By Jeremy Smith

Leighton Baker: ‘Building’ on the Lessons Learned

“I’m far too young to retire,” he says with a smile, “…I do think I still have something to offer in politics and I haven’t given up. Right now though, in that sphere, I don’t exactly know how that looks in terms of a role, or where or how I’m meant to serve going forward.

“What I am passionate about is seeing unity among Conservative thinkers and voters and we are looking at how we can empower people to have a say in the things that they are experienced in or passionate about. Watch this space.

“But,  I’ll say this. Two needs I believe we still have as a country are, firstly, we absolutely need Christians in politics being salt and light and a Godly influence. Secondly, we still need to see societal change in New Zealand – until we see that we should keep fighting. If we as Christians relinquish, who will take up the baton?”

It’s an honest reflection from former New Conservative party leader Leighton Baker as he looks back on his time in the job he held from 2017 until last year’s election.

He has contested every general election since 2008, but was removed from his most recent role after the party gained 1.5 percent of the party vote, or 42,615 votes, at last year’s election.

“We didn’t get where we wanted”, Leighton says candidly, nearly a year on. “We were aiming to reach the five percent threshold for Parliament and we didn’t, so yes, as leader at the time, I take ownership of that.”

While conceding he was disappointed by the poll result, he’s far from discouraged. Ultimately, he trusts the Lord, and as he prayerfully considers what God has for him next, Leighton took time to chat with Jeremy Smith about what it’s like being in politics and the level of scrutiny that comes with the job, being bold for, and totally reliant on, his faith in Jesus, getting to spend more time with his family now, running his own business and his love of the outdoors and fishing.

 
As we begin, I’d love to hear how you first came to know Jesus…
I was brought up in a Christian home. But, in terms of beginning a personal relationship with Jesus, when I was younger my parents used to send me to Christian camps in the school holidays. I came to know Jesus as the Gospel was shared at these camps. When I was a teenager though, my parents separated. That was hard and, for a season, threw a spanner in the works in terms of my walk with the Lord. Looking back, I think that experience is one of the reasons why these days I’m quite passionate about helping inform young people of the importance of building solid, committed relationships. I made a few very poor decisions for sure, but God was very gracious to me. In my late teens, I began working with some Godly Christian men. By simply sharing their stories as we worked together each day, they really helped me get back on track. Through them, the Lord gave me a sense of hope again.

That shows the importance of young people having Godly role models in their lives, don’t you think?

Absolutely. Having Godly people like that in your life is immensely valuable. They don’t necessarily even have to say a lot. In my experience, I shifted from Auckland up north to work on a farm. The guy I worked with there was probably in his 60s at the time, but there’s no doubt hearing his story and his experiences really impacted me.

Christian camps are so valuable aren’t they? Isn’t it amazing how many young lives are impacted positively and pointed towards Jesus by them? 

For sure. As I mentioned, I had my own encounter with Jesus while I was at such a camp. They are an amazing avenue through which young people can hear a Christ-centred, alternative message to what is often shared in places like the public school sector. Particularly with programmes like Bible In Schools becoming more and more rare in our current environment. One of the things we were fighting for through politics was free speech. A major aspect of that was the importance of continuing to be able to share the Gospel. Simply put, I came to Jesus because a Christian camp shared the Gospel. I’m so grateful.

Since those mentors led you back to the Lord, as an encouragement to our readers, what’s the biggest thing Jesus has taught you in your walk with Him?
It really is all about Jesus! I’m learning that we must always take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on Him. Everything else is temporary – our work, our possessions, our house, our boat, everything. Life goes so fast! James 4:14 says “…You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (NIV). We’re here on earth for such a short time, then we stand before God. Let’s live every moment for Him and be intentional about setting our eyes on things that are eternal, so that when we do stand before Him He says to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

You mention politics, so how did you get involved in politics in 2008, and why did you want to? 

Crikey, 2008! That’s going back a while isn’t it! I initially got involved by helping a mate who was standing – at that stage though, I didn’t have the time to get involved myself.

Then, I went to a screening of the movie Amazing Grace. Gordon Copeland and Larry Baldock, who were both involved with the Kiwi Party – Larry as party leader, Gordon as president – were showing the movie all over the country. The film demonstrates how powerful it is when people have a voice in Parliament and it really spoke to me. I left my name with Larry and then went back to my day job as a builder. One day, Larry showed up to the building site where I was working and said “…instead of being a bystander, get involved”.

As well as having been involved in politics, you run the building firm you’ve just mentioned, and you’re a husband, father and grandfather. Can you tell me about your family life?

Sure! I don’t want to make other guys who read Authentic sad, but I really do have the best wife in the world! Her name is Sue and she’s amazing. We do everything together, whatever we’re putting our hand to, she’s there, being 100 percent supportive and challenging and encouraging me. Since last year’s election, we’ve turned more of our attention to running our business, in Rangiora, as well as trying to put legs on some of the policies we spoke about last year. Everything we do is total teamwork. I don’t think I could do it without her support. We have four adult children and five little grandchildren. As any grandparent knows – they’re such a delight. Family is so fun, and an amazing support system. They keep me grounded and encourage me – they’re not too shy to challenge me, in love, when necessary either!

