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By Russell Palmer, RNZ News digital political journalist

National says a series of attack ads targeting its leader Christopher Luxon funded by the Council of Trade Unions in the Aotearoa Election 2023 campaign is “disgraceful”.

The NZCTU launched its campaign targeting Luxon today, with billboards going up around the country and social media.

A full front-page wrap-around ad on The New Zealand Herald newspaper declared “Christopher Luxon: Out of touch. Too much risk” under the paper’s masthead, with the word “advertisement” in smaller font at the top of the ad.

The New Zealand Herald front page Christopher Luxon ad
The New Zealand Herald front page Christopher Luxon ad today . . . “Out of touch. Too much risk.” NZH screenshot APR

The NZCTU’s logo and a link to a CTU-run website was at the bottom.

A second full-page ad ran overleaf on page 2, saying Luxon was “out of touch and focused on the wealthiest few”, and highlighting policies like tax cuts, scrapping fair pay agreements and fully funded prescriptions, and concluded with a bullet point saying Luxon “isn’t the right leader in a cost-of-living crisis”.

The National Party’s campaign chair Chris Bishop said the CTU, which has 27 unions affiliated, should be ashamed.

“The union movement is able to spend vast sums of money attacking the National Party and Christopher Luxon,” he said.

‘American-style hatchet job’
“They’re running audio-visual slots, televisual slots, they’ve got billboards in many major cities around New Zealand, this is a highly orchestrated, highly political, highly choreographed American-style hatchet job on Christopher Luxon.

“It’s disgraceful, they should be ashamed of themselves and it’s not what New Zealanders want in this election campaign.”

National Party leader Christopher Luxon at the party's launch of its 2023 election campaign.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon at the party’s campaign launch yesterday. Image: RNZ/Samuel Rillstone

“Sadly with six weeks to go it’s become very clear that thanks to the Labour Party this is going to become the most negative election campaign in New Zealand history. Jacinda Ardern’s ‘be kind’ has become ‘be nasty’ under Chris Hipkins.”

Bishop would not commit to not attacking Labour, but said it would target differences of policy approach and targeting Labour’s record.

“Of course we are going to attack the Labour Party’s record, we’re going to make no bones about that . . . but the point of pointing those things out is to draw a contrast with National’s different approach and our positive plan for the future.

“We are going to run a strong and vigorous campaign but we are not going to engage in the kind of nasty, personal, petty, vindictive politics that the union movement and the Labour Party are going to engage in.”

‘Play the ball’
Labour’s campaign chair Megan Woods made a similar commitment last week, saying the party would “play the ball, not the person — but we should be holding National and ACT to account for the ideas that they’re putting out there”.

Asked how Luxon was holding up under what Bishop described as “very personal” attacks, he laughed and said Luxon was “completely fine”.

“Look, he’s big enough and ugly enough to handle it, I just think it’s pretty pathetic and I think the New Zealand public deserve better than that.”

He said the CTU was “intimately” connected to the Labour Party.

“It’s in the name, it’s the Labour Party because they’re part of the Labour movement . . .  Craig Renney was Grant Robertson’s adviser and he’s now at the CTU, so they know exactly what they’re doing.”

‘Not nasty at all’ – CTU
Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff told RNZ the campaign was focused on National’s policies.

“He’s [Luxon] promising to take down fair pay agreements, put people on [90-day] trials, make savage cuts to public services, and all in all we see it as a very serious choice ahead of New Zealanders at this election — perhaps the most serious choice in over a generation,” Wagstaff said.

He denied that focusing on Luxon was unfair.

“It’s not nasty at all, it’s simply saying that Christopher Luxon is out of touch and he can’t be trusted.

Richard Wagstaff
Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff . . . “His [Luxon’s] instinct in the cost of living crisis is to take over $2 billion out of the climate fund and give an over $2 billion gift to landlords. That, to us, is an out-of-touch policy.” Image: RNZ News

“National is focused heavily on Christopher Luxon, launching him as the leader, the buck stops with him and he’s leading these policies so we need to draw attention to Christopher and what he’s saying.

“His instinct in the cost of living crisis is to take over $2 billion out of the climate fund and give an over $2 billion gift to landlords. That, to us, is an out-of-touch policy.”

He said Labour had not been involved in the ad campaign at all, and it was a completely independent intiative.

