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NZ opposition on the march under Luxon

New Zealand’s parliamentary year begins this week, and despite another summer largely untroubled from COVID-19, Jacinda Ardern begins it firmly on the back foot.

The Labour government will have no trouble passing a budget or bills, thanks to her parliamentary majority.

The difference is she again has a credible challenger across the chamber, with Kiwis warming to the alternative prime minister, and cooling to her government.

The opposition National party has its groove back under new leader Chris Luxon, promising a stern test of Ms Ardern’s leadership in 2022.

Mr Luxon only entered parliament in 2020, but the 51-year-old is seen as a worthy rival to Ms Ardern, primarily for two factors.

Firstly, as a former chief executive of beloved national carrier Air New Zealand and returning the flying Kiwi to profitability, he brings an unrivalled business pedigree to the role.

Secondly, he boasts a close friendship with former prime minister Sir John Key, enjoying his support and an incomparable mentor in Wellington.

Mr Luxon is just 16 months into his parliamentary career, and has spent just three months as leader, but appears at ease in the role.

“It’s the funnest job. It’s a great job,” Mr Luxon told AAP.

Part of his enthusiasm might be the support he has received from Kiwis.

Mr Luxon has received rockstar support on the road this summer, drawing hundreds to town hall meetings in Napier, Hastings, Hamilton, Blenheim and Nelson, all eager for a slice of the new leader.

“I’m a big extrovert,” Mr Luxon said, “so I really love it and got a lot of energy from it.”

The roadshow has ended due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the good news keeps coming for National.

Polling confirms the centre-right party’s rise, bridging the gap to Ms Ardern’s Labour.

Mr Luxon points to another key indicator, used by both major parties, as a sign Ms Ardern’s electoral fortunes are waning: how many believe NZ is heading in the right direction.

In January, 72 per cent of Kiwis approved of the country’s direction compared to 19 per cent who viewed it negatively, for a net approval rating of 53 per cent.

By December, according to polling undertaken by the Taxpayers’ Union Curia, the net approval rating was just four per cent – the lowest level of Ms Ardern’s prime ministership.

That could be COVID-19 catching up with the government, despite NZ’s relative success compared with much of the world.

“For the first time in recent years, half the country thinks we’re heading in the wrong direction,” Mr Luxon said.

“There genuinely is a lot of pent up anxiety or questioning or curiosity about where are we going. We’ve all been through a COVID-type experience where people sort of want to know what’s coming next.

“I just think we’ve lost our confidence and our positivity and our optimism, our place in the world and how well we can do.”

It’s good news for Mr Luxon, who is enjoying his political honeymoon as Kiwis get to know him.

Mr Luxon was born in Christchurch, becoming the first of his family to go to university after a public school education.

His business career blossomed quickly, joining consumer goods giant Unilever straight from Canterbury University, working in Australia, the United Kingdom and North America over 18 years.

In 2011, he came home to NZ, leading the national carrier for six years, improving its culture – introducing family violence leave, reaching parity between women and men among its top 100 earners – as well as its bottom line.

“The thing I’m proudest about is we really lifted the customer performance big time,” he said.

Since becoming National leader, Mr Luxon has been parodied for corporate mumbo jumbo in his language.

He has called voters “stakeholders”, told his caucus there were seven quarters until the election, and has promised “KPIs” for MPs in the run-up to the 2023 election.

There has also been a preoccupation with his religion.

Mr Luxon declines to elaborate on his Christianity, saying his faith is personal, suggesting his political opponents are preoccupied by what they say are his “fundamentalist” beliefs.

“I haven’t been inside a church for five or six years. But I have a personal faith (which) grounds me in something bigger than myself,” he said.

“People trying to label it as as this type or that type of faith … a lot of it is political. It’s easy to stereotype or label and it is being used in that way.”

While its tempting to see Mr Luxon as another cookie-cutter permanently-suited centre-right politician, he has his quirks.

He nominates Barack Obama as his favourite political leader, and John Howard as his most respected Australian prime minister.

“I love Australia,” he says enthusiastically.

“If I couldn’t be a Kiwi I’d be an Aussie. Absolutely. I just love the confidence and optimism of the joint.”

And most curious of all, he writes all of his emails, and has done for years, in a bright blue comic sans font, belying the seriousness of his jobs.

“I’ve just always done it in that font,” he laughs.

“The other day I turned on my computer and it had been changed to Calibri and I thought, ‘Have this been changed because (a staff member) didn’t think I should be writing in comic sans?’

“I have a digital notebook. Everything’s organised in it and yes, I can’t explain it, but I’ve been (using comic sans) since probably 2000. Probably before that! Since when I first got hooked up with email.

“To me, it’s what I use. I apologise for that if it offends you deeply.”

WHO IS CHRIS LUXON: NEW ZEALAND’S LATEST OPPOSITION LEADER?

No New Zealand prime minister has faced more opposition leaders than Jacinda Ardern, who took office in 2017.

After Bill English, Simon Bridges, Todd Muller and Judith Collins comes Chris Luxon, the former Air New Zealand chief executive and close friend of the last National election-winner, Sir John Key.

He was raised in Christchurch and Auckland, has worked in Sydney, London, the USA and Canada, and now resides in Auckland where he is the Botany MP.

He has two children, William and Olivia, with his wife Amanda, who he met at a church youth group.

LUXON ON AUSTRALIA:

I love Australia. If I couldn’t be a Kiwi I’d be an Aussie. Absolutely. I just love the confidence and optimism of the joint.

ON AUSTRALIAN LEADERS:

John Howard is the one that I really admired. Peter Costello was a great treasurer.

Paul Keating, what he did in terms of opening up relationships with Indonesia and being a bit thoughtful about Australia’s role in the region, I thought was really smart and was ahead of its time.”

ON SCOTT MORRISON:

He’s tapping into enterprise, and positivity and optimism. The can-do (spirit). He’s doing things that are enabling people who want to take a chance and take some risk and make things happen. He’s been excellent at it.

ON HIS GOALS FOR NEW ZEALAND:

I really fundamentally want us to rediscover our confidence, our ambition and aspiration, and want to be prosperous in the fullest sense of the word. I just want us to realise our maximum potential – economically, socially, environmentally.

ON THE ARDERN GOVERNMENT:

They are basically vulnerable on non-delivery. They talk a good game, but actually when you step back and look at it, and how have they improved people’s daily lives, and what have they delivered? Nothing.

ON IMMIGRATION:

(The) government has been really anti-immigration. That’s one of the big takeaways, one of the big, consistent themes every place I go at the moment. Every single sector in this country is screaming out for talent … we want the best and brightest to come here and, and make an attractive place to be and it’s just not. We need that talent.

ON HIS RELIGION:

It’s never been an issue until I’ve come to politics. I just happened to be the CEO who happened to have a faith and that sort of just was it.

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