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Christopher Luxon's success shouldn't hinder his political prospects

Christopher Luxon. Photo/Victor Carter/Listener

In the United States, a reality TV star can find his way to the seat of power, but here even real business success is something to be overcome.

It’s a quirk of politics that familiarity can breed content. If voters see enough of a persona, they come to believe in it. There was global mirth this year when Ukraine elected as its president Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor who had simply played the president on a popular TV sitcom. Yet this was hardly the most absurd development. Arguably, politics had already parodied itself beyond a joke with the election to the US presidency of Donald Trump, best known as a reality-TV star.

Now the charming but notoriously chaotic Boris Johnson is clear favourite for installation as British Prime Minister to clean up the Brexit shambles, which, as chief political vandal in the campaign to leave the European Union, he did so much to cause, including by telling lies.

Yet Johnson remains electorally viable, despite a recent slip in the polls, because the amiable buffoonery and Wodehousian utterances that many find endearing have been on public display as part of an appealing persona nearly all his adult life.

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The police attendance at a noisy domestic row between Johnson and his partner will probably only reinforce the existing views of his fans and detractors. The neighbours who gave a recording of the argument to a newspaper are rightly copping at least as much opprobrium.

In the US, TV talkshow queen Oprah Winfrey is under renewed pressure to stand for the Democratic Party, among the most persuasive reasons being that she’s well trusted as an authentic personality because she was for years seen near-daily in people’s living rooms. People feel confident they “know” her. Her solid-gold quality is the ability to bridge gender and race divides and to reassure those on the right that – as a self-made billionaire – she’s not a tacit socialist.

So far, Winfrey has ruled out her candidacy, but after Trump’s widely unexpected victory, few in US politics rely on the word “never”.

New Zealand has so far played a different celebrity game: politicians who become wildly popular can then ascend to celebrity status, but not the other way around. John Key was not even “world famous in New Zealand” when he entered Parliament as a National backbencher, but his popular prime ministership buoyed him to selfie-frenzy status. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern was just a well-regarded Labour frontbencher until she was handed the leadership – and her persona went viral.

Our Parliament has seen former All Blacks, TV personalities and sundry high-fliers forge only middling political careers over the years, and the political process has at times shunned potential stars. Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks captain David Kirk couldn’t get selected for National; nor could 70s-80s TV current-affairs star Simon Walker, for Labour.

But the allure of someone with a bit of heft or stardust remains powerful, which is why media and political circles are buzzing about departing Air New Zealand chief Christopher Luxon’s political aspirations, and those of cricketer-turned-TV host Mark Richardson.

Luxon says politics is only one of three options he’s considering, but the potential appeal of a big-business heavy hitter in the “made it big overseas” mould of Key has proved irresistible to pundits. Similarly, the frisson of someone as unabashedly woke-averse as Richardson in Parliament is compelling, although he says he’s earning too much to consider politics just yet.

Still, Luxon’s proven ability to lead a big, complex, safety-oriented corporation through challenging conditions and his long experience of tough overseas markets make his potential contribution to our politics, in any party, highly desirable. Unlike many big companies’ chief executives, he has never sought a high personal profile. Not many willingly face the inevitable media scrutiny upon entering politics – there’s truth in the joke that if you want to trace your family history, just stand for public office – but Luxon’s Christian faith is a further clue that for him, the political clichés about wanting to “make a contribution” and “giving back” are genuine.

The reflexive message from within National is “don’t assume”, and the fevered chatter, including ridiculous speculation that Key groomed him for the job, may perversely work against Luxon’s chances of success.

But he has never said he expects to be airlifted to the leadership or front bench.

What a waste if such experience and proven talent were passed over because of the old Kiwi cringe about successful people.

This editorial was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.