“This is the National Party’s paranoia, Labour are not even mentioned in the ads, they’re not part of this campaign … we’re not asking people to vote for Labour we’re simply saying that Christopher Luxon and his policies would present a major danger to working New Zealanders.”

He said National was just trying to divert attention “away from the fact that their leader intends to smash industry bargaining, put people on trial periods and generally undermine the interests of working people”.

“We’re just putting that out there . . . it’s important that people look behind the rhetoric and really look at their policies.”

He said the $400,000 National had suggested for total ad campaign cost was an incorrect figure.

“It’s wrong, as far as I know it’s incorrect — I actually don’t know the figure but we don’t have that kind of money to spend on campaigns.”

Union members were happy to have their funds spent on the campaign, he said.

“Absolutely, union members expect the CTU to advance their interests as working people. This is an incredibly important election for the interests of working people.

“We’re not going to sit on our hands while National takes an axe to basic entitlements of the New Zealand working people.”

In an earlier statement, Wagstaff said the ad campaign would be “evidence-based”.

“Christopher Luxon and National will take New Zealand backwards and working people will be the first to feel the pain,” the statement said.

‘Democracy in action’ – Hipkins
Labour leader Chris Hipkins said the CTU had run campaign ads in every election he had been involved in, and he had been aware they would be doing so but had not seen the ads until they were published.

He said for National to be offended was “incredibly thin-skinned” given the Taxpayers Union lobbying group, which has typically advocated for right-leaning policies.

“I think the CTU are raising some legitimate concerns around the effects of the National Party’s policies,” Hipkins said.

Labour Leader Chris Hipkins holds up a series of attacks ads which mention him or other Labour MPs. He says they have been shared by National and/or its MPs.
Labour leader Chris Hipkins holds up a series of attacks ads which mention him or other Labour MPs. He says they have been shared by National and/or its MPs. Image: RNZ/Angus Dreaver

He said National was “desperately trying to distract attention away from the fact that they’be been caught out with their numbers and their policies just not stacking up. They’re trying to create a diversion here.

“The National Party and their surrogates, including the Taxpayer’s Union, Groundswell, Hobson’s Pledge and so on, have been running attack ads against me and the Labour government since the day I took on the job.

“I haven’t called a press conference or issued a media statement every time they have done that.”

Hipkins presented some “random examples” of the attack ads to reporters.

‘Russian horses’
“This one here, I was particularly touched by this one, actually. This is myself and David Parker on what would appear to be some Russian horses. I actually think I look quite good on a horse, to be frank.

“We have a pretty nasty, despicable personal attack on Nanaia Mahuta, that was, I believe, The Taxpayer’s Union did that one.”

Another ad — published by the National Party — had a photoshopped image of Hipkins’ face on the side of a sticking plaster box.

Hipkins said he did not believe Labour’s own campaign was negative.

“I don’t believe that we are running a negative campaign. We are out there campaigning positively on the things that we’re putting before the electorate, but we are also checking the promises the National Party are making because they simply don’t stack up.

“If they want to be the government, they’re going to be subject to this sort of scrutiny day in and day out — we have been for the last six years.”

“I don’t think critiquing the potential effects of the National Party’s policy is something they should shy away from. That is democracy in action.”

Chris Bishop said National would condemn any third-party ads attacking Chris Hipkins.

Labour Leader Chris Hipkins holds up a series of attacks ads which mention him or other Labour MPs. He says they have been shared by National and/or its MPs.
Labour leader Chris Hipkins holds up a series of attacks ads which mention him or other Labour MPs. He says they have been shared by National and/or its MPs. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

‘Completely separate from editorial’ – NZ Herald
In a statement, a spokesperson from The New Zealand Herald said “expression of opinion through advocacy advertising is an essential and desirable part of a democratic society”.

“All advocacy ads must comply with the ASA Codes and Advocacy Principles, as well as our own Advertising Acceptability Policy. Publishing an advertisement does not indicate NZME’s endorsement of that product or message.

“It’s also important to note that advertising stands completely separately from editorial.”

Bishop said he did not have a problem with the Herald running the ad.

“I mean, newspapers have got to sell advertising, I’ve got no issue with the Herald running that ad and I’ve got no issue with other outlets taking advertising money.

“I’ve got an issue with the CTU running it and I think they should be reflecting on it. I think it will backfire, ultimately, on them, and I think New Zealanders will see through it.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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