Peter Williams: Is Christopher Luxon really Prime Minister material?

Opinion 20/06/2019

The perceived dire state of the National Party leadership was put in pretty sharp focus last night when the news came out about Christopher Luxon standing down as the boss of Air New Zealand.

The reaction was extraordinary.

Before the night was finished, some people had him as the Prime Minister.

The idea, as we know is that he stands as the National Party candidate in Botany and then quickly ascends to the leader of the party and goes on to lead them to victory in the election in 2023.

There may even be some behind the scenes movement to get a poor performing National Party MP to resign before the end of the year, create a by-election somewhere and get him into parliament this term. I suspect the National Party board might be thinking like that.

Although you can be absolutely assured Simon Bridges is not thinking like that.

Why would a turkey vote for Christmas?

Now I watched Luxon on The AM Show this morning and the first thing you always look for in a potential politician is their skill in front of a camera. In that respect, Luxon is good, very good.

Sorry Simon, he’s better than you.

He is fluent, confident, knowledgeable about a whole lot of things, and on the surface seems a thoroughly likeable sort of bloke.

I don’t know if that’s actually the case. I’ve never met the man, but he seems to have impeccable credentials. Highly educated, strong morals with a long-standing stable marriage and Christian beliefs, a hugely successful business career which he’s bailing from just as life in the aviation industry especially, and at Air New Zealand, in particular, is about to get a lot tougher.

Like John Key as the Prime Minister, he seems to know when to jump.

That is the sign of a very clever person.

He knows that airline profits are linked by an umbilical cord to the price of fuel. He was fortunate that the price dropped during his time there to under 40 dollars a barrel, so the airline’s profits skyrocketed to record levels.

Now that Brent Crude is back at 62 dollars a barrel, and was up over 74 dollars only a few months ago, Air New Zealand’s profits are under pressure, and with the issues surrounding the Dreamliner, now is a very good time to be out of this industry.

Luxon has also shown that he is already quite the political animal.

Despite his obvious National Party leanings, which must have been known about for some time, Jacinda Ardern has him as the chair of her business council. I found that a remarkable appointment at the time, and now that he is openly considering a career in politics which could lead him towards a one-on-one with Ardern in perhaps 4 years from now, how much longer would it be appropriate for him to stay as the chair of that business council - not that it appears to have done a heck of a lot anyway.

But I have a few reservations.

Specifically, about him successfully making the transition from business to politics.

It was intriguing to read the comments on Stuff last night underneath the article about his resignation. A few Air New Zealand workers or ex-workers remarked about him never being seen around the workers, about always wanting to cut costs which invariably had an impact on staff morale, especially in recent times. The theme seemed to be that he was always mixing it with those of his type, and not so much getting down and dirty with his staff.

That’s a worrying thought.

John Key’s greatest skill was his complete relatability to all types, even if you didn’t like his politics. It’s Jacinda’s greatest skill too, and the only thing that keeps a woefully underperforming government on top in the polls.

Does Luxon have that? Frankly, it’s yet to be tested.

Then there’s the business of the tattoos last week. You’ll remember how the company changed its policy and there was quite the story and media coverage and reaction about this so-called groundbreaking move to allow culturally appropriate tattoos to be worn and be seen by front line Air New Zealand staff.

All the TV news services wanted to get a reaction in the first person from Luxon as the airline CEO.

In normal circumstances, it’s a pretty straightforward thing to do.

You call a press conference and the media turns up at the appointed time to ask the questions. Some of them might be a bit tricky.

But Luxon didn’t do that last week.

To avoid him having to answer testing questions, like what is the definition of an appropriate tattoo compared to an inappropriate tattoo, Air New Zealand went into their rabbit burrow, produced and distributed their own video statement on the issue, gave that to the network and didn’t allow questions.

That’s called controlling the news, and it’s something those aspiring to public life should be very wary of doing. Political reporters wouldn’t, or shouldn’t cut you any slack if you start pulling those tricks as an aspiring Prime Minister.

But despite those reservations, I’ll say something I’ve said before.

The next National Party Prime Minister is not yet in Parliament.

Maybe, just maybe, we have found who that person is.

Peter Williams is the host of Magic Talk Mornings, 9am - midday weekdays.