Christopher Luxon was locked away from the media late last year after bungling a few interviews. Now he is allowed back out and spoke to Weekend Herald to set the record straight about his religious beliefs, being head-hunted by marijuana companies, his similarities to John Key and whether he is 'instant leader' material.
When National's new supposed superstar, Christopher Luxon, launched his political career, he probably did not think he would be confessing to sniffing capsicums in media interviews.
He had landed in the National Party amid a buzz that he was "the next John Key".
The capsicums entered the interview as part of a small test to assess just how similar they were.
"Would you wander around the Porirua market sniffing vegetables?" Luxon is asked.
This was something Sir John Key did back in 2007 before he was famous. Nobody was talking to him and he wandered around sniffing vegetables. Broccoli, a spring onion, a pumpkin.
Luxon was overseas at the time so does not know this. "Why would I sniff vegetables?" he asks, puzzled.
He is told Key had done so. He is mates with Key and clearly doesn't want to hang him out to dry but there are limits.
"Well, I'm not going to sniff the vegetables." There is a laugh. Then: "Well, you could do. I mean, it depends what sort of vegetable it is, right?"
So what vegetables would he sniff? "Hmm. I would probably sniff a capsicum. Those sort of things. I sniff a lot of fruit. What else should I be sniffing?"
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He then reveals a secret – a weakness: he has a very bad sense of smell because of allergies he had as a child.
It is not the type of interview he is used to. He describes it at one point as "quite random". Part of this is his own fault: Luxon had begun the interview by asking for the reporter's life story.
He liked to know a bit about the person he was talking to, he insisted. I was not sure if this is a power play or a schmoozing attempt, but I bore him with a potted history.
The venture down the vegetable sniffing route was admittedly a bit of revenge for all of this and the suggested headline of "the happy-clappy capsicum sniffer".
The hype of the "new John Key" has helped him – but has also put him to the test earlier than most candidates would face.
We are speaking at the end of the final day of the National Party's caucus retreat and Luxon was there along with about six other new candidates.
It was their first large outing since being selected.
The other new candidates are wearing open-necked shirts and trousers or dresses. Luxon is the only one in a T-shirt and shorts. He looks relaxed. He looks as if he's been there forever.
But he has not.
When he was selected last year he had done a few interviews, getting tangled up in talking about his religion and withholding the benefit from beneficiaries who did not vaccinate their children.
That was a policy National was considering but had not adopted - and Luxon had also said it could cover parents on Working for Families.
In corporate language, he "over-reached". In political language, he stuffed up.
National's campaign chairwoman Paula Bennett had then locked him away, presumably for training on what first-time candidates can talk about and how to talk like a politician rather than a CEO.
The re-programming has not quite worked yet.
Asked how his campaign is going, he says he has been out and about in Botany, "meeting different stakeholders".
The NZ Herald suggests he might want to start thinking of them as "voters" rather than "stakeholders" - or even as "people". Perhaps even the "good people of Botany".
"Keep correcting me," he says. "I've got a lot to learn."
He says he is an extrovert, so is suited to the job. "You get a lot of energy when you meet people."
He's dabbled in doorknocking and been to a Chinese New Year function. He does not say if people raise the issue of Jami-Lee Ross with him.
"They've been very welcoming."
He says he has studied a lot of political campaigns in different countries. His picks for the best include former US President Barack Obama's "hope and change" campaign of 2008.
Luxon was living in Chicago at the time. "Whether you liked the politics or not, it was a very effective political campaign."
He has great faith in his ability to apply the skills he had as a businessman to politics.
"A lot of it is marketing and my life started off as a brand manager and marketing manager, working for Unilever, which is one of the biggest marketers in the world.
"It is thinking about strategic planning and about identifying who are your segments, who are your voters, who are the people you need to engage with?"
This apparent technique of running a campaign like a deodorant business is interesting, but also a tad startling.
He and Key met before he became Air NZ CEO and they often talked when both were working late at night.
