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Chris Hipkins (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty)
Chris Hipkins (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty)

OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 8, 2023

Chris Hipkins’ policy purge and the cost-of-explaining crisis

Chris Hipkins (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty)
Chris Hipkins (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty)

You might be able to solve a delivery problem by cutting the number of packages you send. But is that enough, wonders Toby Manhire.

If there’s one thing Chris Hipkins isn’t afraid of, it’s repeating himself to make the point. The first three sentences of his statement unveiling the policy purge (sorry, reprioritisation) this afternoon included the following: “focus on the cost of living”, “put the cost of living front and centre” and “focus on the cost of living”. We should count our blessings, perhaps, that he at least only said “bread and butter” once (“cost of living” was mentioned another couple of times).

Arguably, however, the cost that stung Jacinda Ardern into announcing a cull (sorry, refocus) of the government programme, and Chris Hipkins to eagerly take up the clippers, was something different: the cost of getting bogged down in arguments you’ve proved really ropy at making.

Top of this list, and to the surprise of almost no one, was the merger of TVNZ and RNZ into a single public media entity. There was little detail on the merger reversal beyond the banner announcement and a promise to provide more funding to RNZ and NZ on Air. Across the broadcasters and funding agencies NZ on Air and Te Māngai Pāho, a prevailing sense of uncertainty, of “limbo” and exhaustion (one involved told me today, nodding to Jacinda Ardern’s resignation announcement, that “we’re running out of gas here too”) will only fully abate with a confirmation of those funds and the shape of further changes.

It is not as simple as a control-Z. Parts of the RNZ machine are outdated, under-resourced and creaking at the seams. NZ on Air’s transitional strategy was designed, in anticipation of a merger, for a pot sliced in half. All organisations, TVNZ included, will continue to grapple with the inexorable tides that the merger was to a great extent intended to address. The struggle to reach diverse and younger audiences. The encroachment of offshore platforms and diffuse audiences. The imperative of maintaining trust in a fragmented world of content.

But compared with say, undoing as a whole the Three Waters reforms, the merger purge offers a clean break. Legislation has gone through the select committee but it has not been enacted. It didn’t even rate a single mention in the National Party release in response to the afternoon announcements, headed “Labour stores pet projects for another day”.

That release focused instead on the decision, as anticipated, to kick the unemployment insurance scheme down the track, to tweak Three Waters and to defer hate speech legislation pending a review by the Law Commission, all “ideological pet projects” in the view of the opposition.

While there will be some savings from the deferral of the income insurance policy (“until economic conditions improve”) and the public media merger, it is hardly big money. Depending on the funding boosts to RNZ and NZOA, the savings, by Hipkins’ assessment amount to “the low hundreds of millions” a year. The hate speech decision saves nothing.

But it does, said Hipkins, “consume time and energy”, and that’s the nub of it. The cost of distraction, the cost of lengthy debates in which ministers have found themselves swirling in a circumlocutory eddy. If you believe that explaining is losing, it follows that too much explaining will cost you any shot at a win.

PM Chris Hipkins in Waitangi over the weekend (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The “Chippy” rebrand of the Labour government post-Ardern has gone almost without a hitch, with an emphasis on focus, bread, butter, cost, living, focus, focus and a down-to-earth, back-to-basics prime minister. That has been royally rewarded in polls. The momentum, at least for the minute, is back.

Only today has it moved properly into substance, decisions which may placate some target voters but dismay others. Those who welcomed the government’s pledge to meet the recommendation of the Royal Commission into the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and strengthen hate speech laws, even when it was watered down, will be appalled. Amnesty International NZ, for example, was “deeply disappointed”. The E Tu union, meanwhile, was “concerned” and “disappointed” by the unemployment insurance decision.

Hipkins accepted this afternoon that it wasn’t simply a case of saving money, but preserving “bandwidth”. He said: “In the decisions that we’ve taken today you’ll see that we are refocusing down, and we would rather do a smaller number of things, do them more thoroughly and communicate better about them.”

The approach has its merits. The man Hipkins caught up with in Canberra yesterday, Anthony Albanese, is widely credited with winning power for Labor on the back of a “small target strategy”. Keep your focus on the core issues, the thinking goes, in straitened times. The National opposition has been plotting a similar course.

Conscious, perhaps, that it couldn’t all be binning and bumping back things Labour has previously trumpeted, Hipkins threw into the mix today an increase in the minimum wage. Act inveighed against it; the employers’ lobby group EMA called it “problematic”. Tellingly, like the merger, it didn’t get a mention in the National release, either.

But it’s hardly big ideas, big vision. Perhaps that’s the plan, channeling the spirit of the times. It is hardly certain, however, that the country will be satisfied solely with culling and whittling as a road map. Labour has had a delivery problem, and its ability to turn a noble commitment to enhancing and cementing public interest media, across three ministers, in an area where it should be able to boast of its achievements, into a high-rotate pratfall, is quite something. And so, yeah, you can solve a delivery problem by cutting the number of packages you hope to send. But is that enough?

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