After a pretty happy week on the campaign trail, National leader Christopher Luxon learned the hard way on Sunday that a campaign is about more than larking about for the cameras and taking potshots at the rivals.
In a Q+A interview with Jack Tame this morning, for the first time in a while, Luxon looked like the first-term MP that he is.
He found out it is not enough to say you will make something happen and stick relentlessly to your lines, come what may.
On both National’s policy to kick unruly tenants out of state houses and then his tax cuts policy, Luxon did not have the political agility to get himself out of it or the background knowledge to argue the pros and cons.
It will go down as the interview of no answers.
He could not answer what would happen to those people who were evicted from their state homes for bad behaviour. Where would they go? That was apparently irrelevant. It was Kāinga Ora’s problem - not his - even though Kāinga Ora would have kicked them out at his behest.
The worst of it was on the numbers with regard to the ways National would pay for its tax cuts.
As Tame interrogated him on whether National would raise as much as it claimed from measures such as a foreign buyers’ tax, Luxon tried to answer by simply saying over and over that what was important was National was offering tax cuts to the squeezed middle.
He claimed there was no issue with the numbers, and he was “comfortable” and “confident” with National’s reckonings.
No, he would not release the modelling behind those figures, although it has released a 32-page document with its policy. Does it even exist?
He got tripped up by his own mentor Sir John Key’s 2016 comments that a foreign buyers’ tax was tricky because of free trade agreements and tax treaties - and that the only way around that would be a tax which also captured New Zealanders living overseas. So, how would Luxon legally exempt New Zealanders living overseas?
Again, Luxon would not answer and played the “trust me” card instead.
There were parts that were not so gruesome.
Luxon had to admit National had not done any modelling on the impact of its policies on house prices, but did manage to pivot his answer away from housing affordability to rental prices and point out National had plans for more green-fields developments to boost housing stock in areas where densification did not happen.
However, National will be hoping the Sunday morning slot meant not many people saw the interview - and that the same doesn’t happen in debates, when a lot more will be watching.
The big plays
It was a big day for the political parties: the day their election television ads start broadcasting.
On the red side of town down in Christchurch, Labour leader Chris Hipkins was trying to inject some life into his campaign after a flat first week.
He did this by visiting Sikh and Indian community groups before holding a rally to hype his local troops, and doing what Luxon had done a week earlier: releasing a pledge card. Admittedly, Luxon had stolen a trick from Labour’s playbook in doing that, so Hipkins pitched it as a reclaim. He also had one more pledge than Luxon on his.
Neither of them are vintage pledge cards, which are the same size as a credit card - Luxon’s was a postcard and Hipkins is a flyer.
Hipkins’ card was clearly aimed at painting Labour as the Chris Hipkins Labour and distinguishing his own priorities from those set out in 2020 by Jacinda Ardern.
However, it was possibly also aimed at trying to jolt Hipkins into campaign mode - Labour is clearly wary that there is a perception Hipkins’ campaign is lacking in the colour and energy that is needed. On that note, Hipkins told the Christchurch public rally that momentum was building behind his campaign: perhaps a bit of a fake-it-until-you-make-it moment.
Labour will be hoping the coming week delivers a better image of Hipkins on the campaign trail - it might help that he is leaving Wellington for much of it.
Luxon’s big play of the day was a health announcement, unveiling health targets National would put in place. The only questions he didn’t really want to answer there were about Act’s ever-diminishing candidates’ pool and how some anti-vaxxer sentiments in Act’s midst would affect National’s health policy.
Many echoed the targets set in place by the last National Government, including emergency department waiting times, immunisation rates and shorter waiting lists for surgery.
Labour’s Dr Ayesha Verrall claimed it was a gimmick and that the Government was on track to deliver on most the targets already. However, the targets are a good sell for voters, who tend to like being able to easily see if a government is delivering on their promises. They are particularly pertinent now, in the age of the great Covid backlog - and National only has to point to dropping immunisation rates since 2017 to be able to claim that they worked last time around.
Elsewhere, the smaller parties were also busy. Freedoms NZ had given the big parties a weekend off and were instead picketing outside New Zealand First leader Winston Peters’ public meeting in Nelson.
Act leader David Seymour was trying to take a break from refusing to answer questions about why his candidates are dropping like flies - and instead promising to build houses by watering down the Resource Management Act and scrapping consenting so New Zealand could “build like the Boomers”.
The Greens were promising to protect 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030.
However, the most important lesson for all political leaders was delivered by a pirate.
Luxon moved on from his Q+A interview to someone who fought with a sword rather than a pen: the pirate at the Ellerslie Fairies and Pirates party.
The pirate told him Luxon would need a wig to win the election. “Curly... and ginger.”
When Luxon said the pirate was just being mean, the pirate pointed out of course he was being mean - he was a pirate.
In that is a lesson to the leaders of the importance of being true to their natures.
Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the NZ Herald in 2003 and joined the press gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary press gallery.