"There are a lot of similarities in our back stories and core beliefs and we get on very well. We have a similar approach to life. But we are also different people and it's important I get to do it as Chris Luxon, not John Key 2.0."
Key was renowned for his pragmatism and Luxon says he is similar. He is more of a social conservative than Key but they are on the same plane when it comes to the economy.
Both believe in the importance of strengthening an economy to strengthen social and environmental outcomes. Both cite optimism about New Zealand's place in the world.
Both also spent a lot of time overseas and surrendered well-paying and high-powered jobs to return for politics.
Luxon has given up a job paying more than $4 million a year plus bonuses in his bid to become the MP for Botany, earning $160,000.
He has done this knowing he will likely become a target for people who do not like his politics or way of thinking and knowing he will come under scrutiny.
"That's true but you go into it knowing that's part of the game. I could have stayed on at Air NZ for another seven years, I could have taken another job in New Zealand, could have gone back overseas and taken another big corporate job.
"But actually you get to the point where you think, 'We get the country we deserve.' So, if you think you've got something to offer, why wouldn't you do that?
"I always wanted to do politics at some point in my life and I came to the conclusion, 'Gee, you don't want to get to 80 and look back and wish you'd tried it.' "
In politics today three positions attract particular opprobrium: believing in God, not believing in climate change and being rich as Croesus.
Luxon does believe in climate change – he makes a lot of his attempts to make Air NZ a more sustainable company.
But he is rich and there has been a fair bit of scrutiny about his religion.
One thing his business media training did not fully prepare him for was the scrutiny of his personality and his personal background that comes in politics.
"I've been really surprised by the reaction, actually, since I've come into the political life because it's never been an issue before.
"For me, it's a personal thing but it's got nothing to do with my politics.
"I haven't led Air NZ or Unilever as a Christian CEO. I've led it as a CEO who just happens to be a Christian.
"Yes, it drives values, I guess. But I'm not an ideologue who is trying to jam a view of Christianity out on my workforce as a CEO, or as a politician.
"It gives me a lot of solidity and anchoring but I'm not here to proselytise or convert New Zealand in that regard."
He will not be insisting on prayer circles at the start of every day. That question was the only simple "no" answer he gave in the entire interview.
Asked if he is "happy-clappy" or more traditional, he says he does not have a particular denomination and does not go to a regular church - he does not even go every Sunday.
He says it is good to set it all out.
"Because it's been quite frustrating because people have tried to pigeon hole me in a way that's been quite unfair.
"People seem to think, 'You're a Christian, so you must be a fundamentalist, raving Christian.'
"My Christianity is pretty simple. It's just, 'Love God, love people.' It's that simple."
In essence, he was raised Catholic, but has moved around since then - occasionally dabbling in happy-clappy. He has been to non-denominational churches in the US, Anglican churches in England and Australia.
He was linked with a church called The Upper Room, based in Newmarket, after returning to New Zealand.
That scrutiny had also gone on to the pastor of that church, in particular, over some apparently alt-right beliefs on social media.
Luxon is quick to distance himself from those comments, saying he had not known about them and had not attended that church in a few years.
"I had attended the church before. I was unaware of those remarks, I wholeheartedly disagree with all those remarks. They were completely out of line."
In terms of those areas where religion and politics do meet, he says he is "pro-life", so will not support euthanasia in the referendum and does not support abortion reform.
The most interesting answer was on the referendum to legalise marijuana.
He starts his answer by revealing he had been head-hunted by three or four marijuana companies after he quit Air NZ.
This was due to his background in marketing and product development at Unilever.
"It's basically taking a consumer marketing model into a sector like marijuana, as it has gone into alcohol."
Just when I think I've found Luxon's seamier side, he says he turned the jobs down.
"I know what that was all about. That's about increasing consumption and creating targeted products. And I don't think we've thought through the implications of that. I spent a lot of time in the States, in Seattle and, when you see the second and third-order consequences of that, I think you end up writing off a whole generation by legalising marijuana.
"We are doing a big disservice to a generation. So for me, it's a no on marijuana. A strong no."
