The prime minister has unveiled what he calls a ‘new direction’ for the Labour government, and it involves launching a wrecking ball into Jacinda Ardern’s extensive policy programme. Stewart Sowman-Lund reports from parliament.
We knew something was coming, but we perhaps weren’t expecting quite so much policy carnage at parliament today.
Prime minister Chris Hipkins, fresh from chairing the first meeting of his new cabinet team, sauntered into the Beehive Theatrette, first to reveal additional funding for flood-stricken Auckland and then to boulder straight into dismantling many of the government’s most high profile projects.
So what was thrown onto the bonfire?
Least surprisingly, Hipkins confirmed the end of the planned merger of TVNZ and RNZ. It’s gone for good. It follows roughly three years of work across three different ministers on the Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media outlet, which was initially planned to be up and running later this year. The scrapping of the merger has been rumoured for weeks, if not months, and one media executive anonymously told Te Ao Māori News this afternoon that it was never going to work anyway. When questioned today, Hipkins admitted he didn’t know how much would be saved by ditching the merger. That’s because some of the leftover will now go into additional funding for RNZ and NZ On Air. What we do now is the cost: millions.
Next there was the social insurance scheme, a sort of welfare safety net for people left out of work through unemployment or redundancy, and a policy baby of finance minister Grant Robertson. A final decision on its future has been punted back until after the election, but for now it’s dead in the water. “We will need to see a significant improvement in economic conditions before anything is advanced,” Hipkins said. It could be revived in the future, said Hipkins, who noted that work in this area would continue. But: “There isn’t public support for this scheme at the moment.”
The biofuels mandate was next to be tossed on the fire. Hipkins said this would have increased the price of fuel, “and given the pressure on households that’s not something I’m prepared to do”.
Confusingly, given it seems entirely unlinked to the cost of living crisis, Hipkins also confirmed he’d be ditching proposed hate speech legislation. Officially, it’s not gone for good, but it’s been resigned to the furthest reaches of the backburner: the Law Commission. Already watered down dramatically while Jacinda Ardern was prime minister, the Human Rights Amendment Bill was set to protect people from religious discrimination in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks.
The first question in this afternoon’s post-cabinet press conference was addressed at that apparent disconnect between living costs and hate speech. Hipkins said it wasn’t so much about redirecting funding, but about balancing the government’s ability to get work done. “Focus”, Hipkins’ buzzword since taking office, was the word of the day again. The hate speech laws would “take up a lot of the government’s time and focus”, said Hipkins.
“I would rather we took a step back and tried to reach that political consensus that we have been able to reach on issues that the law commission has considered in the past.
“Anyone who’s read the Royal Commission report following March 15 would have to acknowledge that there are some very legitimate issues that have been raised, but I don’t want to have them mired in a debate which is going nowhere, which frankly is where the debate has been going.”
Cynics, or perhaps realists, will note that the hate speech legislation, even in its weakest form, was hugely unpopular and a major target for the opposition. Hipkins – who denied today’s announcement was simply a politically easy way out of the policy – will secretly be thrilled to see the end of it, even if his cost of living excuse for ditching it won’t have convinced anyone.
While the policies above are the ones we know to be gone for now, Hipkins made it very clear further proposals will soon be added to the growing bonfire. Three waters is safe for now, but Hipkins said “careful consideration” on its future was required. It didn’t take too much reading between the lines to infer that the co-governance elements of three waters will be part of that careful consideration. “If we make any changes to the structure that means by definition you need to look at the arrangements,” Hipkins said. We can expect these changes to be formally unveiled in the coming weeks, with Hipkins set to deliver his prime ministerial address at the beginning of the parliament sitting year.
While the extent of the carnage was somewhat unexpected, Hipkins has made it clear from his very first press conference that he was planning to “reign in” several of his predecessor’s more unwieldy policy proposals. This has all been in support of his intended focus on “bread and butter” issues. At this afternoon’s conference, Hipkins refused to “look back” when asked whether it was a mistake for the government to have spent so much time, effort and, most importantly, money on policies that have been dumped for good. His reflection was limited to a few remarks. “I think it’s an acknowledgement that governments only have so much bandwidth to take on a variety of challenges. You can lose focus. We would rather do a small number of things,” he said. Governments often opted to reprioritise policies, he added.
Asked whether any of the scrapped policies could be pulled out of the bonfire just in time for the election year, Hipkins wouldn’t comment either way. “I’m not going to write the manifesto today,” he said, before adding that “many of these things are worthy, they’re just not priorities”.
While scaling back on policies rather than simply launching new ones isn’t traditional electioneering, in this case it’s clear the new prime minister reckons it what might be needed to score a third term come October. And he could be right.