After inheriting an overloaded work programme, the prime minister tells Toby Manhire he is ready to switch gears and start setting out a vision for the third term he seeks.
In a science lab at Hutt Valley Memorial College in the 1990s, the words “Leadership is an action not a position” were written on the wall. The adage – which originated with a US media executive many decades earlier – stuck with a promising student at the school, Chris Hipkins.
Thirty-odd years later, he still holds by that idea. “Political leaders are not going to be the only people who have solutions – actually, anybody can lead,” he said in an interview this week with The Spinoff, “and people can lead by example in their own lives.”
So if he’s secured the less important part – the most senior leadership position in Aotearoa – what about the action? What actions in the six-and-a-bit months since he became prime minister can he point to that define his contribution?
He begins his answer with a caveat of sorts: a reminder of the circumstances of his premiership so far. “One of the challenges of picking up the job of prime minister towards the end of a parliamentary term is much of the work programme you inherit is already in train. Your job as prime minister is to continue to lead the government that you’ve inherited. You’re not starting from a blank piece of paper.”
If anything, he’s spent the months since seeking to erase some of the ink on that paper – as documented ad nauseam in the imagery of bonfires, bread and butter. Hipkins, speaking to the Spinoff for a special edition of the politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime, hints that the imminent gear-shift into campaigning mode, likely to be heralded this weekend as he unveils what is expected to be the Labour Party’s long-awaited tax policy, will see a different kind of action. And something different, he’s eager to emphasise, to the two terms under his predecessor.
“I think one of the opportunities that I’ve got ahead of me in the next 10 weeks is actually to set out to New Zealanders what kind of government I want to lead longer term: what would a next term look like? Because it will be different to the last two terms of government and my style of governing will be different to Jacinda. That doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with hers, it just means that we’re different people, we’ve got different priorities.”
He says: “Much of what I have been focused on, as prime minister has obviously been seeing through to fruition a number of work programmes that were already in train when I took on the job, and in some cases, reprioritising as well, recognising that we weren’t going to be able to do all of the things that we currently had on the table. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
After a swift and bloodless transition in leadership, Hipkins delivered a bounce for the Labour Party, but recent polling suggests that is over, with a potential National-led government firmly back in poll position. Hipkins points to the “difficult times we’ve had over the last 18 months or so”. He means the country as whole: the exit from Covid elimination, global instability, spiralling inflation, a cyclone. “There’s a lot that’s been going on, that has been putting people under pressure, disrupting things. And as a result, you know I think it’s natural to expect that the government of the day is going to wear a bit of criticism and a bit of flak.”
Whether or not you buy that, it elides something else: the deleterious departures of four ministers in six months: Stuart Nash and Michael Wood exiting amid conflict of interest scandals; Meka Whaitiri defecting to te Pāti Māori, Kiri Allan leaving politics after being charged for careless driving and failing to accompany a police officer.
“We’ve had some bumpy experiences in the last six months or so,” accepts Hipkins. “The challenge is that human beings are human beings. And you can only make decisions as a as a leader based on the information that you have.
“So in every one of those circumstances, if you said to me, ‘Would you make a different decision now to the one you made when the issue first emerged?’ The answer to almost all of those questions would be: yes, because there’s more information now than there was when I was making those decisions. But if you went back and said, ‘Would you make the same decision, if you are making it with the same information that you had at the time?’ The answer to that question would also be: yes. It’s just the nature of, I guess, politics, the nature of human beings, you don’t have perfect information to make these kinds of calls.”
Another US aphorism has it that you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Hipkins has to date strained to avoid almost any impression of flourish, but, yes, there will be campaigning verse to come, he says. “I’m a big adherent to that, in that the poetry is setting out what you want to achieve over a longer period of time, and campaigns should be about the big ideas, about the vision. But governing is very much about, yes, taking steps towards the vision that you’ve set out, and making sure that you’re you’re staying true to the poetry, but there’s a lot of day-to-day decisions, grind, that you have to do in government. And you have to do that competently, predictably and transparently, I think.”
Though Hipkins hopes to put some stakes in the ground and set out that vision in pursuit of a third term, he goes along with Grant Robertson’s recent caution that the fiscal weather means “it’s not going to be possible to make big promises”. Hipkins puts it like this: “We do have to be realistic about the fact that in the current economic environment, it is going to be a modest election campaign.”
If Hipkins is looking to differentiate himself from his immediate predecessor, another former Labour prime minister has been on his mind in recent days, too. In a series of tweets, Helen Clark cast a disapproving eye over the New Zealand government’s newly published defence strategy, decrying what she saw as an unhelpfully hawkish stance that risked compromising an independent foreign policy in favour of throwing our lot in with the US and against China. “Defence policy and security strategy documents released in Wellington today,” she said in one post, “suggest that New Zealand is abandoning its capacity to think for itself and instead is cutting and pasting from Five Eyes partners.”
Hipkins had not spoken directly with his former boss, but “I’m very familiar with Helen’s views, and she and I have had very robust conversations about it”, he says. “And I don’t agree with her characterisation of those particular documents. In fact, I think New Zealand’s continuing to pursue an independent foreign policy in the same way that we did when Helen was the prime minister, which is that we we work closely with partners like the Five Eyes, and from time to time there will be initiatives which the Five Eyes partners pursue that we don’t want to be part of.”
He insists that he welcomes the former Labour leader’s interventions, however. “I think because we’ve been striving over a long time in New Zealand for a bipartisan approach in foreign policy, sometimes it means we just don’t talk about it. And we should, because actually, New Zealand’s place in the world is critically important to us. So the idea that we’ve got different people with a perspective and with a depth of international knowledge, as Helen Clark does, as John Key does and as others do, out in the public domain talking about these issues can only be healthy for New Zealand’s democracy.”
The full interview with Chris Hipkins is available as a special edition of the Spinoff politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime.