Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins resets Labour to the right


A history of Chris Hipkins’ political career and memorable moments.

OPINION

Get ready for a major political reset once Chris Hipkins is sworn in as Prime Minister this week. Labour’s new leader is likely to push the Government to the right economically, and do his best to jettison the damaging perceptions that Labour has become “too woke” on social issues. Overall, Hipkins’ goal will be to ruthlessly drag his colleagues into line with the average voter.

The politics of Chris Hipkins

As with most modern Labour Party politicians and leaders, Hipkins’ background is in student politics, then working as a Beehive staffer, followed by becoming a career politician. After finishing a degree in politics at Victoria University of Wellington he was student president for two years, got arrested out the front of Parliament, and eventually joined Wellington’s professional managerial class.

Associated with the education and public service sectors, Hipkins became aligned with the more middle-class progressives of the Labour Party. But this doesn’t mean he was ever particularly left-wing – most commentators describe him as being on the right of the party. For example, this week, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass discussed his politics as “centrist” and “further to the right of the Labour Party”.

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Similarly, writing in The Australian today, right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton argues that Hipkins is to the right of the outgoing leadership, but is also much more attuned to what ordinary voters might want from Labour, and is able to position himself as more down-to-earth than Ardern was.

An image shift for the Government is easier under Hipkins, says Hooton, because he comes across as more mainstream: “He likes his beers, sausage rolls and a long lunch – although remains relatively fit and boyish. His nickname, Chippy, is a play on his first initial and surname, but more so his usually effervescent demeanour. He’s what Labour activists often dismiss as a stale, pale, male – and also heterosexual.”

Chris Hipkins is all smiles during one of his Covid-19 update press conferences in the Beehive. Photo / Robert Kitchin
Chris Hipkins is all smiles during one of his Covid-19 update press conferences in the Beehive. Photo / Robert Kitchin

Can Hipkins reconnect Labour to its lost voters?

Former Labour Cabinet minister Iain Lees-Galloway has heralded Hipkins as someone who can better reconnect the Government with the voters who drifted away in the last year or so. He’s reported today as saying that Hipkins “will focus on the issues that matter to the average voter” and that “he presents a back-to-basics approach”.

The former minister says Hipkins “has the political antennae to be able to appeal to people that Labour needs to win back”. This is because Lees-Galloway says Hipkins has “a strong sense of what middle New Zealand needs”.

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According to Hooton, “Chris Hipkins will take Labour back to its old sleeves rolled up, practical Kiwi image”. He says that Labour will try to present Hipkins as more about delivery than speeches and visions: “Labour strategists have talked about needing to transition away from the old St Jacinda of Covid brand towards a good-old, sleeves-rolled-up, practical Kiwi image. This reflected market-research findings by both sides that voters were becoming sceptical of slick PR, grand visions, far-sighted promises and bold plans and just wanted politicians to get on with things.”

Hipkins has been given the “Mr Fix-it” label because he has had to step in and take over difficult portfolios when other ministers have failed, and Labour will hope to accentuate that image as a no-nonsense person that gets things done.

Hooton says that it’s on cultural and social issues that Hipkins will best differentiate the new regime from the last – especially with his recent attempts as Minister of Police to position Labour as more hardline on law and order. He believes that Ardern won’t approve, but Hipkins will drop “some of the more unpopular policies her government was pursuing, and move Labour even closer to the median voter”.

And today Massey University’s Grant Duncan argues that as new leader Hipkins needs to convince the public that the Government is “addressing the real economic concerns that are affecting people presently” and that Labour is “not going any further with controversial matters, especially co-governance with Māori, without first seeking a wider public understanding and consensus”.

A big policy reset?

In terms of a policy reset, it’s still not clear what this would mean under Hipkins. There are obvious Labour Government agendas to jettison such as the TVNZ-RNZ merger, the proposed income insurance scheme, and maybe even the Auckland light rail debacle.

The bigger ones to watch for are around Three Waters and co-governance. The latter is supposedly already on hold, but Hipkins will be inclined to take his administration even further away from any association with this, but that will risk incurring the wrath of the Māori caucus.

Similarly, on Three Waters, it’s been very difficult for Ardern to do a U-turn on this highly unpopular policy, but Hipkins might prove to be much more ruthless and pragmatic.

Whether Hipkins is up to the task of ditching unpopular policies is discussed today by Herald political editor Claire Trevett. She says: “The big question is whether the next leader will have the stomach to do what is required to deal with those problems and give Labour a fighting chance.” According to Trevett, Hipkins will be less “squeamish” than Ardern about ridding the Government of policies that some factions of the party hold dear.

There is a ruthlessness about Hipkins, according to Trevett, that makes him more inclined to take these big decisions: “He has less skin in the game – Ardern had given her personal backing into many of the reforms Labour is now struggling with. It will be easier for Hipkins to back away from some without losing face. He will also be happy to be more merciless about it if it is what is required. He will not want to fail.”

