Chris Hipkins has promised to ‘run a ruler’ over Labour’s extensive policy agenda. So what’s likely to be on the chopping block? And what could be brought back from the dead?
New Zealand’s new prime minister had a busy first day in the job. Fresh from being sworn in shortly before lunchtime yesterday, he was treated to a plate of Government House sausage rolls and then it was straight to business, chairing his first cabinet meeting. Chris Hipkins has just eight months to convince the New Zealand public he’s worth keeping in the job, reversing a downward trend in polls that started under his predecessor Jacinda Ardern about a year ago.
So what do we know about Hipkins’ plans to see his party’s poll performance improve? We know he’s positioned the cost of living crisis as his number one priority. And to address that, we know he’s planning a policy rejig. Labour created an extensive and at times burdensome list of projects and priorities during Ardern’s premiership. And even before her resignation, it was hinted that some of these would be culled or scaled back in time for the election. Under Hipkins, this seems a certainty.
“I will be doing a bit of programme rationalisation to make sure we’re narrowing down our focus. I think we’ve heard the feedback from New Zealanders that they think that we’re doing a bit too much a bit too fast, I think that’s fair and we’ll certainly be looking at how we’re honing down the issues that are top of the priority list right now,” Hipkins told RNZ on Monday. Any reprioritisation will be announced after next week’s planned cabinet reshuffle, said Hipkins.
While his first press conference as PM yesterday afternoon did little to suggest what policies could be safe, or scrapped, under his leadership, it’s easy enough to speculate. So much like Hipkins, we’ve run a ruler over a few of Labour’s biggest policy plans – and nicked a couple out of the recycling bin for good measure.
The TVNZ-RNZ merger
Arguably the most likely of Labour’s planned projects to be scrapped, the merger of RNZ and TVNZ has appeared dead in the water for some time. The costly, confusing and, to many, unnecessary proposal was the target of significant scrutiny from the opposition in 2022. Even Ardern herself seemed reluctant to commit either way at the end of last year.
It was also hard to bring the public along for the journey, with many, including the minister in charge, not able to explain why it should be happening. Willie Jackson seemed more capable of making headlines about himself than of generating positive buzz for the merger (think back to his angry interview with Q&A’s Jack Tame). Then there is the price tag. On private contractors alone, the merger has been costing as much as $9,000 per person, per week.
Of all Labour’s major reforms still on the table, the RNZ-TVNZ merger appears most at risk under Hipkins – especially ahead of an election set to be won or lost on the cost of living.
It’s one of Labour’s more “controversial” policy areas and one Hipkins seems determined to address. Though how he’ll do that remains to be seen. At Rātana this week, National’s Christopher Luxon used his speaking slot to deliver a fiery and very political address that criticised the government for creating an “immature” and “divisive” debate over co-governance. Hipkins looks keen to avoid any of that division, and has suggested the public were often confused by what co-governance required – and even fearful of it. “In an environment of misunderstanding and uncertainty, it is easy for fear to be cultivated,” he said this week. Expect a softening of the discussion around co-governance by the government, even if it’s sure to remain a major talking point of the election.
The legislation may have passed, but there’s work still to be done on seeing this controversial Labour policy implemented. It’s possible Hipkins may choose to dismantle it, though this seems unlikely after he told reporters that people could face thousands of dollars in increased rates.
The superannuation age
Off the table under Jacinda Ardern was the possibility of raising the retirement age to 67. As long as she remained the leader, she said, superannuation requirements would continue to kick in at 65. That promise does not tick over to a new leader, meaning Hipkins has the chance to update his party’s position to the table. But there are two reasons why a change to Ardern’s position seems fairly unlikely before the election, though not impossible. Firstly, it’s National policy to raise the super age, so whether Hipkins would want to fall on the same side as his opposition remains to be seen. Secondly, Hipkins signalled at yesterday’s press conference that the government would “honour the commitments we made in 2020”.
Capital gains tax
Also off the table under Jacinda Ardern was the possibility of a capital gains tax. But this is traditional Labour policy and one that the party has tried on more than one occasion to bring to fruition. It’s also a position that the vast majority of core Labour voters will endorse. It was only scrapped under Ardern’s government because of the Winston Peters’ “handbrake” when he was deputy prime minister (though Peters blamed public support instead). With him out of the picture, it could be revived – though maybe not in time to become part of the 2023 election campaign.
Hipkins has told reporters he wants to oversee a fairer tax system, but what that means remains unclear at this point. “If you work hard you should be able to get ahead,” he told Newshub’s AM earlier in the week. “We need a tax system that recognises those who are really striving and putting in the hard yards feel the rewards for that.” Could a capital gains tax be the answer?
The new PM has thus far chosen to avoid talking about policy, but that also means he hasn’t ruled out anything. “Our policy will be released before the election. New Zealanders will go into the election with a very clear understanding of what our policy is,” a spokesperson told Stuff.
Along with KiwiBuild, the introduction of a new light rail network in Auckland was a defining feature of Ardern’s initial rise to power. Her first public appearance as Labour Party leader in 2017 included the announcement of light rail to Mount Roskill within a matter of years. Nearly six years later, work has barely progressed.
While transport minister Michael Wood told RNZ that the change in leadership doesn’t mean anything in regards to light rail, the high price tag and lack of progress could easily see it scuppered before it’s even started. Or maybe light rail will, for the third election year in a row, continue to be a Labour pledge.