PoliticsDecember 8, 2023

Chris Hipkins opens up on what went wrong at the 2023 election


On a quiet morning before the first parliamentary question time of the new term, Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon took a moment to analyse and reflect on their election campaigns. 

When Chris Hipkins was sworn in as prime minister on January 21, 2023, he had a feeling of optimism and determination. But there was another emotion: a strange sense of foreboding, like everything was about to go wrong.

“That was the start of what was to be a tumultuous and sadly brief tenure for me as prime minister,” he said. Hipkins was one of several politicians who opened up about the 2023 election unusually honestly at parliament on Thursday morning.

It was part of the Victoria University of Wellington post-election conference, a tradition dating back to 1987. The conference is held inside parliament’s legislative council chamber – a room that hasn’t had any official function since the council was disbanded in 1950. It looks like a slightly smaller, bizarro-world version of the parliamentary debating chamber.

The post-election conference feels a bit bizarro-world as well. Because it’s primarily for the sake of academics and historians rather than the general public, it’s a rare moment when politicians stop sniping at each other and actually act like humans. Apart from Winston Peters, who delivered a 30-minute diatribe airing his grievances towards the media and all things woke, the leaders gave genuine insight into how they approached the campaign, what worked, and the tactics they regret.

Chris Hipkins at Commercial Bay in Auckland during the campaign (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Hipkins was introduced by his partner Toni Grace, who noted he was “our first ginger at the top”. Looking back on the past six years, Hipkins admitted the government tried to bite off more than it could chew. “In retrospect, the seeds of the Labour government’s defeat can actually be seen as far back as late 2021, or even potentially as early as the time we first took office in 2017,” he said.

“We formed a government in 2017 pledging to be transformational. But we made a few mistakes relatively early on in our time in office by not being more specific about the transformation we were proposing. We probably tried to transform too many things all at the same time.”

He spoke with pride about New Zealand’s overall Covid-19 response, citing low death rates and better-than-expected economic results. However, he said the extended Auckland lockdown was the moment the tide started to go out on the government.

“By the end of 2021, our support in Auckland, the frontline of our elimination strategy, had fallen away steeply. For many Aucklanders, the last lockdown went on too long, and once it was clear that elimination wasn’t going to be achieved again, the clarity of what we were asking Aucklanders to do and why was also fading.

“We made a lot of sacrifices during the pandemic and that undoubtedly took a toll on the public support for the government. But it was the right thing to do, and when I think about the thousands of people who are alive today, who wouldn’t be, I still think it was worth it.”

Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins arrive at the caucus meeting where he was confirmed to take over as PM  (Photo: Martin Melville/Getty Images)

After ascending to the role of prime minister following Jacinda Ardern’s resignation, Hipkins’ first goal was to rebuild relations in Auckland. That plan was disrupted within days by the Auckland flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle.

“A succession of ministerial scandals didn’t help the mood that had already hardened against our government. By the time we launched our campaign slogan ‘in it for you’, which was decided some time earlier, many in the public were already feeling that they were anything but our priority.”

The mood on the ground during the campaign was “unlike anything I’ve ever felt”, Hipkins said. In some of his past campaigns, he felt confident his party was always going to win (2020), and others he knew he was going to lose (2014). “This year, the mood was harder to read. There was still a lot of goodwill and recognition for the work we had done to lead New Zealand through some exceptionally challenging times. But alongside that, there was also a mood for change that was exceptionally difficult to break through.”

Hipkins didn’t have regrets about the policy bonfire or his decision to rule out a wealth tax. In his analysis, “it wasn’t a campaign dominated by policies, it was a campaign dominated by sentiment.”

Looking ahead to 2026, he hinted that the Labour Party would do more to transition its brand from the stardust-laden campaign of Jacinda Ardern to one that fits his own bread-and-butter stylings. “In retrospect, we probably needed to spend a bit more time at the outset identifying how a campaign led by me was going to differ from a campaign led by Jacinda Ardern.”

Christopher Luxon, in contrast to the almost self-flagellating analysis from Hipkins, was absolutely thrilled to bits to be on stage dissecting his own victory like a business school case study.

He began by casting back to 2020, one of National’s worst-ever elections, when he was one of only five new National MPs to enter parliament. A year later, polling still showed National wallowing in the low-20s while Act rose as high at 17%. “There was a very real risk that the National Party wasn’t going to be the mainstream centre-right political party in New Zealand going forward.”

Christopher Luxon proudly displays his ice cream
Christopher Luxon and some ice cream on the campaign trail. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

It was, of course, that terrible polling that led to Luxon being installed as leader just one year into his political career. His first few steps as party leader, he said, echoed that of a business executive turning around a struggling company. “The first thing you have to do in life, whether you’re in business or a community organisation, or building a political party, is face up to the brutal facts of reality, as ugly as they may be.

“We had to turn around the National Party if we had any chance of being competitive, let alone being able to plan to win an election in 2023.”

Luxon is obviously a political junkie. His interest in parliamentary drama was well known before he left Air New Zealand, and he showed it in his speech. Framing National’s attempts to rebuild after a period in the wilderness, he cited international examples including Tony Blair’s Labour in the UK, and Stephen Harper from the Canadian Conservatives.

The model he zeroed in on and sought to replicate was David Cameron, when he became leader of the UK Conservatives in 2005. “I actually spoke to Cameron about that. I studied that period quite hard and quite well, because I admire the way he went about modernising the UK Conservative Party to make it electable in 2010… His work on modern compassionate conservatism is where we needed to go as the National Party and where we need to continue to go.”

Crediting insights from former All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who attended a National caucus offsite meeting to speak about building high-performing teams, Luxon had three main focuses: strengthening caucus discipline, building back the party machine, and better political strategy management and messaging. On the latter, he said a low point for National was in 2021, when Judith Collins took issue with a Green Party request for a Winston Churchill portrait to be removed. “We had already talked about how important messaging discipline is and we spent a whole week talking about whether the Winston Churchill portrait was going to be put up in [parliament’s] offices”.

Throughout the campaign, Luxon was extremely on-message (often frustratingly so), sticking to predetermined bullet points and slogans. “My general assessment was that Labour’s ‘high language’, as I call it, wasn’t connecting with people.”

He tried to apply that same level of simplicity when framing policies, he said. “We were deliberately keeping things very straightforward, very practical, and very relevant to people’s daily lives. If you contrast our education thinking, it was an hour of maths, reading and writing each and every day, versus Labour’s approach of mega-mergers around Te Pūkenga and the polytech system.”

In Luxon’s view, the big story from the 2023 election – a point he made directly to the historians in the room – was National’s comeback. “I think the great thing for us, that I’ve appreciated, is I am constantly underestimated, as has the National Party been over the last three years.”

It was a rare moment of honesty and introspection at parliament for both Chrises. Unfortunately, neither of them stuck around to hear the other speak.

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