Polling out today shows some of the policies that Labour will need to consider dropping. Curia Research carried out a survey yesterday of those who voted Labour in 2020 – including those who have drifted away from the party since. Asking those 2020 Labour voters whether they felt favourable or unfavourable to key Government policies produced the following net negative scores: Expanding co-governance minus 4 per cent, TVNZ/RNZ Merger minus 12 per cent, and Three Waters minus 27 per cent.

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Commenting on these results, pollster David Farrar says: “So 2020 Labour voters want the new PM to drop Three Waters, the state media merger, expanding co-governance and the reduction in speed limits. This will be a good indicator of how pragmatic the new Prime Minister is. Will they just be a different face on the same policies, or will they steer a different course to the Ardern-led Labour?”

Some progressives will hope that Hipkins will throw the left a bone. For example, today Martyn Bradbury has optimistically written that: “Chippie is to the right of the party and will need to throw the Left a sop for their loyalty – so expect free dental, or free public transport or free lunches in schools as an early pledge.”

Similarly, others are raising the question of whether Hipkins will put a capital gains tax or other progressive wealth taxes back on the agenda.

Chris Hipkins' persona is much more relaxed than that of his predecessor Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chris Hipkins’ persona is much more relaxed than that of his predecessor Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Mark Mitchell

What sort of leader will Hipkins be?

There is no doubt that Ardern’s brand of “kindness” will be less central to the way that Hipkins operates – he’s much more of a political scrapper. As the NBR’s Brent Edwards says today: “He is quick on his feet and has never been an easy political target for the Opposition to attack. It is likely as Prime Minister he will prove equally adept in countering political attacks.”

Others have noted that it’s no coincidence that the new PM was mentored in his political skills by the original Beehive brawler, Trevor Mallard, for whom Hipkins first worked.

Furthermore, his persona is much more relaxed than Ardern’s. As Brent Edwards says today: “At a personal level, Hipkins can be very funny but his public image is slightly flintier than that of Ardern.”

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Newshub’s political editor Jenna Lynch describes Hipkins today as “the affable Upper Hutt daggy dad”. She thinks he will be a very strong leader: “At his heart Hipkins is a political animal. He’s been Leader of the House and can command Question Time. He is a quick-thinking debater. He is an astute reader of public opinion. His political instincts are top-notch.”

Hence, there are many stories of Hipkins’ more irreverent side – about his love of Coke Zero, his use of memes in Parliament, his allegedly poor dress sense, and his funny gaffes and slips of the tongue. Of course, there are also numerous references to his nickname of “Chippy”, which is a contraction of his first and last name and lends him a more informal persona.

There will be plenty of other humanising accounts of Hipkins that will appeal to middle New Zealand. For example, Iain Lees-Galloway told the Spinoff today: “The guy just lives for DIY… He revels in building his own stuff and fixing up his home. He’s not only Mr Fix-it as a minister, but he can take care of his own backyard.”

The more relaxed style of Hipkins is also stressed today by the Herald’s Audrey Young: “He can speak to the public in ways that don’t sound rehearsed, that he is not just reciting ‘today’s message’ as determined in the inner sanctum. It means he is often humorous, has the ability to laugh at himself. He is not afraid to show his flaws. So long as there is an underlying competence, and there is no doubting that, a politician with flaws is much more relatable than one who tries to be perfect.”

Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni

Although Kiri Allan was widely assumed to become the Deputy Prime Minister to Hipkins, it looks to be the Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni. She is seen as a solid choice, partly because of her handling of welfare issues.

Having a woman of colour as part of the leadership combo is essential for Labour. But they also need to balance out Hipkin’s Wellington roots – and Sepuloni represents a working-class west Auckland electorate.

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There will be a question of whether Sepuloni becomes the Deputy Leader of Labour as well as the Deputy Prime Minister. At the moment, Labour has the unusual arrangement of separating out these positions between Kelvin Davis and Grant Robertson.

Whether Sepuloni also replaces Davis could be a difficult issue – Davis is essentially there as a representative of the Māori caucus. And without having a Māori minister as Hipkins’ deputy, there might well be strong questions in and around the party about Labour’s real commitment to co-governance within the party itself. Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva writes today that because Sepuloni is “Tongan rather than Māori”, this could present problems: “How would the Māori caucus feel about having no representation in any of the three top ministerial roles?”

Of course, regardless of who becomes the Deputy Prime Minister, there is no doubt that Robertson will still be a strong power behind the throne – his mana will continue to be significant in the Government.

Some will lament the decline in diversity in Labour’s leadership. Partly this is because Labour is no longer led by a woman, and once again, Labour continues to be the only party in Parliament that has never had a Māori leader.

The other problem is ideological – the party is about to shift further into the centre of the political spectrum, perhaps bumping up against a relatively centrist and bland National Party under Christopher Luxon. And that raises another diversity problem for the electorate – New Zealanders are about to have the choice of any prime minister that they want, as long as their name is Chris.

  • Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.



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