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Chris Hipkins and his stocked bookshelves (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design: Tina Tiller)
Chris Hipkins and his stocked bookshelves (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsDecember 22, 2023

Chris Hipkins wants to reset the Labour Party (and himself)

Chris Hipkins and his stocked bookshelves (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design: Tina Tiller)
Chris Hipkins and his stocked bookshelves (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund, design: Tina Tiller)

As parliament winds down, the ex-prime minister sits down with Stewart Sowman-Lund to cast his gaze forward to an overdue summer break – and the three years that follow.

“Anyone want to speak with me?” It’s Tuesday afternoon and Chris Hipkins has wandered down onto parliament’s black and white tiles and into the sea of waiting journalists. But unlike his successor as prime minister Christopher Luxon, already swamped by microphones and cameras, Hipkins is forced to put his hands out as if to say, “I’m here”. 

It’s been three weeks since parliament resumed. That’s enough time for Hipkins to have shifted out of the Beehive and across to parliament house, but perhaps not quite enough time to have adjusted to no longer being the most important person in the room.

In the debating chamber of parliament, the Hipkins on show is familiar to those who were glued to the closing weeks of the election campaign. He’s fiery and quick-witted, and a formidable opponent for an unpolished prime minister. But the Hipkins speaking to The Spinoff from his newly furnished office, a stack of near-empty boxes up against the wall, is the opposite. He’s peaceful and contemplative, comfortable reflecting on his time in the top job and philosophical about the important task at hand for the next three years. 

“You don’t always get what you want, so you make the most of what you’ve got,” he says. “If you think about it this way, I’ve always taken the view that… one of the best ways to get a promotion is to do a really good job of the role that you’ve got.”

He remains confident he will still be Labour leader in three years’ time, taking issue with the suggestion that parties often fail to stabilise after a severe election defeat and fall into a death spiral. “Helen Clark lost the first election that she campaigned in and delivered the worst result that Labour had ever had up until that point and then went on to win three in a row,” he says. “Keith Holyoake became prime minister not dissimilarly to me toward the end of a parliamentary term, lost the election and then won four in a row after that.”

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon at the final leaders’ debate of 2023 (Photo: Andrew Dalton, TVNZ)

Behind his desk, a pair of bookcases have recently been reinstalled after being removed from the opposition leader’s office by his predecessor. They’re packed full, mostly with political tomes from around the world – the top shelves are American, British and Australian. Then, New Zealand history and contemporary issues, while the middle shelf is dedicated to the Labour Party. Nestled in the corner, a collection of books on “National Party-related issues” (including a Robert Muldoon biography).

That section, Hipkins admits, he probably won’t be revisiting ahead of 2026. “I didn’t really enjoy it much the first go around.” 

Elsewhere in the office, a gift from Joe Biden – a football made from the same leather as American footballs and given to him ahead of this year’s Fifa World Cup – is prominently displayed. A signed photo from Princess Anne is less obvious, shoved into a corner and out of sight.

He may have been prime minister for 10 months, but it’s opposition leader that’s often given the label of “the hardest job in politics”. As the cliche goes, a bad day in government is still better than a great day in opposition. Hipkins remains optimistic about the future of New Zealand despite no longer being in charge. “I think the current government isn’t going to contribute much to that, but if you look at the opportunities that are ahead of us, there are so many of them that I’m excited about the kind of country that my kids can grow up in,” he says.

There are even some (small) silver linings to no longer being the prime minister, he admits. “You do get time to read and reflect and to think and to talk to people in a way that you don’t get to do in government. When you’re in government, it just keeps coming at you… there was barely time to breathe some days. This is a chance for us to reflect and reset a bit.”

As a senior minister and then prime minister, Hipkins knows better than most just how relentless being in government can be. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he says he struggled to get a single night of constant sleep. It was, he says, constantly exhausting. “Most nights, I would wake up at some point and find myself staring at the ceiling thinking about whatever it was we were dealing with. This summer, I’m hoping to just have some uninterrupted sleeps.”

Chris Hipkins as Covid minister during the pandemic (Photo: Getty Images)

The goal is to properly disconnect, something that’s uncommon for those who work in and around the Beehive. He’s going to “consciously work on” being able to leave his phone on the kitchen bench for “whole days” at a time (if possible).

“We live in this age of constant stimulation which I’m not sure is always good. I was talking to someone when I was travelling earlier in the year and they said when they first bought an iPad they had it for a month or two and then they gave it away… because it robbed them of their moments of boredom,” Hipkins says. “There’s something in that. We don’t have moments of boredom around here. You can always pick up your phone, you can always engage with people… but actually moments to just sit and be and reflect are actually important for the human soul and so I’m looking forward to being able to do that over the summer.”

He continues: “What do people elect us to do? Yes, they elect us to work hard on their behalf but they also elect us for our judgement and our reflection and we need to view that as work as well.”

That “reflection” includes some acknowledgement of what went wrong during Election 2023. Despite going into the last election with an historic MMP majority, Hipkins stands by his campaign assertion that Labour was the “underdog” in the race and suggests that, in reality, the governing party had been the underdog since late 2021 when the last drawn-out lockdown finally came to an end.

“That was bumpy,” he says. “If you think about it, we were at our most popular when people could clearly understand what we were asking them to do and why we were asking them to do it. By the end of 2021 with Covid circulating in the community, elimination no longer on the table, clarity of message became a lot harder.”

There’s also what went right this year. Asked for his “politician of the year”, he pauses and names a lesser known face: Cushla Tangaere-Manuel. “She got drafted in at the last minute to run in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti and she was the only Labour candidate to hold a Māori electorate despite the fact she came in at the last minute [and] was up against an incumbent member of parliament,” he says, referring to Te Pāti Māori’s Meka Whaitiri, who dramatically from the Labour Party in May. “[Cushla] was an amazing campaigner, I was so impressed with her.”

His focus has now turned to 2026 and that includes thinking about a “refreshed manifesto” and “a really clear vision for the future of the country”. That’s something, he says, that the current government is lacking. “Their vision ends in 2017 which is where they want to take us back to. Actually, the world has moved on. A lot has happened since 2017 and they want to write all of that out of history,” he says.

Despite claiming to be more “philosophical” about politics in general, Hipkins can’t resist lobbing a few more barbs at the new government. “In Winston Peters’ case it was a bizarre sense of voodoo, for what I’ll never fully understand,” he says of the New Zealand First leader’s anyone-but-Labour stance. “Act can’t quite decide whether they’re a populist party or a neoliberal party, they’ve got an identity crisis. And National has always had a bit of an identity crisis; are they a conservative party, are they a liberal party?” Ironically, the same question has been asked of Labour in recent elections.

Luxon, he adds, has spent “an awful lot of time lashing out and attacking people personally” since becoming prime minister.

With parliament wrapping up this week, Hipkins will be dividing his time between his home in the Remutaka electorate his wider family on the Kāpiti Coast, along with a “bit of a roadie” around the North Island. 

And he’ll be reading, too, something he said he didn’t have time for while prime minister. He has started Mariana Mazzucato’s The Mission Economy (“quite good”) and has Jon Alexander’s Citizens and Francis Fukuyama’s Identity lined up next. “And then Yuval Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, I’m part way through that. I’m hoping to finish some of them over the summer break.”

One book he hasn’t got is an advance copy of Jacinda Ardern’s memoir. “She hasn’t asked me to peer review any of that.” 

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