The South Island is so beautiful! What’s the best part about being based there, and are you a city or country kind of guy?

I love the wide-open spaces of the country and really enjoy working with animals. But I’ve lived in both the city and the county in various places around New Zealand – Invercargill, Lower Hutt, Auckland, Rotorua and the far north. We have such a beautiful country and there’s wonderful towns and cities everywhere. Living where we live now, it’s about the lifestyle really. When the kids were growing up, they had the freedom to ride motorbikes, ride horses down to a nearby river, raise animals, all sorts of things.

Talking of politics again, what was the most satisfying part of the job, and the most challenging? 

Politics isn’t something I found incredibly attractive, it was just an obvious need in New Zealand for an alternative narrative to what was on offer. I firmly believe that we need to have a crack at the challenges and opportunities we find in front of us. A rudder is useless on a moored ship!

At times, probably the most challenging part was feeling like we were misrepresented in the media, and often painted as something we simply weren’t. I felt that at times there was some form of an agenda there. In my opinion, when that type of reporting happens, it deprives New Zealanders of opportunities to make their own well-informed decisions. To be fair, that’s not true of everyone working in the media, and there are some wonderful people doing so. But it was really hard when people thought that, as a party, we were something we were not, simply because the media said we were. Unfortunately, at times as humans, I think we’re all a little bit prone to believe something we want to believe, when we hear it on the news. 

The most rewarding part, for me, undoubtedly, was meeting the most amazing people up and down New Zealand – wonderful people doing phenomenal things. New Zealand is such a cool country, we have brilliant people everywhere and I absolutely loved meeting them.

What’s it like working in that job as a Christian? Can you think of times when God really sustained you as you undertook the work you were doing in politics?

Absolutely, there’s heaps! Particularly towards the end of the campaign. In 2020, I spent about a third of the year at home, the other two thirds I was away working and doing politics. So we were campaigning and building houses while running my building business. But, even towards the end of the campaign, after a long stretch, we didn’t feel tired as we went into a long line of meetings or media interviews. We should have been exhausted! But, thanks to the Lord, we really felt energised and had the right answers at the right time, far more so than we should have!

I heard you say in an interview that about 70 percent of New Conservative candidates were small business owners. How did that background and understanding of the business world inform an approach to politics?

New Zealand is a nation of businesspeople who run businesses of all sizes. Many of those – like myself – are self-employed. Statistics New Zealand figures state there are about 530,000 small businesses – those with fewer than 20 employees – in New Zealand, representing 97 percent of all firms. These account for 28 percent of employment and contribute over a quarter of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP). We are a wonderful country for starting up a business – whether it be a builder like myself, who started out as an apprentice, or a cafe, a farmer, or whatever the work might be. It’s so important to understand that people like these drive our economy. There’s a lot of sacrifice – and at times risk taking – involved in starting and running a successful business. So, having candidates with New Conservative who knew what it takes to do that was so important!

They were familiar with business-related tasks, but they also understood first-hand the effects of Government policies and regulations on those businesses and on every day New Zealanders. Government regulation is not just “one more thing…” Continual legislation and cases of adding “…one more thing…” in fact hurt everyday hard-working New Zealanders because business owners are already trying to comply with a myriad of other ‘one more thing’ requirements.   

While you’ve subsequently left the role, what would you do differently looking back and do you have any regrets? 

I didn’t go full time with New Conservative during the last election campaign – I was still working full time at my business as well. That’s probably one of the biggest things I would do differently. Reflecting now, I’d say that was an error, although a financial necessity, because the nature of my building work meant that, at times I wasn’t as accessible as I could have been. When I was building as well, I wasn’t able to keep those lines of communication really really clear with people when it came to New Conservative. 

Conversely though, what are some positives you’ve taken away from your experience in politics?

I don’t know if many people know this, but Labour and New Conservative were the only parties which had candidates standing in every electorate in New Zealand. And, New Conservative had brilliant candidates, lovely people up and down the country. Our team was full of amazing hard-working people. I feel our policies were robust. We put a lot of time into them. It did seem though that at times the media just wasn’t interested in accurately reporting what we stood for. I think we were starting to gain some good ground and some real momentum. It’s true we didn’t get where we wanted results wise, and while I wasn’t happy with that, we had built a phenomenal team of people. And that was amazing.

What’s the biggest challenge facing New Zealand as a country at the moment?

I think we’re currently seeing a lot of divisiveness in New Zealand, and in my view much of that has to do with freedom of speech and media feeding the wedge. When we have laws which encroach on freedoms, I think we are in trouble. We all know that New Zealand is a wonderful place to live and work and lots of people want to come and be here. What’s made it like that is unity and that ability we’ve had to live and work together really well as a nation – the ability to have free discussions, freedom to worship, freedom to congregate and freedom to have open and honest discussions and to have our beliefs and express our views.  

