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Incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins leaves caucus, followed by deputy PM to be Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images
Incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins leaves caucus, followed by deputy PM to be Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images

OPINIONPoliticsJanuary 23, 2023

Chris Hipkins and the focus project

Incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins leaves caucus, followed by deputy PM to be Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images
Incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins leaves caucus, followed by deputy PM to be Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty Images

On Wednesday a new prime minister will be sworn in, but he promises to have hit the ground running already. And the tone was palpably reset yesterday, writes Toby Manhire from parliament.  

When parties vote in a new leader, there is sometimes a push to fill the stage with MPs, grinning and nodding earnestly, an awkward human cyclorama of harmony and resolve. There was little if any thought given to that for Chris Hipkins, after his endorsement by the Labour caucus as party leader and, as of Tuesday, prime minister. They hardly needed it: the selection by acclamation as the sole nominated candidate, combined with the whoops and cheers that spilled out of the caucus room yesterday afternoon said everything. As Hipkins readied to head to the press conference, one MP said with a grin that they had other plans: “going to the pub to celebrate.”

Hipkins hardly needed an escort: he’s no stranger to the Beehive podium, having led countless press conferences in the theatrette across his tenure as Covid response minister. This time, though, the challenge was on another level, both in status and range of subjects. Once or twice he physically recoiled at the tsunami of questions, but remained unflustered and hardly put a foot wrong (with one exception, which we’ll return to later). Beside him yesterday was Carmel Sepuloni. The west Auckland MP, who will soon become New Zealand’s first Pasifika deputy prime minister, spoke movingly about sharing the news with her family.

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Hipkins spoke about his family, too. While he accepted he was “public property”, they should have their privacy respected. It was “bloody hard” for partners of those at the most exposed level of politics, he said. He’d “seen the enormous scrutiny and pressure placed on Jacinda and her family, and so my response to that will be to keep my family completely out of the limelight.”

He added: “I am aware of the Wellington rumour mill … so I will put something on the record that will be my final comment on the matter. A year ago, my wife and I made the decision that we would live separately, that we would do everything we can to raise our children together. We remain incredibly close. She’s still my best friend. But we have made that decision in the best interest of our family.”

Spoken off the cuff, it drew an emphatic line under all of that. Across the press conference he opened other themes on policy and personnel that will occupy much of the next fortnight. What sort of things are on his to-do list?

Reset the tone

Reset was top of mind yesterday, and so was bread and butter. “I know that some New Zealanders feel that we are doing too much, too fast and I’ve heard that message. Over the coming week, cabinet will be making decisions on reining in some programmes and projects that aren’t essential right now,” said the incoming prime minister. It’s clear that the stripping of barnacles from the work programme promised by Jacinda Ardern will only be intensified under the new guy. There will be a reshuffle of cabinet, too, including new faces – though that will have to wait till next week. 

The word “focus” was everywhere. “We will make decisions on re-focusing.” “I will lead a team that is focussed and working hard to fix the big issues.” “Our focus will be on the right-now, on the bread-and-butter issues that people care about.”

That the new emphasis on the day-to-day, on brass tacks, means jettisoning loftier narratives was clear enough in Hipkins response to a question from The Spinoff about a central motif of Ardern’s early years, “transformation”. Was the Chris Hipkins project a transformational one? “Look,” he said, “I’m not really interested in those kinds of catchphrases. Basically, we will deliver a very solid government that is focused on the bread and butter issues that matter to New Zealanders and that are relevant to the times that we’re in now.” He added: “2017 was five-and-a-half years ago, and quite a lot has happened since then.”

Hipkins promised to “hit the ground running” and has traveled to Auckland for a round of morning media. Tomorrow, he’ll head to Ratana alongside Ardern, who at that point will remain officially prime minister. Wednesday morning is the formal swearing in of Prime Minister Hipkins and Deputy Prime Minister Sepuloni, after which they’ll head straight to a cabinet meeting, to discuss policy priorities, focusedly.

Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins arrive at the caucus meeting that confirmed he will succeed her as prime minister. Photo: Marty Melville/Getty

Speak to Māori 

As well as transformation, co-governance was described as having “become a catchphrase”. Hipkins said that there was too often a lack of clarity and a misunderstanding about what was meant by the term. On that he is undoubtedly right, that but there will be concerns within te ao Māori about the future of the wider programme.

There have been questions, too, about the leadership team. While Kelvin Davis remains deputy leader, an opportunity has been lost to choose an indigenous prime minister or deputy, according to a thundering statement from te Pāti Māori. “They are telling Māori, that despite having the largest Māori caucus ever in government, we still are not good enough,” said Rawiri Waititi. 

The Māori Party is not, of course, the same as the Māori caucus. But at the end of what was admittedly an exacting 45-minute press conference came Hipkins’ only serious stumble. He was only able to name two of the three Treaty of Waitangi articles. 

The Ratana celebrations will be Hipkins’ first opportunity to present himself as the new prime minister in a te ao Māori setting. Events in Waitangi follow just a few days later, with the political powhiri expected on February 2 at the upper marae where, five years ago, Ardern exhorted Māori to “hold us to account”.

Speak to the party

The decision of the Labour Party to allow a two-thirds majority in caucus to choose a leader without recourse to an electoral college that includes the wider membership and union affiliates faced some real resistance at the 2021 conference. And some who opposed it would not be thrilled if they were told their party, founded on principles of democratic leadership, would soon perform a caucus coronation.

There is not, to be clear, any sign of disgruntlement from the membership about the process followed – on the contrary, the mood seems to be one of relief and delight. But still, Hipkins will be conscious of the need to keep the wider party on board. He is popular in the membership but not at the level of, say, Michael Wood, who a couple of months back was walking on water at the party conference.  

In election year, bread and butter might trump bread and circuses, but the need remains to rally the membership troops. An email to supporters last night, headed “A big day for this boy from the Hutt”, asked for donations. On that score, he may have inadvertently hit a jackpot: fashion fundraising. Expect the merch table at the party congress 2023 to be piled high with wraparounds and hoodies. 

Speak to the median voter

In an interview last year Hipkins said he thought most voters made their decisions more on “feelings” than anything else. And while he rejects “tough on crime” rhetoric, the criminology graduate understands he must channel the public mood and has evinced a steelier approach since he took up the police portfolio in the middle of last year. 

Hipkins has promised a second trip to Auckland this week, with a focus on talking to small business operators about issues around both the economy and crime. With an old-school retail-politics twang, he said: “We will be focused on middle and low income New Zealanders and the small businesses that are doing it tough to get by. We’ll be making decisions on refocusing on some of the most pressing priorities.”

Focus, focus, focus. In election mode and in crisis mode, Ardern harnessed a public adrenaline. The mood today is different. Sober, pragmatic, cautious and – you’ll never guess – focused. That goes for Red Chris and Blue Chris both, which in turn leaves much territory for the smaller parties. But that’s for another column. And Hipkins did have at least one lick of stirring oratory yesterday. While much of Labour’s focus might change, he said, “we don’t need a change of heart.”

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