Monday, 24 Jan 2022

Christopher and Amanda Luxon on life as leader, what lies ahead – and Luxon’s bad habits

If any evidence was needed that the National Party leadership came upon Christopher Luxon suddenly, it is in the garage at his home.

Luxon did not spend the long months of Auckland’s lockdown planning his coup, marshalling his numbers or coming up with strategies to reclaim National’s lost voters.

He spent it putting his garage into meticulous order, armed with his Brother P Touch label machine. The same treatment was meted out in his garden shed, and in the kitchen. In fact, in almost every room in the house there are now labels.

He is quite proud of his efforts:everything in its place and a place for everything.

“I realised I was doing too much labelling at some point. But lockdown had its moments when things were a bit slow. So that’s when you go down a wormhole and can’t come back. That’s what happened there.”

I wonder what the punishment would be if some anarchic soul came along and put a spanner where the wrench was supposed to be.

I don’t only wonder this. I swap the drill bits with the pliers, then stand back and watch.

“Oh awful!” he says melodramatically. “No, it’s all good, all good.”

I’m fairly certain they were moved back as soon as I left.

His rise to leader has all but scrapped any plans for a summer holiday for Luxon. Then again he is possibly the only person in the country who has any energy left at the end of the year.

Luxon is fizzing at the bung, high on the joy of living or at least leading.

We are at his house in one of Auckland’s leafy suburbs. Luxon is the MP for Botany – and grew up there – but lives in Act leader David Seymour’s Epsom electorate.

Seymour has sent him a Christmas card. The envelope had “Judith” on it and Seymour simply crossed it out and wrote “Christopher” instead.

We are here for an interview with Luxon and his wife Amanda, who is told her role is to alert us if Luxon is telling fibs.

She also powders his head when I observe it is shining like a disco ball under the downlights. “This is love,” Luxon says as she dabs it on.

From Amanda we learn Luxon does not need much sleep – four to six hours a night – and is one of those extroverts who gets energy from talking to people (and from his Pepsi Max habit – he doesn’t like coffee or tea).

On their first date, Luxon stopped to fill the car with petrol. It was in the days when attendants filled the cars. Luxon got out to chat, got back in the car and filled Amanda in on the attendant’s life story.

That love of talking hasn’t changed. We had booked an hour for the interview – but Luxon rang a couple of days earlier and extended it. “You know how much I talk.”

Amanda too is adjusting to the more hectic schedule and intense scrutiny on issues such as Luxon’s faith that comes from being a leader.

She does not always agree with how he is portrayed – but has wisely learned to be “selective” about what she reads. “At first, I was reading everything. There will be lots of opinions out there, and I don’t think I need to read all of it.”

The house is tastefully renovated, open plan and very, very tidy. Their children – William, 22, and Olivia, 20, both live there but are at work.

As well as the labelled drawers, wardrobes and garden shed tools, in Luxon’s study, the books are lined up with the spines exactly flush.

His political biographies (mainly American) are sorted according to country. Other books are sorted as to topic.

Luxon says he reads biographies on business and political leaders, as well as a lot on World War II. He’s done more political learning by books than lived experience so far.

“They all have their strengths and weaknesses, but from each of them you learn something. [US President] Theodore Roosevelt is one of great political heroes – a real good man of action, getting things done.” He disagreed with Barack Obama’s politics, but admired the way he built his team and carried out his job.

He has sent his finance spokesman Simon Bridges – a fellow avid reader – a summer reading list: five books on economics. He claims Bridges is just dying to get into economic tomes over his summer.

Bridges is due to send Luxon a reading list too – although Luxon may not have much time for reading.

Luxon still hopes to take between Christmas and New Year off, catching up with Amanda’s family in Wellington and Luxon’s in Christchurch, as well as some time at their Waiheke Island holiday house.

But he’ll be working right through – trying to sort out his office and putting together his plan for next year.

National’s caucus are due to hold their annual retreat in February, and the new year will also deliver his first big “vision” speech.

“I’ll set out what I believe, what’s important to me. I’ve foreshadowed it a little bit, education is something that’s very important to me.”

It will be followed with interest – until now, Luxon has stuck to rolling out the usual political cliches about how he is ambitious for the country, and thinks it could do a lot more.

Successful leaders demonstrate both head and heart, and Luxon has so far stuck to the head side of the equation.

He is a business man by background and nature. His first weeks showed the businessman at work: setting up his caucus and office, deciding on work programmes.

The politician is yet to make much of an appearance, or whether conviction or pragmatism will dominate.

He is a republican rather than a monarchist – but it’s not a strongly held view.”The public will make that decision. It wouldn’t be a major priority for me, but I think over time you’ll find New Zealanders want to go down that pathway.”

He points to deputy Nicola Willis, finance spokesman Simon Bridges and Covid-19 spokesman Chris Bishop, as well as newly appointed chief of staff Cameron Burrows as his key unit when it comes to setting policy and direction.

Externally, those he talks to include Sir John Key and Steven Joyce first, saying Joyce has a good sense of the pulse of the country. He’d spoken to Sir Bill English about policy issues – Luxon has brought back more emphasis on English’s social investment policy. And he intended to immerse himself more in Māori issues, acknowledging he had a lot to learn.

He gave Judith Collins, who he replaced, an early holiday, but says he talks to her every few days. “Judith and I get on great. She’s in a good space.”

The step to leader was earlier than Luxon might have expected, but he said in the end it was not a hard decision to make to go for it. “There was a day where I thought deeply about it. But it was pretty obvious it was the right thing to do.” He had talked to his mentor, Sir John Key, about it.

“But I knew for myself it was the right thing to do, given where we were. I felt the public and certainly National supporters had been long-suffering, and if we didn’t reset it and put it in a different direction it would be a challenge.”

The first set of polls showed it had had at least some effect – National was back in the 30s while Act had dropped.

“I’ve found it pretty stimulating and energising. We’ve got through that two- to three-week period well. The polls are positive and encouraging but to be honest I don’t think too much about that. We have a lot of work ahead to make sure we are focused on the right things. There’s a lot to do.”

In their downtime, they play board games. Unsurprisingly, Luxon can be a tad competitive.

He and Amanda also used to play tennis against each other.

“You were always technically a much better tennis player. But at the very beginning, I thought you had a weak mental game. I would go down the road, where if I put you off with some sledging, it could psyche you out. I’d put her off her game, it was great.”

Then Amanda got too good and started beating him too often. Luxon couldn’t hack the pace – he kept putting his shoulder out or pulling his hamstring.

Her own sledging game has also improved. Amanda gets revenge for the “weak mental game” comment by mimicking him playing at the net. It is not a kind mime and he laughs.

What makes him angry? He could have gone with “people messing with my garage drawers” but he doesn’t.

“I’m pretty calm with a pretty consistent temperament. But I like to get things done and I think if things aren’t getting done well that can be a bit irritating.”

Amanda says he tends to “communicate his frustration in a calm and decisive way” rather than shouting, or delivering a silent death stare.

Asked what his bad habits are, Amanda mentions unfinished DIY projects. His son mentions the labelling.

These are not sins worthy of a book. His ancestors were apparently much better on the sin front.

Over the past five or six years, he has researched his family history. He stopped when he discovered his ancestors “have had an awful lot of interaction with the criminal justice system”.

One – a great-great-uncle – turned out to be a bigamist.

But the DIY failings are on display – a set of floating shelves he started to install before he suddenly became leader and did not have the time.

“I ran into a problem. I went down to Wellington and everything changed”

It certainly has.

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