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Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins. Image: Tina Tiller
Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins. Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 21, 2023

Cyclone Gabrielle, politics and the cost-of-the-status-quo crisis

Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins. Image: Tina Tiller
Christopher Luxon and Chris Hipkins. Image: Tina Tiller

Parliament kicks off properly for the year today, in a form unimaginable just over a month ago.

Five weeks ago, as the Aotearoa political machine was slowly beginning to crank up, some were casting ahead to the first big day of the parliamentary year, and the prospect of Christopher Luxon and Jacinda Ardern beginning their pre-election hostilities in the House of Representative on February 14. That scenario would soon be scotched, not just in the personnel but also the date, with Ardern’s resignation followed a few weeks later by our most vicious, life-altering and life-claiming weather so far this century. 

After a brief prologue last week, parliament was adjourned, meaning the Chrisses Luxon and Hipkins square up for the first time today as party leaders in the debating chamber. Proceedings will begin with the prime minister’s statement, with Luxon leading off responses from party leaders, before morphing into wider debate. Happenstance has dictated that the first three government orders of the day relate, respectively, to natural hazards, climate change and emergency services. Hipkins’ first Question Time grilling as prime minister comes tomorrow. 

The storms of last week, which pulverised, stranded and distressed so much of Northland, west Auckland, the Coromandel, Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay, will rightly permeate almost every exchange in parliament in the days to come. Before, in the face of inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, the dominant, almost exclusive strain was small-target, back to basics, bread and butter – the leaders of the major parties in a strange game of who can promise to do the least. Not any more. We weren’t sufficiently prepared for what happened last week. Do we want to be better prepared for the next one, for ourselves and future generations? Or will she be right? If bread and butter survives the moment, is it going to be rebranded as build back bread and butter better? 

Hipkins wisely resisted any such tongue twister at his post-cabinet press conference yesterday. He did exhort the need to “build back better, build back safer and build back smarter”. The substantial announcements, in the form of $300 million for immediate transport network reconstruction and support for businesses, workers and the primary sector, were about building back urgently, however. These are makeshift solutions and, as both Hipkins and finance minister Grant Robertson acknowledged, there would be billions more – perhaps more than $10 billion – required for the bigger portion of the response, which entailed “hard decisions and a whole of government approach”, said Hipkins.

The appointment of Robertson to the new role of cyclone recovery minister underscores the seriousness of the approach, as does putting Brian Roche, a chairing veteran across the public and private sector, in charge of the recovery taskforce. That ministers will be appointed to oversee each of the affected regions makes sense, too – the devastation wrought upon Northland, western communities in Auckland and the Coromandel should not be lost in the emphasis on the appalling destruction faced by Tairāwhiti and Hawke’s Bay.

Prime minister Chris Hipkins and finance minister Grant Robertson

For the opposition, the lessons of Covid are still raw. If you revisit Simon Bridges’ questioning of the response to the pandemic in the early days of that crisis, it looks for the most part reasonable, if not ahead of the curve. But it dramatically misread the room. Luxon will be alert to the risks of a repeat. Erica Stanford was quick to ask important questions around immigration settings and the need to provide a welcome mat for workers to assist in the recovery. The tough on crime rhetoric is trickier, and teeters on the edge of cynical. That territory, echoing the Covid response, is a more comfortable fit for Act. Nobody, after all, imagines David Seymour to be auditioning for prime minister.

Balancing the need to taihoa with the urge to upbraid isn’t easy. Notably, there was no National media release issued responding to the government announcement last night, but an email was dispatched to supporters shortly after 9pm. “The government failed to give clarity to the people most affected by Cyclone Gabrielle about specific help to meet their immediate needs,” Luxon wrote. “Every day matters to people in desperate situations, and the government has kicked answers to a task force and a Cabinet committee.”

Just as Robertson is in the process of taking the draft for May’s budget back to the drawing board, National will need to rethink its own pre-election rollout. That process was almost certainly set to begin with the state of the nation address that Luxon was intending to deliver on the Sunday of Gabrielle, a speech meant to seize back the narrative after the start of the political year was discombobulated by the Ardern exit and Hipkins elevation. To make the government-in-waiting pitch now, the challenge is to present as willing to make big calls and pursue big projects. That hardly requires a 180-degree pivot; Luxon and Nicola Willis can make a strong argument that the moment demands a government capable of hard-headed delivery, on which the incumbents have fallen short.

For the Greens, there is an opportunity. James Shaw was lauded for a speech in parliament’s brief sitting last week that raged at years of inaction. Quoting Churchill, he said: “We are entering a period of consequences.” He’ll be alert, no doubt, to another Churchillism, uttered in support of building a United Nations after the second world war: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” 

When Shaw unveiled the national climate adaptation plan six months ago, rolling up his trousers on the beach in Wellington, some were listening. Many more will be listening now. He will be meeting with Hipkins this week to discuss ways to accelerate the measures proposed (the plan is yet to be presented to parliament); just as important is the chance to express the thing to a country that is watching every day the reasons it is necessary. This is not an abstraction. It’s right there. On mitigation, on adaptation, and on social justice, too, it’s a chance for the Greens to seize a moment.

Across the eight months ahead, “adaptation plan”, “resource management”, “natural hazard risk”, and “managed retreat”, language once guaranteed to glaze over eyes, will suddenly and necessarily become vital. As everyone agrees it will be expensive. But successive governments have kept government deficits modest, relative to many parts of the world; the bigger deficit is in infrastructure. Dollars, of course, won’t cut it alone without the requisite resources and process. But what was gearing up to be an election fixated on the cost of living election is now something else, too. Specifically: what is the cost of carrying on doing the same as we’ve done before?

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