He sold deodorant and ice-cream, and ran an airline, as a top corporate executive who relished “turnaround jobs” for flagging businesses. On Saturday, as New Zealand’s election results designated Christopher Luxon prime minister in waiting, he appears to have found success with his sales pitch to voters: that they should choose his once ailing centre-right National party to steer the country out of a cost of living crisis.
“We listened to the people needing interest rates to come down so they can pay their mortgages,” Luxon told party faithful in his victory speech on Saturday. “We listened to the people that need tax relief to help pay for the grocery bills.”
New Zealand could be “so, so much better than it is,” Luxon said. “Together we will make this an even better country.” It was a speech without frills or sweeping ideological vision, marking a distinct change in tone from the left-leaning government that Luxon’s party ousted.
But the job ahead of the relative political newcomer is not simple. As New Zealand’s election campaign narrowed to almost a singular focus on living costs – driven in part by Luxon as opposition leader – he will now be judged on his ability to deliver relief, analysts say.
“He won’t be going into a following wind, but into a headwind,” says Craig Renney, director of policy for the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. “There will be a real question about the extent to which he’s able to push a really strong agenda.”
The vote marked a swift rise to power for Luxon, 53, whose election to parliament in October 2020 – after serving as chief executive for the national carrier, Air New Zealand – was seen by many as a direct tilt for the premiership. Campaigning on a promise to get New Zealand’s “mojo back” amid a pessimistic national mood, Luxon made the traditional centre-right pledges of tax cuts, crime crackdowns, and drastic slashes to government spending.
Presenting himself as positive, inoffensive and ambitious, Luxon revealed himself to be an extroverted “people person” on the campaign trail. But many New Zealanders still feel as though they do not know him. Luxon has confounded interviewers’ attempts to excavate strident or quirky details from his psyche, and resiles from discussions about his wealth – he is a millionaire – or his Christian faith, which he opines is misunderstood.
“It seems it has become acceptable to stereotype those who have a Christian faith in public life as being extreme,” Luxon said in his maiden speech to parliament. He described his faith as “personal” and frequently rebuffed requests that he further explain his views. Dogged, too, by his anti-abortion stance, Luxon vowed in June that he would resign from the premiership rather than allow change to abortion’s legal status in New Zealand.
Revelations that he had once attended an evangelical church roused suspicion in resolutely secular New Zealand – uncomfortable with public displays of faith – and prompted a short sideshow in election week about whether he believed dinosaurs exist (he does). Luxon said this year that he does not currently attend a church.
Luxon – a married father of two adult children – was born in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, and grew up in the largest city, Auckland, where he attended state schools. His parents were a sales rep and a receptionist. Luxon gained a Master of Commerce degree at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch before joining the multinational firm Unilever. He worked for 18 years for the company in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US, before returning home to lead Air New Zealand.
New Zealand’s elections are not presidential; voters select the party they want in government, with the names of leaders absent from ballot papers. But in ousting Labour for National, New Zealanders have opted again for a wealthy former corporate leader promising a managerial approach, as they did when John Key – a former banker and National leader – won the premiership in 2008.
“He seems to represent what you may call C suite capitalism,” Rennie said. “He believes that if you work hard enough, and try hard enough, then you can get what you need and the systematic problems that exist in the economy and in society, can be largely fixed with technocratic solutions, rather than being something that’s innate in what we do.”
On Saturday night, that was Luxon’s theme.
“The promise of New Zealand is quite simply that if you work hard in the best country on planet Earth, you should be able to get ahead,” he said.
But he has frustrated attempts to pigeonhole his politics as purely conservative; Luxon identified greenhouse gas emissions and child poverty in his maiden speech to parliament as particular matters of concern, and spoke early in his political career about his attempts to learn te reo Māori, New Zealand’s Indigenous language.
Luxon does not drink coffee or alcohol, and does not sleep much either. Profiles depict him as an intensely disciplined man with a relentless work ethic and a ready stash of aphorisms about management and leadership. He reads political and self-help books; when prompted during a pre-election debate to name his favourite book, Luxon plumped for the current title on his bedside table: W Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, exploring “the mental side of peak performance.”
Analysts say he can sound rehearsed, almost wooden, in interviews or before crowds.
“He’s a CEO to his back bootstraps,” says Janet Wilson, a political commentator and former National party press secretary. “It’s all about ‘going forward, KPIs, blue sky thinking.’”
But Luxon seemed to shine – and rise in the public esteem – when he was seeing and meeting the public. “He seems like somebody who’s more interested in people than in issues or data,” says Ben Thomas, a political consultant and former National staffer.
“Every place I went around the world at Unilever I had a routine where I’d go from the airport to meet with a consumer in their house before I met with my management teams,” Luxon once told RNZ. “I really wanted to understand what was going on in their whole life as much as actually how they were consuming products.”
He also applied his branding experience to right the listing ship of the National party, which – before his ascension – had suffered a near-historical drubbing in 2020 and cycled through three leaders in less than a year. But why – when, by his own admission, he need never work again – did he want to?
“You would assume that some of it comes from his religious principles and having a genuine desire to improve the world,” Thomas says. “He’s also an ambitious person who obviously wants to achieve a lot of things in life.”
On Saturday, Luxon pledged to govern “on behalf of every New Zealander wherever they are whoever they are, and whatever their life circumstances.”
He added: “Regardless of ethnicity, and whether our families arrived generations ago, or are new migrants we all share an interest in living in a safe, stable country that celebrates fairness and wants the very best for every New Zealander.”