Nine thoughts on Prime Minister Chippy
Is this a new era for the Sixth Labour Government, or just its final gasps of life?
Hello all. My apologies for not writing to you earlier about what has been the most important week of politics in years. I was in Venice with my parents and partner and it seemed rude to ignore them to write a newsletter.
I am going to write something longer about Jacinda Ardern and her legacy soon, once the take machine stops spinning so fast. (I wrote a short piece for The Guardian while still basically in shock.) But before that, and before he is sworn in on Wednesday, I wanted to get down my thoughts on incoming Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.
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There are nine months until the election. So here are nine thoughts about the man who will be Prime Minister for that period.
One: All things being equal, he faces a tougher challenge than Ardern would have.
Jacinda Ardern had what the marketing people call “good cut through.” She was able to speak directly to voters both through and around the media, letting a lot of them gain a para-social relationship with her. She remained on top of the preferred Prime Ministerial polls, suggesting she was a net asset for her party, not a liability. While her style seemed to have started to grate with some in the population, it’s not at all clear that those people were ever likely to vote for Labour. Indeed, the swing voters I looked at in my last post on here generally had overwhelmingly positive views about her.
She was also promising a similar reset to the one Hipkins talked up at his press conference on Sunday, with a relentless focus on economic issues for middle New Zealand. To equate Hipkins with this reset is a mistake - although a new face will make it seem more real.
Maybe Chris Hipkins is more the prime minister for this moment. But I’m yet to see evidence that he himself makes a win more likely than Ardern would.
The election debates were going to be a chance for Ardern to show up the contrast between her experienced warmth and Luxon’s inexperienced corporate coolness. Now it’s going to be two white guys named Chris.
Two: Hipkins will reset the relationship with the press
Despite the strong beliefs of many on the right, the relationship between the Prime Minister’s office and the Parliamentary press gallery has generally sat between “cordial” and “antagonistic,” with the latter taking hold especially during this term.
The issues that cause this vary from logistical hiccups - think the Prime Minister changing a flight or two and that costing your company a lot of money - to a deeper question about access and respect.
There were still plenty of press conferences of course - usually one long form one a week plus three or four shorter ones in sitting weeks. This is far more than most world leaders put up with. But Ardern’s office made longer sit downs with her rarer, cut down on some regular interview slots, and the tradition of regular off the record calls with various political editors seemed to fade too. Ardern still respected the role of the fourth estate, but she also relished the control of the narrative and direct line to voters that social media gave her. (To be fair, politicians all over the world have discovered this, Ardern has continued a track John Key and Bill English both started to drive down.)
Chris Hipkins and his office have had a much stronger relationship with the gallery, or at least did when I left in mid-2022 for my OE. The relationship between a top minister and the gallery and the top minister is always going to be different. But Hipkins, even when he was extremely busy with Covid-19, could usually find the time to explain his thinking to journalists on the phone, or at least allow one of his staff to. His press team at the height of the pandemic - Richard Trow and Gia Garrick - were both former reporters who understood well that the public deserved a lot of communication about a health strategy that was shaping their lives very deeply.
It’s easy to overstate things. The journalists in this relationship are professionals who do their best to make sure they give politicians both scrutiny and a fair go at explaining themselves, regardless of their relationship with them or their office. But a bit of a reset could see general coverage look a bit different - even if it’s just because Hipkins has a bit more room to explain himself and his thinking on various issues. That is, until he gets too busy to pick up the phone.
Three: Labour have not won an election with a man in charge since Chris Hipkins was eight, in 1987.
The median voter is a woman. And the swing voters I examined in my last post were more likely to be women than men - and they adored Ardern. It’s much easier to differentiate yourself from the bloke on the other side when you’re not also a bloke. With the same name.
Four: Hipkins and Ardern have a lot in common
For all this talk of a reset, let’s remember:
Ardern and Hipkins were born two years apart.
They both got involved in politics while very young, eventually working for Helen Clark’s Labour government as advisors.
They both were elected in 2008 as the tide went out on that Government.
They both were avowedly against David Cunliffe in opposition.
They have had a close and trusting working relationship throughout this Government, with hipkins given huge power of the running of the House, the public service, and the Covid-19 response.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be a reset. Hipkins has definitely been a the forefront of some of the more recent right-wing moments of this Government, like the public sector wage freeze. But to assume he has properly different politics than Ardern is to miss the mark somewhat - they are both social democrats who believe the way to change things is to win elections, no matter how many policies you have to ditch to get there.
Five: Hipkins knows how to work the public service
There is not a huge amount of time to get much policy in place before the election. But Hipkins is well-placed to effect new policies if he wants to. This could be crucial as public sector departments don’t usually say “no” to ministers, they just say “not now”.
As minister of public services he already has a good systems-level view and a relationship with Peter Hughes. More than that, he has experience across the crucial ministries that determine how the state interacts with most people under the age if 65: Education, Health and Police. His deputy makes up for his lack of social development experience as does the decision to keep Grant Robertson as finance minister. If he wants to shift some levers, he will be able to.
Six: This experience comes with a price
The great thing about being Christopher Luxon is you can’t really be blamed for anything that impacts ordinary Kiwis.
National have been out of Government for long enough now that their top team are mostly not tarnished with the legacies of actual governing, where you will always get some things wrong. Ardern and Hipkins were in this position in 2017. They are not any more.
For Hipkins, the big two that stick out are in education and MIQ. The MIQ wind down was long and messy, with flashpoints along the way like the Charlotte Bellis saga. Education has two issues - Hipkins’ decision to roll up the polytechnics into one hasn’t gone that well, but more crucially he’s been education minister for long enough now that any and all problems with the system can be somewhat placed at his feet. That means everything from truancy to literacy rates to the fact you don’t like the way a teacher told your child about the Treaty.
Seven: It’s “Chippy” not “Chippie”.
At least in my personal style guide.
Eight: The next few weeks will be crucial
Right now we are in a stage of political liquidity. Everything is malleable- Labour can take on completely new positions on things or drop huge policies without getting too much pushback for “u-turning.”
The public is presumably sitting up and paying more attention than normal. This situation will not last for long.
Nine: Don’t read too much into the unanimous vote
Labour’s MPs want to win the election, and knew that the worst way to do that would be a scuffle over Ardern’s successor.
But that doesn’t mean that Hipkins now has the same absolute power that Ardern could wield over the Labour caucus. He didn’t win them that huge majority. He will have space to clear away a bit of controversial policy, but not without limit or pushback. If some new polls come out that show things looking a lot worse under him, the bad old days of leaking and plotting could always come back.