It’s over 500 kilometers from Feilding to Auckland’s upper harbour suburbs.
And as National Leader, Christopher Luxon has found over the past ten days, the political gulf between the two places is even wider.
What stops in both places on his “get New Zealand Back on Track” tour showed was the way our politics as we go into this election has become fragmented and the impact that small and more extreme parties like ACT are having on the political debate.
We seem to no longer be one country politically.
He began last week with the kind of meeting any National leader could have held any time over the past 50 years; before a predominantly grey-haired respectful comfortable looking audience of around 300 in the Feilding Civic Centre.
Fielding is the centre of large farming district; once prosperous sheep farms now, increasingly, dairy farms.
But what the audience would hear from Luxon was his standard stump speech. The audience at the Greenhithe School in the new housing outer middle income upper Auckland harbour suburb of Greenhithe would hear much the same speech the following Monday.
The pitch is simple.
New Zealand is the best country “on planet earth” and if you had to design a new country from scratch you’d put it where we are, in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Every day I get to meet incredible people who might be starting up businesses, working hard in the community or raising their families and I just know we’ve got smart talented dedicated determined creative innovative folk that can foot it with anyone in the world,” he says.
He doesn’t do humour apart from a few self-deprecating references to his height and bald head.
Despite his optimism about the underlying strengths of New Zealand, the thrust of his speech is to define the problems he believes the country faces.
One of the challenges Luxon faces is that he has been in Parliament for only two and a half years.
If he becomes Prime Minister in October, he will have had less political experience than any other Prime Minister since William Fox entered Parliament in 1855 and became Premier in 1856.
So he has little option but to try and turn that lack of experience into a virtue by presenting his views as those of a set of fresh eyes.
“After two and a half years of this job, I more than ever believe that we are totally, actually completely heading in the wrong direction,” he says.
“And that if we’re really honest with ourselves and we take a step back and ask ourselves, are we really realising that potential that we have in this great country of ours or not?
“Are we solving the problems and the challenges that we have? Are we e maximising the opportunities?
” The short answer is no.
“I think over the last six years, we’ve got a government that I think is taking us off course.”
He is big on problems.
In Feilding, he used the word “problems” ten times in a 20-minute speech. Identifying and solving problems is the core of his pitch.
“ I define problems often by numbers because then you’ve got to work out what the solution is instead of having a solution roaming around looking to be attached to a problem,” he says.
“I think it’s always a good idea to define the problem, and then you can work out the solution.
“It’s old school, but it works .”
The Feilding audience appeared to like that because the series of questions that followed his speech focused on the practicalities of implementing National’s policies.
How would he go about dealing with the Wellington beauracracy?
If he was going to get rid of bureaucrats (which he promised), then how would he manage the unions?
What about dealing with the number of paperwork corrections officers had to deal with?
What would be done about nursing graduates heading overseas?
And so on and so on — the day-to-day concerns of small-town provincial New Zealand.
There is a sense that although the audience wants to believe him and though they want a National government, they are still slightly sceptical.
But the mood in the Greenmhithe School hall in Auckland’s Upper Harbour electorate a week later is very different.
Party officials freely concede that ACT is a big force in parts of the electorate. At a private electorate dinner the next night, there is talk of the ACT vote being underestimated.
And there is little doubt that it is the harder line that ACT takes on issues like race relations which is worrying the Nats.
The first hint comes during Luxon’s speech when he is advocating “localism”.
“We believe in localism and believe in devolution, that those closest to the problem solve it,” he says.
“And we believe that governments and business and community are three equal but different entities in our society.
“They are different but complementary and do uniquely different things, and they need to work together on the challenges and the opportunities that we have.”
And so on to Three Waters.
“So yeah, we undo three waters immediately we undo the new RMA that David Parker has put in place immediately before Christmas as well; there’s a lot to do,” he says.
An interjector asks about the Maori Health Authority.
“The Maori Health Authority get scrapped; we don’t see any need for that,” he says.
There is scattered applause.
There is a question acknowledging where the Authority will go but what about the “Maorification” of schools, universities, councils and right through New Zealand society?
Luxon then shows that though he has been in politics for only two and half years, he knows how to dodge a question.
