National Party leader Christopher Luxon has ticked over the six-month mark since he became leader and declared he was the "reset" the party needed to "put the baggage behind" it. He spoke to the Weekend Herald about what he's done and what lies ahead.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon loves his catchphrases. When he became leader on the last day of November in 2021, he spoke repeatedly about "turning the page" and "putting the baggage behind" the party, that had churned through three leaders in quick succession and plummeted to the 20s in the political polls.
His catchphrases have changed as National's fortunes in the polls have.
He now pretends the baggage was prehistoric, or at least that it was lost in transit. He instead talks about "getting things done" - or at least whether Labour is getting things done. His verdict on that is pretty obvious.
One of the things he has learned in his six months is the use of sarcasm.
Labour had just announced a task force to work up some ideas on plasterboard.
"This isn't a working group. It's a task force. And it's not just a task force – it's a high level one. It's a very important one," he says, his tongue firmly in cheek.
His own solution for the plasterboard crisis is to have a weekend working bee between National and Labour to come up with a law change – and then to pass it.
This, he says, would be "getting things done".
Labour is not much kinder about Luxon. It marked his first six months in the job with a few attack ads - highlighting the lack of specific policies coming from Luxon thus far. It has also highlighted Luxon's various gaffes over those months.
Luxon hasn't let it bother him. He says he has not had a moment in which he has regretted taking on the leadership.
"I've loved it."
The question starts off a John Key-esque spiel about New Zealand being the best place on Earth, needing a brighter future, and for which he is ambitious.
The National Party itself is in a brighter future at least.
Luxon was elected leader unchallenged on November 30 last year after his only challenger for the role, Simon Bridges, withdrew. MPs admit they were taking a gamble on Luxon: he had been in Parliament for only a year at the time.
They now say it was a gamble that paid off. Fears his inexperience would see him falter in the media or in Parliament were put to bed. There have been stumbles: muddling his tax rates, making it sound as if National wanted to scrap Labour Day, and on public transport subsidies. They appear to have had little impact on his progress up the polls, presumably forgiven as rookie mistakes.
The polls also helped restore discipline. Since Luxon took over, National's polling has rebounded from to the 20s to the high 30s – and National has overtaken Labour in several polls since.
There have been precious few grumblings out of the famously leaky caucus of late, even through Luxon's performance reviews of the MPs.
Luxon will review the rankings and portfolios of his MPs at the end of the year – around the same time the Prime Minister plans her reshuffle. That does not mean all MPs are safe until then.
He said he operates under a "dynamic performance feedback" - which means if somebody stuffs up, a reassignment might come to them sooner.
"If there is a challenge of a better person to prosecute a case, we'll make that change on the go.
"But we've put the right people on the right assignments and we've got very clear about our expectations of each other and what people are supposed to deliver. We'll revisit that at the end of the year."
The decisions made there – and talks about whether MPs should be standing again in 2023 – may well test the honeymoon Luxon is in with some of those MPs. In terms of putting the baggage behind, it may not help that of National's former leaders. Only Simon Bridges has taken himself off the carousel. Judith Collins and Todd Muller remain.
As for the voters, the easy votes have been reclaimed, but National's polling rise has started plateauing and the real tussle will be those few extra points it will need to get over the line.
Luxon said a lot of that would be in consistency of performance – and continuing to focus on the issues of the cost of living, law and order and – increasingly – health that had helped National claw its way back up the polls.
"A lot of it is actually about us just doing what we've been doing over the last six months. If you look at commentators back when we made the leadership transition there was all sorts of conjecture about whether we were electable or not. I think we've done a good job of re-setting the party as I said we would do and now it's about us continuing to make our case."
Luxon's own wealth has sometimes been highlighted and he does not try to excuse it. Asked if he had tightened his belt at all in response to the cost of living increases, he answers simply "no, not that I'm aware".
But he said it was clear to him from the start that the cost of living was a major issue for most New Zealanders.
"If you're a young person, an older person, men, women, it's affecting everybody. People feel we don't have good economic leadership or good economic management at the moment."
He said inflation was at a level not seen in 30 years, and social services depended on strong economic management.
"People feel anxious about that."
His efforts have clearly had an impact.
On the Ipsos Issues Monitor, which asks which party is best at handling different issues, National was behind on every measure in November 2020. It is yet to produce policy in most areas, but is once again considered most capable on the economy, housing and law and order. It remains well behind on health.
On whether National is ready for government, given its small numbers and the loss of much of its ministerial experience, Luxon remains adamant his team can best Labour's person-to-person.
He points to the likes of police spokesman Mark Mitchell and immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford as examples of his own team being better.
Asked which ministers he thinks are doing something right, he says none.
"They all look incredibly tired, they've run out of ideas, they've clearly got captured by the bureaucrats in Wellington and they're not getting things done."
Then there is the question of whether the man at the top can best the woman at the top of Labour.
The Curia poll shows Labour is still winning on the question of leadership. Luxon has risen into the 20s in the preferred PM polls as people make up their minds about him – but he is still well short of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Luxon asks for more time.
"I've only been in the job six months and I've got another 16 months of a big job interview with the New Zealand people. They've got to get to know me, and get a sense of what I'm about and how I'll lead."
That, he says, will come down to convincing them he can "sort the country out".
Luxon is not a career politician and has a scepticism about Wellington and the beltway. He spends as little time there as possible - going to Parliament on Tuesday and Wednesday and hitting the regions or cities for the rest of the week.
"I'm a big fan of getting out of the Wellington beltway. I like getting out and seeing real people across New Zealand and I think sometimes you get a bit caught up in this place.
"It's important, no doubt about it, and there's lots that's been new and different. But I think being balanced around thinking about policy, the Parliamentary piece, the party, the people and the retail side of it are actually the skills you need to build over time."
While the Prime Minister has taken to the skies again for several major international trips, Luxon has one of his own planned. The Leader of the Opposition gets one international trip and Luxon will go to Singapore, Dublin and London. That is partly a shopping trip for policy. Singapore is to learn about infrastructure, Dublin is about technology and foreign direct investment, and London for education.
He will use that trip to help build up his own policy suite.
He is asked what he would do first if a snap election was called next week, and he won.
He says he won't answer a hypothetical and bridles when it's pointed out he only has one policy ready anyway – his weekend plasterboard plan.
"You can't call a working group task force a policy. Come on. This Government is making it up each and every day. The best task force they could create is a National Party task force to run the Government. That's what I reckon they need."