National Party leader Christopher Luxon has been challenged to “get out more”, with a supporter telling him people want change but “don’t know you”.
The comment follows longstanding questions about Luxon’s ability to convince the country to make him Prime Minister come October, having only been an MP since 2020 and Leader of the Opposition since the end of 2021.
It follows consistent polls that have seen National edge back up to and at times even overtake Labour, but despite an initial surge in support, Luxon himself remains less popular than incumbent Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.
The challenge came during a campaign walkabout in the Wellington electorate of Ōhāriu, in which Luxon appeared to be attempting precisely what he’d been challenged on.
“Great to leave the beltway,” Luxon remarked upon meeting media, adding “get out of the bubble” – both quips referring to the inner-Wellington political scene.
He was joined by deputy leader Nicola Willis, who is running in Ōhāriu for the first time in what could prove a litmus test for that political appetite for “change”.
The seat has been held for the past two terms by Labour’s Greg O’Connor, and before that United Future’s Peter Dunne. But aside from the last election, where the seat was swept up in the Covid “red tide” (Labour’s 51 per trouncing National’s 22 per cent), the party vote has long been a deep shade of blue.
The electorate is one the country’s wealthiest and is predominantly Pākehā – 71 per cent – followed by Asian at 23 per cent. More than half of the local families are couples with children, and almost three-quarters own their own homes.
Judging by those spoken to on the streets of Tawa – albeit a choreographed mix of National’s urban bread and butter put together by the campaign team, small business owners, real estate agents, and dairy owners – change is not only on the cards but essential.
Much of the chat was focused on political issues, with concerns about the rising cost of living and inflation making it harder for businesses to stay afloat, through to reports of petty crime and positive feedback to National’s pledges to reduce taxes and stop the “war on landlords”.
And those spoken to were also impressed by Luxon – but some feared he wasn’t doing enough to help others feel the same.
“What I hear is we want a change, but we don’t know who you are,” said Michelle Cam, who owns the local cafe Urban Eatery with her husband.
“People don’t know you. I really want you to put yourself out there more.”
Asked about this, Luxon said he felt he had been increasing his public appearances and was confident that recognition would increase.
“I’ve been talking with agricultural folk this morning. I was up in Northland last week. This week I’m down deep in Dunedin, and all over the country,” he said.
“I’m out every day. I come to Wellington… and then I leave as quickly as I can, and get out across New Zealand. I think we’ve made tremendous progress in 18 months.”
Willis, meanwhile, appeared cautiously optimistic about her chances in Ōhāriu.
O’Connor claimed the seat in 2017 with a three-percentage-point majority over National’s Brett Hudson. He extended that lead to just under 28 points in 2020.
“This is going to be an uphill fight,” said Willis.
“He’s been the MP for several years, he’s got a significant majority.”
He also has a vintage red Morris Minor with his face plastered across it – a well-known quirky feature, especially given the former police detective is over 1.83 metres (six feet) in height.
“He’s very popular… especially his Morris Minor,” said local cafe owner David Gray.
Willis declined to commit to introducing her own quirk but said a vote for her would ensure more “influence” in a National Government, with her as deputy leader and Finance spokeswoman.
“If we have a National-led Government after the election, I’ll make sure that this electorate gets what it deserves.”
She said it would not be embarrassing if she lost as the “party vote is most important”.
“This is a seat with an incumbent MP and a big majority. But I always say to my kids, you don’t just play because you think it’s going to be an easy win. Get in there and give it a go. You’ll learn something.”
She wouldn’t be drawn to make any commitments about the longstanding community desire for a mall in Johnsonville, saying politicians had overpromised in the past, but did stand by a previous commitment to move to the electorate if elected.
Part of the bargain was that she had promised her daughters their own rooms if they moved house, she said.
And if that was not committed enough, Willis earlier had to navigate the greasy, fried chicken-lined fingers of a potential voter whose hand she offered to shake – much to his dismay.
“I actually was polite and used my left hand for that handshake, because I realised that a right-hand to right-hand shake would involve grease exchange,” she told reporters.
“So we took a practical approach.”
Michael Neilson is a political reporter based at Parliament in Wellington. He has been a journalist since 2016, first at the Gisborne Herald before joining the NZ Herald in 2018, covering social issues, the environment and Māori affairs. He joined the Press Gallery team in 2021.