Simon Wilson: Chris Luxon, is a man on a mission but its not a religious thing


He’s a man on a mission, that Chris Luxon. Despite the flurry about his faith, there’s little evidence it’s a moral mission. Luxon is not on some conservative Christian crusade intended to stamp out sin.

He even says he hasn’t been to church in the last five years. One reason he stopped is that, when he was boss of Air New Zealand, people kept asking him for free flights. If I were him I’d find a church with a better class of parishioner.

Luxon’s real mission is to transform his caucus into a highly effective team. Every leader says this, but Luxon says it differently.

He presents as a man who believes he has a very particular set of skills: in his case, they’re the skills to get the best out of a leadership group and to imbue everyone with the culture of success. He’s had life experience doing it and he’s brimming with confidence that he can do it again.

He has, he tells us, been observing his colleagues closely this last year. Now he’s going to help them be their best selves.

“My job as the leader is to get the best out of each individual,” he said yesterday. Active, goal-oriented people management. It’s what Christopher Luxon loves to do.

Beyond that, he has not yet articulated a vision for the country. If we can grow our productivity, he says, we’ll grow our wealth, and that will allow everyone to become more prosperous.

That’s not saying much. Growing productivity has been the stated goal of almost every government we’ve ever had, but it hardly ever happens. Luxon hasn’t told us how he’ll suddenly be the one to make a difference.

Still, his shadow cabinet and caucus line-up offer a few clues.

In Simon Bridges, he chose a competent senior politician to run finance and infrastructure. But productivity goals also make major demands on other portfolios, especially education, technology, Māori-Crown relations and the troika of transport, agriculture and climate change.

Erica Stanford takes education from Paul Goldsmith and moves to the front bench. That’s smart: she’s a strong performer and won’t be content just echoing Goldsmith’s kneejerk opposition to everything that happens.

Judith Collins has research, science and technology. Tech is her thing, sort of. She campaigned hard on it in the 2020 election, although her conversation with IT people relied heavily on, “My son tells me …” Not quite the language of someone who knows the field.

Māori-Crown relations are important because of the enormous size of the iwi economy, and the ongoing efforts of so many iwi to persuade Government to trust them more. Kura kaupapa achieve better results for Māori than many ordinary schools; we’ve seen how the vaccine rollout among Māori goes much better when Māori are empowered to run it.

Is National ready to apply the lessons more widely? Shane Reti is the new spokesperson. He’s opposed to the new Māori Health Authority, which is not a good sign.

And climate action? You can’t talk about productivity without squaring up to the challenges of global warming, and yesterday Luxon made a point of doing that, by declaring his admiration for Boris Johnson’s British Conservative Party.

“If you’re in the UK and you care about the environment,” Luxon said, “you tend to vote for the Conservatives.”

That’s not true. British polls reveal concerns about climate change are distributed equally across Labour and the Tories. But he’s quite right that Boris Johnson is a standout conservative politician worldwide advocating for climate action. If Luxon wants to join him, that’s great.

The trouble is, though, Johnson’s rhetoric runs ahead of his plans and far ahead of his budgets. And he believes technology on its own, unaccompanied by behaviour change, will one day stop carbon emissions from being a problem.

Keep calm and carry on was Johnson’s message to the British people, shortly before the Glasgow climate conference last month.

Still, the aims are good. Britain wants to cut emissions by at least 68 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. If Luxon really is a fan of the British approach, he could match that. He could do it now.

He hasn’t done it. But he has removed the former spokesperson, Stuart Smith, an MP who loudly opposed every single climate initiative throughout his time in the role, even down to New Zealand’s participation at Glasgow.

The job now goes to the more clear-minded Scott Simpson, who keeps environment and picks up associate transport.

But Smith gets energy, a portfolio that will offer him a couple of simple tests: will he want to fast-track wind farms and is he prepared to leave the coal and gas in the ground?

Luxon did not take the opportunity with his line-up to link climate action with either of this country’s biggest emissions sectors: agriculture and transport.

Making Todd Muller spokesperson for agriculture and climate change would have done that. But Muller is not even in the shadow cabinet. It rather looks like Luxon is almost as unimpressed with him as Collins was.

And Simeon Brown has transport! The upside is that we will no longer be subjected to his fearmongering over crime: Brown has lost his law-and-order platform.

Even so, he has never given the slightest indication he understands the need to reduce carbon emissions, how to make the roads safer or how to reduce congestion (hint: it’s not with endlessly more roads).

Did the new boss just run out of puff before he got to allocating the transport role?

Luxon’s climate change perspective was honed at Air New Zealand: a business committed to climate action but whose entire business model is based on burning aviation fuel.

If you’re the CEO, what do you do? Buy lighter planes and electric cargo vehicles and make a song and dance about it. Yep, and those things help, but they’re greenwash unless you can work out what to do about the aviation fuel.

So you invest in research into electric planes and clean fuel alternatives and you hope it’s going to work. Because it has to. Aviation is not like coal mining, especially when it services an island nation on the edge of the world: it cannot be a sunset industry.

It’s a bit like New Zealand, really. Who knows if we’ll ever get back the tourists and students. Who knows how agriculture is going to evolve. But we can’t be a sunset country.

So when a political leader talks about “productivity”, what we need to hear is how. Will it be by focusing on roadbuilding, especially in and around Auckland? That will just increase congestion.

Will it be without addressing the low-wage economy? Luxon says he supports raising the minimum wage only when GDP growth is strong enough.

Here’s the thing about productivity. It sounds like you want to strengthen the economy by embracing future opportunities. That’s good. But all too often, as so many employees know, it’s just a fancy word for justifying bonuses for bosses who know how to cut staff.

Chris Luxon is on a mission to turn National into a fighting team. Then what?

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