National Party leader Christopher Luxon talks to the National Party President Peter Goodfellow. Photo / George Heard
“Strong team – here we are,” said National’s deputy leader Nicola Willis as she welcomed a handful of her caucus colleagues onto the stage at her party’s conference in Christchurch.
The quip was a reference to the much-lampooned billboards used during the Party’s 2020 election campaign. That year, the electorate clearly was not convinced by the “strong team” label (Labour even commissioned polling to prove it). This year, polls suggest the electorate is starting to look at the blue team again.
Willis and her leader Christopher Luxon welcomed National delegates to the Party’s 2022 conference in Christchurch’s new Te Pae convention centre.
Willis took the spotlight on the first day, with Luxon’s main speech slated for Sunday.
She tore into Labour on inflation, taxes, the cost of living, and labour laws.
Willis said she’d decided to start calling Labour’s $350 cost of living payment “KiwiSpray”.
“It’s like KiwiBuild only instead of being 99,000 houses short, it’s 800,000 payments short,” she said.
Of the Government’s Fair Pay Agreements, its landmark labour market reforms, Willis said: “the 1970s have called and they want their policy back, Michael Wood”.
Party conferences are about reconnecting with the party’s base. And a bit of reconnection is probably due in the National Party – a lot has changed since then-leader Judith Collins held National’s last party conference in Auckland a year ago.
Christopher Luxon’s wife Amanda opened the conference this year, introducing her husband to the party.
Her story about him taking overnight flights to be at home to spend time with his children drew a warm response from the audience of around 650 party members.
“When he walked through that door, the children had his undivided attention,” she said.
Christopher Luxon briefly took the stage, beckoning party figures, former presidents John Slater and Judy Kirk, members of the board, and members of the caucus to take to their feet for applause.
Much has been made of Luxon’s faith, and warm affinity with a crowd. His persistent calls for people to be “appreciated” did nothing to dampen comparisons of him with a preacher.
“Can you stand up and we can appreciate you,” Luxon said.
National is in the midst of a modernising project. Last week, it unveiled a new logo and colour palette that includes a blush of magenta bleeding into the traditional blue.
Willis’ speech made three references to past National leaders Adam Hamilton and Sydney Holland.
Her first reference provided a helpful summation of the modern National Party.
“As our first Leader Adam Hamilton said when National was founded: “[National stands] for a reduction of taxation so that enterprise may be encouraged, industries established and living costs reduced,” Willis said.
Not everything went to plan. Willis was meant to lead a panel with Andrew Bayly and Chris Bishop. When both men failed to appear on the stage at the conclusion of her speech, she told members they would break for morning tea early.
“You know how I was supposed to have two men on stage with me? Turns out one woman’s enough,” she joked.
As members began to leave to the foyer, she returned to the microphone and said it was actually too early to go to morning tea and welcomed the panel to the stage.
Willis then apologised to her close friend, Bishop, who was not on the stage because he was outside appearing on Newshub’s The Nation.
“I also want to apologise publicly for my friend Bish – he is representing National in an interview on The Nation and he’s running late on that – I think I was a bit unkind,” she said.
Bishop eventually wrapped up his interview and snuck onstage for the panel.
He talked up his colleagues, transport spokesman Simeon Brown and immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford.
Bishop said Brown had built more kilometres of his daughter’s toy train set than Labour had built of Auckland light rail, and Stanford understood more about New Zealand’s migration settings with just one researcher, than Labour did with thousands of MBIE public servants.