I forget to ask if he has ever actually smoked dope.
As for his political ambitions and the hype he is "Instant Leader, just add water" material, he has at least learned how to address that question. In fact, he has had those "get things done" lines drilled into him.
Praise the current leader and say you still have a lot to learn.
"I want Simon Bridges as Prime Minister as fast as we possibly can, because the country actually needs to get things done.
"I know Simon really well actually, back to when he was Transport Minister. We're good friends.
"I really admire him because he's a good leader, he's got the skills and experience and he's experienced for a fairly young guy. And he's got a good team around him.
"We'll be able to get things done."
He likens himself to a school kid starting Year 9.
What most people would call "job changes", he calls "transitions". He says he has gone through many transitions in his life.
"For me, coming back home, coming from selling Dove soap and Ben & Jerry's icecream to run an airline in New Zealand, that's a big transition.
"The reality is I'm doing quite a big transition. You are trying to conquer and master a whole new field.
"So for me, it is understanding my electorate well, how I engage with the party and, if I'm successful, the parliamentary part of it.
"So for me, I genuinely do feel I've come to Year 9 at high school and need to learn from where I start."
He has also learned the party lines. Asked what interests him in terms of policy areas, he lists the cost of living, keeping people safe and building infrastructure.
All three are the ones Bridges has set out to campaign on.
He also pushes the line about National's ability to deliver: "People want things to get done. And that's what we've got to do. We've got to stop throwing money into concrete, it's actually got to get into fertile ground and start changing lives."
The constant in his life is his wife Amanda. They met when they were 15, were dating by 19 and married when Luxon was 23. He is now 49.
Luxon came from what he describes as a "typical middle New Zealand upbringing".
His mother was a receptionist and his father was a salesman for Johnson & Johnson.
Luxon was the eldest of three boys and they are all still close, catching up for dinner regularly. "We are also very different."
Luxon was also the first person in his family to go to university, although his mother started studying at university at the same time he did and became a psychotherapist.
His schooling began in Christchurch before the family moved to Howick. Then came Cockle Bay Primary and a year at St Kentigern College - a private school.
He did not like it. "There was one low point where I remember the deputy principal had us marching in the rain for half a day. And I remember thinking, 'What's the point of this?'"
So he moved to Howick College, although he later sent his son to St Kentigern.
They moved back to Christchurch and he went to Christchurch Boys' High School and the University of Canterbury.
He worked for Unilever for two years, before heading overseas for 16 years and eventually becoming its chief executive. That included stints in Sydney, London, Toronto, Chicago and New York.
Air NZ drew him back in 2011, just as his children, William and Olivia, were reaching the end of their primary school years.
Key once said he liked to be liked. Luxon is asked if he is the same.
"Possibly," he says. "I think people do like to be liked. It's a natural thing.
"But you also know you're not going to get all the people to like you all the time."
"At Air NZ, you've got 13,000 people. I wanted them to think they had a good leader and that they liked me. Although I'm sure there were many people who probably didn't."
"You're right," the NZ Herald says, having had mixed reports about Luxon's popularity among staff.
Luxon just laughs this off. "Yes, I'm sure."
The final test on the SIr John Key Similarity Scale comes with Luxon's claim to have a similar sense of humour to Key.
"God help us," I said when he first said this, having undergone a decade of Key's sense of humour.
It takes a while to show itself. He can be a bit self-deprecating, referring to himself as Chris Luxford or Luxton - the common mistake with his name.
But a sense of the absurd does out itself.
He had two goldfish – Sooty and Sweep – when he was 5.
Given the propensity of goldfish to cark, I observed he probably had several goldfish in succession called Sooty and Sweep without realising it. He says, "Well, I didn't know that. You've broken my dream."
He has no pets now. It is pointed out pets can be a political asset and he says his children once had a guinea pig, "But that doesn't really cut it out there on the campaign."
"People might think you're a bit odd, out there with your guinea pig," the Herald observes.
"Sniffing capsicums," he adds.