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GRAHAM ADAMS: Luxon keeps cool under referendum fire

The Prime Minister plays cat-and-mouse with journalists.


Within a day of becoming the National Party’s leader in November 2021, three of the nation’s most influential broadcasters — Ryan Bridge (The AM Show), Lisa Owen (Checkpoint) and Jenna Lynch (Newshub) — asked the new Leader of the Opposition whether he viewed abortion as tantamount to murder.


Christopher Luxon acknowledged that was his view but insisted the abortion laws were settled and he wouldn’t be revisiting them in government.


He was clearly uncomfortable being put on the spot over his religious beliefs and it must have felt like an astonishing coincidence — if not a stitch-up — that three senior journalists should ask him much the same question so soon after his promotion (and moreover on a topic that wasn’t even in the news). However, it undoubtedly taught him an important early lesson — given any chance at all, the media were going to crucify him. A honeymoon was definitely out of the question.


Subsequently, as a new leader finding his feet, Luxon shut down debate on several controversial topics just as soon as they appeared so journalists couldn’t exploit any chink in his armour or that of his party.


In February last year, National MP Maureen Pugh told journalists she had yet to see evidence humans have contributed to climate change. By that afternoon, after a media pile-on, she had publicly recanted, repeating the climate-change catechism in the hope of forgiveness: “I accept the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real and there is a need to curb greenhouse gas emissions.”


Pugh claimed her heretical words that morning had simply been misunderstood.


The speed with which Luxon closed down that honest expression of opinion was a tacit acknowledgment of the brute power the media will happily wield to destroy politicians who are critical of the media’s sacred causes — which include any criticism of anthropogenic climate change and transgender ideology. No doubt, for that reason, he steered clear of these topics on the campaign trail.


Ironically, the media’s determination to subject Luxon to a baptism of fire in his earliest days as leader has probably done him a favour. As the newly elected Prime Minister, he will have no illusions about how relentless his second baptism of fire over Māori issues will be.


However, this time he is no longer the newbie trying to establish his authority. He is the leader of a popular coalition government in which all three parties campaigned on winding back co-governance.


He now also has the support of two formidable Māori politicians on either side of him in Winston Peters and David Seymour. Perhaps for that reason, he appears confident he can handle whatever journalists throw at him over the government’s position on Māori issues.


That was apparent at Ratana last Wednesday when he was repeatedly pressed to rule out supporting David Seymour’s Treaty Principles Bill beyond a first reading and the select committee stage.


Despite having been accused on the marae of leading a “three-headed taniwha” and being “an enemy of Māori” — and Winston Peters and his deputy, Shane Jones, being called “taurekareka” (slaves) — Luxon exuded bonhomie in the stand-up press conference in the afternoon sun. He reassured his audience: “I don’t mind the provocation, I don’t mind the challenge.” He also repeated his mantra: “No intention, no commitment to take [Seymour’s bill] beyond the first reading”.


This refusal to play the “rule-in, rule-out” game seemed to discombobulate Newshub’s political editor, Jenna Lynch, who had asked him directly if he would “categorically rule out supporting the Treaty Principles Bill past first reading”.


After once again being denied her “gotcha” moment, Lynch tried to work out why the Prime Minister was so unwilling to do what she — and her fellow journalists — clearly expect. After all, they have made it crystal clear that a referendum is completely unacceptable to them. They seem to find it outrageous that Luxon won’t meekly agree that the right thing to do is to quash it — and that he intends to do just that.


Confounded, she tried to resolve this conundrum on air, thus revealing her gloriously muddled and presumptuous thought processes to Newshub’s evening audience.

Lynch decided a firm hand was required to bring the Prime Minister into line and issued a stern warning:


“Christopher Luxon’s language around that Treaty Principles Bill needs to be refined. He needs to communicate clearly either why he is not categorically ruling out supporting it past that select committee process, or, if not that, why he was even open to it in the first place if it was never going to result in a law change or referendum as the Act Party intended it to.


“Letting it go through these stages just to be killed in the process could be seen as a total waste of Parliament’s time but, not just that, it’s sparking a heated, divisive debate for an unclear outcome.”


