With a mixture of puzzlement and anger, Chris Hipkins has announced the resignation of Michael Wood – and the reverberations won’t stop there, writes Toby Manhire.
If asked at the end of March, when Stuart Nash was booted from cabinet, who might be next to go, few, if anyone, would have guessed Michael Wood. Diligent, punctilious, painstaking – that rare kind of creature who reads all the footnotes. So reliable was Wood that he had become the new minister of everything, the safe hands to catch the tricky portfolios, the details guy. So impressive had he proved as a minister that just over five months ago, when a vacancy popped up for Labour leader and prime minister, he was second favourite.
And so it was with a palpable sense of astonishment that Chris Hipkins announced at a hastily arranged press conference this afternoon that he had divested himself of Michael Wood. Undisclosed shareholdings through a family trust, in Chorus and Spark, in the National Australia Bank, created conflicts in decisions he’d taken across his now former portfolios of transport, immigration, workplace relations and associate finance.
“I don’t quite understand …” said Hipkins, and, “I still can’t quite believe …” in various forms at least half a dozen times across the press conference. If the earlier chapters of the Wood shareholding mystery, surrounding his non-disclosure and failure to divest shares in Auckland Airport despite being asked a dozen times by the Cabinet Office, were perplexing, this is beyond baffling.
Last week on AM, Wood was challenged to explain what had been going through his head. “Imagine you’re at home and there’s a job that you’ve got to do around the house, maybe it’s a little hole in the roof or an outdoor light bulb or something,” he told Ryan Bridge. “You know you’ve got to do it, it’s on your list, every weekend you think, ‘I should get on to that’, and then other stuff keeps coming up.”
The trouble is that this wasn’t simply a personal matter; the demands placed on MPs and ministers especially to be transparent about their interests is not a household chore but a public obligation. The hole in the roof is a hole in parliament.
He went on to say: “This is an issue that I really profoundly regret, for me being in politics is a real calling and politics is about making life better for people and so this episode … and it giving an impression that it might be about other stuff is something that really cuts to the core for me.”
It is right to be sceptical about any politician that starts talking about “a real calling”, but in the case of Michael Wood I have no doubt it is true. For him the idea of public service is a raison d’etre rather than an affectation. He is about as pious a politician as you’d ever meet. But piety is trumped by impropriety. “I think it would be fair to say he’s pretty crushed,” said Hipkins, but even if Wood does not yet grasp why he messed up, he will know that the mess-up meant he was done. Hipkins did not rule out a future in politics for Wood, but, in the understatement of the day, he said: “One of the things he has to do is make sure that he tidies up this part of his life.” And: “He will need to have a better explanation than the one he’s produced so far.”
Tomorrow marks five months since Hipkins was confirmed as Labour leader and therefore prime minister, emerging to declare for the first of what now seems like a million times, “our focus will be on the bread and butter issues that matter to people”. There would be no room for “distractions” in the cause.
Next came the bonfire: it was meant to be for policies, but soon started getting stacked with ministers, too. Stuart Nash was sacked. Meka Whaitiri – well, she divested herself over to Te Pāti Māori. Kiri Allan found herself uncomfortably close to the flames. Add to that the debacle of Three Waters, multiple crises across health and education, and a cost of living crisis that just had a ribbon marked recession tied to it, and, hell, the real miracle is that Labour, currently governing with a majority, remains not just in the race, but neck and neck with Christopher Luxon’s National Party.
Labour now finds itself going into an election with new ministers desperately swotting up on a clutch of portfolios that could make the difference. The wider question is whether voters’ patience with Hipkins – and associated misgivings about Luxon – can withstand the rolling series of unforced errors. With each of those, the impression grows of a government deep in the nightmarish throes of third-termitis, a condition made all the more acute by the fact that this is its second term.