at the CFO Summit, she added she would be happy to work in the finance area in Cabinet alongside Act’s leader, saying “I could see that David Seymour, like me, wants a growing economy with less tax and better spending, so clearly we are going to see eye to eye on that.”
But reducing the size of the public service and making it more efficient and outcomes-driven is not a simple task.
It also requires a strong-willed individual to lead change across the service.
The departure of Peter Hughes as Public Service Commissioner and Head of Service will assist in creating new momentum and allow for more top roles to be contestable.
When former Australian Prime Minister John Howard faced a similar challenge, he appointed the redoubtable Max Moore-Wilton as head of his Prime Minister’s Department.
Moore-Wilton — unkindly dubbed “Max the Axe” — put in place massive reforms: 11,000 jobs went and at least six department heads changed.
Let’s not discount Luxon’s wider network either.
It is often overlooked that Luxon built a formidable talent machine at Air New Zealand — many of his former executive leadership team have gone on to become CEOs in their own right.
CEOs such as Auckland Airport’s Carrie Hurihanganui; Mike Tod who recently stepped away from being CEO at the TAB after executing a turnaround; Bruce Parton at House of Travel; Stephen Jones, President and CEO at Flair Airlines; Cam Wallace, CEO at MediaWorks who resigned and is now CEO of Qantas International Airline and Roger Gray, who is now CEO at Port of Auckland.
Some of those players could turn up in future advisory councils.