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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 16, 2023

Voters don’t need to wait for a right-leaning government. Hipkins is already running one

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The polls are unambiguous: New Zealand wants a National party led by Chris Hipkins this election. A scan of his time as prime minister suggests it has already happened.

It’s close, but also clear: for over a year, the most popular party in New Zealand has almost always been National. Likewise, since his unexpected elevation in January, Chris Hipkins has consistently led in any long-term rolling average as preferred prime minister. When asked about levels of trust, the gap yawns wider – Hipkins comes in at 51.5%, over 15% ahead of Luxon on 35%. The people have spoken, and what they manifestly want is Chris Hipkins as the next prime minister, heading up a National government. 

Sure, there are some minor issues, like the fact National already has a leader. Yet the country has known Christopher Luxon as leader longer than it has known Chris Hipkins as PM, and has indicated that it does not particularly care for him. More pertinently, Chris Hipkins has been a Labour MP for 15 years, and a Labour staffer prior to that, which is surely disqualifying.

But look at his record as prime minister and it starts to become somewhat moot. Much of his actions as PM would be entirely plausible as the first six months of a new right-leaning soft-populist government, dismantling the work of its predecessor. This goes for policy abandoned and announced – a full political programme. It’s as if, in trying to tack to the centre, Hipkins has in fact taken care of what would have been the meat of National’s first 100 days.

Chris Hipkins is a known fire risk to policy documents. Image: Jason Stretch

Just strip out the brands, and look at the big decisions, all abandoned for a focus on hip pockets. The RNZ-TVNZ merger, which would have created a muscular and well-funded new state media entity. Gone! The social insurance scheme, which would have step-changed the reality of unemployment for those laid off. Going, likely gone! The Three Waters reforms, in name and largely in structure. Gone! Hate speech legislation. The clean car rebate. A container recycling scheme. Going, gone, gone!

There have been other policies, sure, including a major announcement around light rail to the North Shore, along with public transport subsidies. That has been counterbalanced by light rail to Auckland’s airport, which remains a costly series of PDFs, and Let’s Get Wellington Moving, which has been subject to the kind of exasperated critiques typical of an incoming government, not one nearing six years in power.

Even much of the spending from Budget 2023 – extended ECE, scrapping prescription co-payments, subsidies for the gaming sector – is plausible as emanating from a Bill English-style centrist National party, not the leader of the largest-ever MMP Labour party. Indeed, one major part of it, a subsidy for home heating, was near-identical to one of the first announcements made by John Key’s incoming government in 2009.

The trend has continued as the election has drawn nearer. New tunnels to the North Shore form part of an 11-figure roading spend, heading decades into the future. A new law with imposing sentences targeting ram raiding. A plan for the economy headlined by “keeping debt down”, followed by “backing business to drive the recovery”. All easily imagined as a vision for the Chris Hipkins National party.

a background of cash with monopoly houses scattered on top, overlaid with a big red cross and a black and white image of Chris Hipkins
‘Most damning is Hipkins’ momentous decision on tax’ (Image: Archi Banal)

Most damning is Hipkins’ momentous decision on tax. This is the platform which dictates all other policy, the venue where a left-leaning government can truly differentiate itself from its opposition. Shift the burden from one group to another, and spend that money on arresting the deprivation you campaigned on ending. He had the ammunition, in a landmark report from the IRD, showing miserably small effective tax rates for the wealthiest New Zealanders, which gave a moral foundation to fundamentally redraw the tax system. Yet PM Hipkins made a solemn vow to never impose a capital gains or wealth tax.

It was enough to make his own revenue minister resign in protest, and make you wonder whether National had already won the election. In place of a wealth tax came the populist removal of GST on fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables are “luxury items”, according to South Auckland anti-poverty advocate Dave Letele, and the plan has been derided by almost all economists. Stats NZ data parsed by the NZ Herald suggests it is staggeringly regressive, in that it will deliver savings of around $2 a week to the poorest New Zealanders, while the wealthy enjoy more than $11 in discounts.

What has been the political result of this hard tack to the centre? A steady decline in party polling, balanced against consistent support for Hipkins as prime minister. On some level, Hipkins’ decisions seem to only burnish his own personal brand as a pragmatic centrist, while Labour’s own brand is too strongly associated with its previous project (and its failures) to see any impact. 

The Hipkins-era Labour government’s agenda is thus essentially indistinguishable from the goals of any recent National party. In that way the country might already have the government it seems to want: centre-left rhetoric leading a centre-right government. The net effect of Hipkins’ bread-and-butter politics project is that the National party’s term effectively started in January of 2023.

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