There are seminal moments when aspiring politicians finally look as if they have the makings of being a prime minister.
For National leader Christopher Luxon this came on the last day of Parliament for 2022 when he rose to his feet and delivered a powerful statesmanlike response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who had earlier addressed MPs in the debating chamber through a virtual link from Kiev.
Said Luxon: “None of us, especially a small country like New Zealand, wants to believe that might is right.
“We want to believe that moral courage is just as important.
“But this war has proved that when you have to fight for what you believe in, you need an army, weapons, ammunition, and friends to help defend your interests.
“This war has again highlighted the shortcomings of the United Nations, whose purpose is noble, but whose impact is weak.
“This international group could not prevent one authoritarian power launching a war on its neighbour.”
Until that point, Luxon had appeared like a one-trick pony, consumed by the need to improve New Zealand’s economic performance and the cost of living crisis, which he had successfully imprinted on the public as a scourge that the Labour Government needed to do something about — to the point where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson (after denying a crisis existed) moved to adopt some of his own language and took action to ameliorate the financial impact on ordinary New Zealanders.
There had earlier been the all too prevalent gaffes which betrayed a corporate approach to politics and little affinity with the common man.
By year’s end, Luxon appeared to have got the latter under control.
Where he was also making inroads was on tackling Labour’s soft approach on crime which has had little impact on protecting people from the ravages of ram raids and unprovoked killings.
Luxon has pledged a tougher approach on crime if his party gets to form a Government after the 2023 election.
But much of his credibility as National’s leader has been built on the tight discipline he has imposed on his caucus and an almost Singaporean approach to policy development, which was obvious from when he had led Ardern’s Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council before he quit as Air New Zealand CEO to enter politics.
He recognises that forming a successful Government to tackle major economic and social challenges, a deglobalising world and climate change depends on him first developing a strong and cohesive team in which the electorate has confidence.
The Prime Minister has greater verbal finesse and emotional power and a reputation as an international stateswoman far beyond these shores. But on December 14, it was Luxon who impressed more so than Ardern.
Her own response to Zelenskyy traversed the Government’s response to the Ukraine crisis and the assistance New Zealand has delivered which is significant.
No one could doubt her sincere commitment to supporting Zelenskyy through New Zealand joining Ukraine’s case against Russia at the International Court of Justice and providing funding to the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.
But it lacked the raw power of her July address to Sydney’s Lowy Institute where she excoriated the United Nation’s Security Council for its “morally bankrupt” position in the wake of a “morally bankrupt and illegal war” after China, India, the UAE and Russia voted against a resolution demanding Moscow to immediately stop its attacks and withdraw its troops.
In Parliament, it was Luxon who adopted the Prime Minister’s own language by using words like “moral courage” and criticising the United Nations.
It was also Luxon who described the conflict as being bigger than a war between Russia and Ukraine. “It is a moral as well as a physical battle” ... an “existential threat to Ukraine” ... “a conflict between brutality or diplomacy, autocracy and democracy”.
It is not as if Ardern has not applied such equivalence herself. She has done so in many addresses delivered far beyond NZ’s shores.
But this was on home ground.
Both Luxon and his mentor former National Prime Minister Sir John Key are students of political leadership.
Key’s seminal moment came when he joined forces as Opposition leader together with Labour’s long-serving Prime Minister Helen Clark to announce a compromise to the anti-smacking legislation. This defused the issue and put him on a level with the accomplished Clark when she said they were Parliament’s “senior leaders”.
He drove further into Clark’s territory by taking 12-year-old Aroha Ireland from McGehan Close in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert to Waitangi celebrations in 2008.
Key studied Clark’s political success acutely and that of other international leaders, frequently listening to tapes on lengthy plane trips while leading business missions.
He did not enjoy Ardern’s rare celebrity.
But he did earn international respect from the likes of Barack Obama who, for instance, asked him to lead discussions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the Bali Apec when the US President could not attend.
It is still early days for Luxon’s leadership but his compelling performance on the last day of Parliament demonstrates that Ardern cannot afford to cede territory to him — particularly that on which she has built her own reputation.