It obviously hadn’t occurred to Lynch, as she ruminated directly to camera, that perhaps a national debate, however divisive, is needed to sort out what sort of constitutional future might be best for New Zealand and that such matters lie properly within the remit of voters. And someone should break the news to her that the Prime Minister doesn’t need to “refine” his language just because she can’t read between the lines.


Most of her viewers will be able to work out that Luxon is waiting to see how the debate progresses — and assess just how popular a referendum might be — before he decides exactly how to proceed.


Lynch put the same question about the future of Seymour’s bill to Winston Peters, who was far less diplomatic than his leader. As he walked past her, he responded: “I said I’ve had enough of novice day. Naff off, for goodness’ sake, I’m not wasting my time.”


When she asked Seymour how he felt about his colleagues’ stance, he replied jauntily: “They’ve said they have no commitment to go further. They’ve also never ruled out going further so that’s good enough for me.”


Just in case Lynch and her viewers might be left in any doubt about the depth of his confidence, Seymour signed off with a snappy grin directly to the camera.


Weirdly, after demanding Luxon specify the limits of National’s support for Seymour’s bill, Lynch described it as “dead legislation walking”. If she is so sure the legislation has no future, why ask Luxon repeatedly to be more precise?


Of course, Luxon has every reason to look relaxed and unperturbed by the media onslaught. His first few months in office have met with public approval. The results of a Curia poll published on January 16 showed National hitting 41 per cent, up from the 36.5 per cent it scored in the December poll.


And for the first time since February 2022, more people said the country was on the “right track” than the “wrong track”, with a net 4 per cent saying New Zealand is heading in the right direction.


It’s also a safe bet that internal polling is showing that the coalition’s willingness to stand up to the Māori nationalists — whose cause thrived under the Ardern-Hipkins government — is a lot more popular than the mainstream media would have us believe.


Luxon’s sunny response to the barrage of insults, petulant queries and barely veiled threats of civil disruption over the suite of policies rolling back co-governance could be accurately described as “Keep calm and carry on.”


With both the Kingitanga hui and Ratana now behind them — and the Prime Minister still unrepentant — journalists look to be pinning their hopes on the annual gathering at Waitangi on February 6 to bring him to heel. Consequently, Newshub’s anchor Mike McRoberts opened a live cross to Lynch at Ratana with a leading question: “If the government got this response at Ratana, what’s Waitangi going to be like?”


Lynch explained that Ratana was traditionally a polite affair but the gloves would really come off at Waitangi. The government, she predicted, will be in for a “right dressing-down” when it heads north.


Lynch is not alone in her desire to see Luxon taught a lesson. In a column published late last week, Stuff’s chief political correspondent, Tova O’Brien, related how Luxon had defended the divergent views between the government parties on the need for a Treaty principles referendum at his post-Cabinet press conference: “Yes, there will be differences… but at the core of what we’ve got in this government is massive alignment around the things that matter most to New Zealanders.”


O’Brien recommended — in her best impression of an imperious headmistress — that the Prime Minister should take “the week and a half before Waitangi to reflect on that statement and how much Māori rights matter”.


In short, Luxon needs to stand in the corridor outside Ms O’Brien’s office until he comes to a full understanding of what he has done wrong and can present himself to her with a much more contrite and respectful attitude.


At some point journalists will really have to accept that Luxon is now the Prime Minister, and no longer someone they can try to push around just because they feel like it. He’s wise to their tactics. Furthermore, his coalition government was granted a solid majority in October — including a mandate to reverse the push by the Ardern-Hipkins government to insert co-governance everywhere in the nation’s laws and institutions.


Just a year ago, the media were shamelessly fawning over “Chippy from the Hutt” when he was handed the role of Prime Minister in a desperate attempt to save Labour’s fortunes. Against reason, they treated the shop-worn Hipkins as if he had descended fresh from the heavens in a selfless bid to restore the party’s mana — and polling — after Jacinda Ardern had decamped.


Luxon knows only too well he is not a media darling. So if he occasionally takes some small pleasure in making fools of journalists in public and watching them stamp their feet in frustration when he won’t jump when they say jump, who would blame him?



Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This column was first published at The Platform

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