“Well, I’ve been really clear with you; public services are provided to all New Zealanders on the basis of their needs, not their ethnicity. And that’s the deal that we have here in this country, and that’s what we want to restore,” he says — to applause.
It gets trickier, though. Another question comes from the far-right conspiracy world.
“What control will the World Economic Forum, the UN and WHO have over you?” a woman asks.
Luxon: “Well, none over me ….”
The questioner: “What about New Zealand as a whole.”
Luxon: “Well, it’s not relevant .”
At that point, he reaches for the old media training standby that every question is an opportunity, and off he goes again on his basic pitch.
“It’s really about making sure we act on New Zealand’s interests.,” he says.
“We’ve got a peculiar set of problems that are unique to New Zealand; we’ve got an economic crisis. We’re the only country in a recession; we’ve got a crime problem; we’ve got a health and education problem here in this country.
Now, those are the big things we’ve got to sort out.
“I’m interested in acting in New Zealand’s interests as a leader.
“So that’s my position.
“Our problems are unique to New Zealand. I’m here to act in New Zealand’s interests and advance people’s interests, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
But the speech is only an hour after the One News poll showing National and ACT could together form a government, with ACT surging at 13 per cent.
ACT was not mentioned in Feilding, but in Greenhithe, it’s clear that not only do they have supporters in the audience but that some are considering voting for them.
A questioner says it is obvious National will need ACT’s support to form a government, so what is his view of working with ACT?
“David Seymour was my neighbour for four years, and we actually know each other pretty well, and that’s why we have lunch from time to time and do all that stuff,” he says.
“But I want you to be under no illusion, the right party vote is to party vote National because if you want a guaranteed change of government, you actually have to party vote National.
“It’s lovely when you’re a minor party, you might be getting one out of every ten votes, and you can say and do a whole bunch of things.
“But actually, when you want to be government, and you actually want to change this country, you want to put it on a different path and a different track, you’ve actually got to guarantee to change a government.
“ And that means you’ve got to party vote National. “
But there is another question that sounds suspiciously like it has been influenced by ACT and challenges Luxon over his “Get New Zealand Back on Track” slogan.
“Which track,” the questioner asks
“The John Key track which just accepted everything that the previous Labour Party had done and also supported the United Nations indigenous peoples shenanigans or the original National policy which sought to implement individualism as distinct from the Labour Party’s collectivism.
Luxon’s reply was a masterpiece of evasion. He agreed the country needed to get back on track and then threaded his way through productivity, law and order, education and “the number one thing”, the economy.
“So you will abandon the ratchet effect of just following Labour to the left, and you will undo some of their extreme policies,” the questioner asks again.
This time Luxon, perhaps sensing that the audience wanted an answer, made an attempt to address the question.
“Yeah. So there’s a lot to undo,” he replies; and then heads off on another long shopping list of “problems”.
The only moment in the evening when he seems to forget about problems is when he is asked what he is going to do about one-third of schools not having libraries.
“ I was a kid who got turned on to reading because I went to the Cockle Bay School library, and I read a book on Winston Churchill. I remember as an eight-year-old, and I thought, this is fantastic,” he says.
“And then I read everything on World War Two, and I read most of the books in that library over that a couple of years.
“But yeah, so I love libraries. I mean, I haven’t thought about that (the small number of libraries), but I’m happy to take that back to Erica Stanford, and we can have that conversation as well.”
However, just when the audience might have thought they were getting a rare glimpse of Luxon, the man, he was off again on another shopping list of problems. This time in schools.
But what appears to be the big problem, and the one that doesn’t get talked about directly, is the attraction of the fringe parties, which in Luxon’s mind might well include ACT.
He closes with a subtle warning not to give in to extremism.
“This is a fantastic country,” he says.
“Do not give up hope. Do not get grumpy. Do not get angry. Do not throw the remote at the TV.
“You can talk about it on the couches in the living room, or you can get to do something in New Zealand, which is cool. But.
“And I’d say don’t get angry because that’s a great privilege in a liberal democracy like ours that we all get to have on October the 14th, and I think this election is pretty stark.
“It comes down to a very stark choice. You either get the coalition of chaos, which is the Labour Party, Maori, the Greens and Harry Tam and the gangs, or you get a strong National government that’s actually going to run the economy well because that’s what it’s about this election. “
He didn’t have to issue that warning in Feilding.