National’s new leader, Christopher Luxon, wouldn’t confirm it, but sources close to Simon Bridges were late yesterday claiming he would be the party’s new finance spokesperson and would be ranked at three in the Caucus.
The implication was that was the price Luxon paid to have Bridges withdraw from the leadership contest after a meeting with him yesterday morning.
However, Luxon was not confirming anything yesterday at his first media conference as leader.
“What I’d say to you is Simon and Judith and Todd as former leaders, there are very important roles for them in our caucus,” he said.
Then asked whether Bridges might take finance, he said: “We are not in a position yet to talk about roles.”
Sources close to Bridges last night acknowledged this comment but were adamant that he had been offered finance and the number three position in the hierarchy.
It was always on the cards that Bridges would withdraw from the leadership contest if he didn’t have the numbers, and it would seem his hopes of moving some Luxon supporters over were not realised.
But Bridges backdown restored a much-wanted sense of unity to the Caucus. A vote would have been divisive with the Caucus split more or less down the middle on the leadership.
That newfound unity was being reinforced last night by a multitude of near-identical social media posts from National MPs, many Bridges supporters, congratulating Luxon on his elevation.
A typical Facebook post came from Todd McClay, one of the Bridges’ close friends: “Congratulations to Leader of the National Party Chris Luxon. Chris has had an exceptional career in business; he’s a father and proud family man and will make an excellent Prime Minister.”
Luxon’s candidacy for the leadership was endorsed by the former National Prime Minister, Sir John Key and Luxon’s pick for deputy, Nicola Willis, was an advisor in Key’s Beehive office when he was Prime Minister.
“Nicola and I are fresh faces for a revitalised national party,” said Luxon at his first media conference as leader yesterday.
“We are the reset.
“Today, we are drawing a line under the events of the last four years, and we are putting them behind us.”
But Willis is not as “fresh” as Luxon might imply. She was a central figure in the calamitous coup last May, which ended Simon Bridges’ leadership and replaced him with Todd Muller.
Some in the Caucus still resent that.
And this year, as Housing spokesperson, she and Judith Collins agreed to the bipartisan Housing Accord with Labour which would see planning rules in major cities scrapped for up to three dwellings, three stories high on any property.
That has drawn an avalanche of submissions to a Select Committee opposing it. Many are from traditional National suburbs residents’ associations and housing developers.
ACT has capitalised on this and declared its opposition to the Bill.
So in one of his first policy moves, Luxon suggested yesterday that he may move to modify his deputy’s brainchild.
He said feedback from the Select Committee showed there were two themes; about design guidelines and flexibility for local government.
“We want to digest that feedback and propose some amendments to that legislation, which Nicola will be engaging with the government around,” he said.
It is that sort of decisiveness that he is promising will be typical of his leadership. He cites his formidable business CV as CEO of Unilever in Canada and then Air New Zealand.
“My background is very simply about leading large, complex organisations and, importantly, you know, solving problems, getting results and doing it through people,” he said.
“And that is what this job is about, and that’s what running the country is about.”
Since he entered Parliament at the last election, he has not said much about his own political philosophies beyond generalisations about the importance of growing productivity and the economy.
He repeated them yesterday.
“I believe in a New Zealand that rewards hard work and New Zealand that empowers Kiwis to take a punt and to create prosperity for themselves and their families,” he said.
“But most of all, I believe in a New Zealand that while small and size is large in ambition and I want us to rediscover that and get our mojo back because growing our economy and rising productivity are the single biggest things that we can do to improve the daily lives of all New Zealanders.”
He has been criticised, possibly excessively, for his evangelical Christianity.
“My faith is actually something that has grounded me,” he said.
“It’s given me context and put me into context, something bigger than myself.
“But I want to be very clear we have a separation between politics and faith. People shouldn’t be selecting an MP because of their faith, and they should not be selected in part because of their faith.”
He was not quite so assured when he faced questions from Maori reporters.
“I think Maori did incredibly well under previous National governments,” he said.
“If you think about the growth in the Maori economy up to $67 billion, I think today a lot of all of that was set up under a National government.
“You think about the treaty settlements that took place for that period of time.
“So my message very simply as Maori have done well under National governments.”
That answer, however, avoided any discussion about Maori sovereignty and tino rangatiratanga, which currently dominates much of the political discourse in Parliament on Maori issues.
But the big issue will be whether he can forge a new sense of unity within the Caucus which has been at each other’s throats since Jami Lee Ross resigned in disgrace in 2018, publishing damning phone recordings involving then-leader Simon Bridges about party donations from Chinese businesspeople.
But since October 2018, Bridges faced a long period of instability within the Caucus; then the successful coup against him by Muller in May last year which was followed by Muller suddenly resining in July last year to be followed this year by Collins forcing Nick Smith to resign and then demanding Muller not attend Caucus meetings because (she alleged) he was a leaker.
All of this climaxed last week when Collins demoted Bridges in a late-night press release based on some inappropriate comments he had made to MP Jacqui Dean five years ago.
What seems to have complicated this latest leadership bid is that Bridges and his supporters may have believed they had more supporters than they eventually ended up with because for much of the year, he was the sole anti-Collins candidate.
But once Caucus had passed its no-confidence vote in Collins last Thursday, the way was clear for Luxon to campaign for votes and some of those anti-Collins votes, possibly caucus liberals like Chris Bishop and Willis, were able to declare for Luxon.
Yet despite this and the no-confidence vote, Luxon yesterday was promising Collins a future role in the Caucus.
“We are going to do things differently from here on through,” he said.
“It is very clear today, and you’ve watched this contest be different from recent contests that actually we are turning the page and putting the baggage aside.
“We’re trusting each other.
“We know that will take work, but we’re going to do that job incredibly well.
“And I would put it to you that Simon, Judith, Todd and all other 33 members (of the Caucus) have a unique set of skills that we have to tap into and use the full value of our team in order to get there.”
The three present different challenges.
Bridges is likely to play ball. He is a student of politics and has read John Howard’s “Lazarus Rising”, which tells the story of Howard’s return to the Australian Liberal Party leadership after a six-year gap after he lost it in 1989.
Like Howard, Bridges will not have ruled out becoming leader again one day, but not now.
Todd Muller will want to come back into the Caucus now Collins is no longer leader and may rescind his decision to retire.
Collins has a more difficult challenge. There are those in the party and the Caucus who want her out of Parliament. She may feel she has leverage over Luxon, given that she and the votes of her four supporters appear to be what gave him his winning margin. But any move to give her a senior role would face strong opposition, particularly from Bridges’ supporters.
It won’t be plain sailing for Luxon. This has been a dysfunctional political party for three years now. This is the biggest turnaround job he has faced in his business career.