The leader of the opposition sought to square the constructive and the critical in response to the PM’s statement. Toby Manhire watches at parliament.
The centrepiece of the first day back at parliament proper was the statement from the prime minister. But it was LOTO Chris rather than PM Chris who had the trickiest needle to thread. It was hard enough already, in the shadow of the devastation and loss of life suffered across swathes of the North Island during and after Cyclone Gabrielle, to balance the mood for concerted, serious attention with the impulse to thump the adversarial drum. And then came Maureen Pugh.
After a week of a careful and deliberately modulated response led by Christopher Luxon, the list MP won National a sudden gust of attention at precisely the worst time. Newsroom’s Marc Daalder made a beeline for Pugh ahead of caucus, asking a series of questions, including, did she believe in human-caused climate change?
In a fresh scene from The Thick of It, she replied: “I have yet to see the response from James Shaw, where one of our local councils wrote to him and asked for the evidence before they impacted their ratepayers.” And: “I am waiting on the evidence from the minister that provides that evidence.”
Just a few hours later, after National staff had finished banging their heads on their desks, Pugh was wheeled out to explain that, yes, of course she believed in human-caused climate change. She just “didn’t articulate it well” and wasn’t “very comfortable in this environment”, she said, waving her arm at the media scrum around her.
Luxon told media that he would be lending his MP some of the books he’d read, but it was quite a turnaround in thinking from Pugh, and it put the opposition suddenly in the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons.
In his first speech as prime minister in the House of Representatives, Hipkins couldn’t resist a flick at the farrago. “New Zealand is now without question experiencing the effects of climate change, and we are well past the point where we should question the impact of human beings on climate change,” he said. Pugh had the added misfortune of being seated directly behind Luxon and his deputy, Nicola Willis. At points during the prime minister’s speech she leaned forwards, fingers laced together as if in prayer.
Luxon could reasonably have imagined a few weeks ago that this would be the day in parliament to firmly lay down the gauntlet. Instead he strained to hit the right notes. He stressed that National would be “supportive and constructive” in the Gabrielle response, that it was “about New Zealand, not about politics right now” and he was committed to being “pragmatic and practical”. He demanded that the government provide more than just a ballpark figure for the response, but “compartmentalise and define the cost”.
The other role of the opposition, Luxon said, was to “hold the government to account for its spending and its delivery”, its ability to “get things done”. On this he declared “grave, grave concerns” about the government’s ability to run the rebuild, however. He was “deeply, deeply sceptical”. The “build back better” rhetoric had been heard before, in the Covid response, he said, and failed to come to fruition. Enough with the “bumper stickers and headlines”.
The emphasis on the government’s delivery shortcomings is fertile ground, and Luxon enumerated the territory. Kiwibuild. Light rail. The polytech merger. Three Waters. Not to mention: “soft on crime”.
Where he went adrift, however, was in parts of the speech that derided Hipkins as more of the same, part of the “holy trinity”, with Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson, that had been running things since 2017. Even more oddly, he lambasted a speech “written for Jacinda Ardern and delivered by Chris Hipkins”. That betrayed only a bit of pre-cooking on his own account. If he was right, given that Hipkins’ speech focused predominantly on the response to Cyclone Gabrielle, Ardern should face very serious consequences for having failed to warn us.
Later in the speech, Luxon talked of “having done this job now for two years”, triggering a wave of am-dram noises of confusion from the government benches given he has been leader of the opposition for almost 15 months.
Hipkins faced a challenge of his own: squaring the “bread and butter” rhetoric with the dauntingly big calls that the cyclone response will require. “When I became the prime minister, I said that we would set a new direction for the government and that we would have our focus squarely on the basics, including the cost of living, that is affecting New Zealanders,” he said, in an effort to dovetail the two approaches. “Recent events have reinforced the importance of that to me, and there is nothing more basic or critical for a government than lifting the country back up after a major disaster.”
The task is more than “lifting back up”, of course, and for the most part the prime minister’s opening speech reiterated the steps outlined already in the response. There is only so long that he and his newly assigned cyclone response minister and taskforce will be able to avoid talking specifics.