New Zealand is a very unique nation and I believe can do so much better by working together, rather than continually looking at what divides. Injustices must be dealt with, but we must also look to a future of being united as a nation.

Another key area for me was around binding referenda that meant the people of New Zealand would actually have a choice when it came to legislation. In New Zealand, I feel we don’t really have any way of holding the Government to account – so when we have a situation now like we do where the Government is a majority Government, it can potentially be really dangerous. I believe we are seeing some of the effects of that.

Why should men in New Zealand be aware of what’s happening in politics and what can Christians do to be a practical support?

The biggest thing is obviously prayer. But practically, in my view, it is to stand with Christians in politics. And by that, I mean when we hear of something negative in the media, let’s not be quick to jump on the bandwagon. People are fallible and I understand that. We are humans – we make mistakes. But as Christians, when we hear something, let’s stop and be prayerful, look past the sensationalism that sometimes goes on and really consider the facts. Maybe even if you know someone that something is said about, contact them and see what’s actually going on. When it comes to the Church, unity is absolutely key and as Christians we need to back each other. As a nation let’s pray for and lift up Christians in politics.

Leighton and Sue Baker

During the election, did you ever hear the phrase “wasted vote” when people talked about voting for a certain parties or candidates?

Yes. And my response is simply this. If you vote for something for any reason other than it is actually what you genuinely believe in, then you have in fact wasted your vote. If you vote for something that you don’t truly believe in, then even if you get what you voted for in that case, it’s not really what you genuinely wanted. It sounds simple, but we simply have to vote for what we truly believe in when it comes to the important decisions which shape our nation. Because then we get a say in how we move forward.

What’s the value of having Christians in politics? 

It’s imperative we have Christians in politics who speak the truth and fight for what we believe is right. Western nations were in fact founded on Christian principles and there is such value in that. That value absolutely needs to be represented and reflected in Parliament. If we discard the Christian voice in our nation, we do so to our own detriment. And it’s not just about politics. Christians need to be involved in and contributing to all spheres of life – politics, education, business, health, wherever. As Christians, we’re called to be the salt of the earth and bring a different, Godly perspective and His wisdom to situations. If we abandon that, we are certainly doing a dis-service to our nation. Look at Jesus. He was likely the biggest social reformer of His time and it was incredible how He approached issues that made up the fabric of His nation.

In New Zealand, we have some amazing Christians working in Parliament and we need them there to stand up, first and foremost, for Jesus and the importance of Godly values underpinning our nation.

Changing tack a little bit, now that you’re less involved in politics, what’s your favourite pastime when you need to rest and recharge?

There’s not many days off around at the moment! Last year was so busy that this year is a bit of a catch-up year in which Sue and I are working on some of the things we put to one side in 2020 – as well as trying some of the things we spoke about on the campaign trail, like growing nutrient dense food and building energy efficient buildings.

I do love going out into the bush – the peace I feel out there is beautiful, but it’s been a long time between outings.

I think my biggest priority is hanging out with my family and my grandchildren, just spending quality time with them. That is so refreshing.

Having been a politician, and given that you are a businessman, husband, father and grandfather, what advice can you give our readers about maintaining a Godly balance while living busy lives?

I think it’s critical that as men and fathers we recognise how valuable investing time into our families is. In my world, I made it a priority to try to never work weekends. There was the odd exception, but generally that allowed Sue and I to support the kids in their endeavours. When we guys come home from work, it’s important we intentionally look to serve and be an active part of our family life. Let’s be excited and enthusiastic about spending time with our kids too, because then our kids get excited about spending time with us! One of the things I think we as men need to work on – myself included too of course – is communication. It’s important that we learn to communicate effectively with our spouse and family.

Finally, as an encouragement to our readers, the realm of politics is likely one in which you often had to be bold for Jesus. How would you encourage our readers to also be bold in their faith as they live out their lives wherever God has called them to be?

As Christians we do need to be bold, but we can be bold without being arrogant or rude. We absolutely should share our faith, but we can’t force our beliefs on anyone, nor are we called to condemn them. I like the name of this magazine actually! Authentic. Why? Because we absolutely must be that. Our faith in Jesus must be who we really are as people, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our walk with Him should inform everything we do. As men, how do we treat our wives? With honour and respect? Our children see that. What sort of movies do you watch when no one else is home? 

Being bold for Jesus is something I believe we can never compromise on. Humanly speaking, I certainly know I’m not perfect. I’ve spoken of feeling misrepresented at times, but my encouragement is, let’s have confidence in who we are in Christ, because of who God has called us to be. I think the thing that puts many people off Christianity is duplicity – seeing someone acting one way one minute and another the next.

I like the verse which says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” – 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV). Just by being authentic and truthful in our walk with Jesus we will make a difference in other people’s lives, point them to Him and be a sweet fragrance.  

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Written By

By Jeremy Smith

About the author

Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.

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