The lead-up to the election has entered a new phase of attack and counterattack, a battle of everything but new ideas, writes Toby Manhire.
A few days after Chris Hipkins was catapulted to the prime ministership, a Beehive staffer privately bemoaned the tenor of some of the media coverage – specifically the “bogan” imagery and use of his nickname. It was disrespectful and annoying, they said. Fast forward five months to Hipkins’ first big Labour Party gathering as PM and the “Chippy” inventory has swollen to bursting point, except you can’t pin it on the media. The party’s election-year congress was replete with the stuff, speaker after speaker leaning so far in to the Hutt boy tropes they were practically swimming in the Kaitoke gorge.
Kelvin Davis related a local example of sausage roll diplomacy by his friend Chippy, “A common touch, not staged, not for media consumption.” Grant Robertson teased his friend Chippy about his predilection for hoodies, trackies, Coke Zero, sausage rolls and tinned spaghetti toasties, adding, with a nod to Bill English, “tinned spaghetti isn’t a video prop for this PM; it’s a way of life.” He was “a good Hutt boy”. Carmel Sepuloni praised her friend Chippy, too. While she admirably forwent the temptation to mention sausage rolls, she did call him the “Ginga from the Hutt” – no, really – before going on to describe herself as both his “work wife” and a “frontbench ninja minister”. The crowd loved it all.
The embrace of the Hutt boy persona is part of casting the prime minister as down to earth, relatable, unfussy. “No, he isn’t flashy,” declared Robertson – something you couldn’t imagine him saying of the last PM. Though part of that is about a contrast with Jacinda Ardern, it’s also an implied dig at the other Chris and his CEO credentials. In the same speech, Robertson spoke of Luxon as “a bit out of touch … not quite ringing true”.
Luxon and National, and Act, too, were a regular presence at the Labour congress, the focus of repeated critiques. The intended audience was partly the wider country, but more so the grassroots in the room, the faithful upon whom Hipkins’ fate depends. Against their much deeper-pocketed rivals, Labour’s ground game is crucial. In that cause, everyone let rip at the enemy, exorcising forever the ghost of Relentless Positivity. Hipkins unleashed again his favourite riposte, and it is all beginning to sound like a vocal warm-up for repertory theatre: Chris’s Coalition of Chaos combats Chris’s Coalition of Cuts.
Six months ago, at the last Labour conference, Robertson targeted the National leader by calling him “Liz Luxon”. These days, no one could be expected to get the reference, so brief was her tenure as UK prime minister, so he instead compared Luxon to another robot, ChatGPT, which had been fed National speeches and “spat out their leader, Captain Cliché himself”. In his 2022 speech, however, Robertson had lambasted Luxon as “out of touch and out of ideas”. The second part of that – out of ideas – he didn’t repeat at the weekend. Which was probably just as well, given that Labour’s biggest announcement on the Saturday was that they wouldn’t be doing something they were already not doing (raising the superannuation age) and on the Sunday that they would continue to do something they were already doing (the Apprenticeship Boost scheme).
The NZ Super line was again an exercise more in throwing shade than finding light, reminding people that National’s policy is to increase the age of eligibility by a year or two, decades hence. But the decision, dating from Ardern’s time, to follow John Key in promising to resign if the super age changed had a similar whiff to the most significant political announcement of the weekend – the confirmation that National was withdrawing from the bipartisan agreement on housing density.
Chris Bishop – the third Chris of our story – ably laid out National’s alternative on TVNZ’s Q+A, and though the housing policy is much more considered than the rushed nature of its release would have you expect, much like Labour’s super pledge it is born more of political expediency than far-sighted principle. When Luxon stuck out his hand to meet the proverbial ordinary New Zealander, and certainly the ordinary National voter who may be thinking of voting Act, the message was clear enough.
It is fitting that the reason for the rush in the announcement was Luxon letting slip that National was “wrong” about the policy in response to a question from a punter at the Birkenhead Bowling Club last Wednesday lunchtime. It was the first of a “Back on Track” series of events, and the track of the party’s position on housing is – much like Labour’s journey on superannuation – in the shape of the Raurimu Spiral, a series of undulating U-turns that ultimately leave you chugging along in the same direction.
The thing, of course, that Luxon seeks to put back on track is New Zealand. But it could be applied to his leadership, too. The latest polling by Kantar for 1News shows Luxon favoured by just 18% as preferred prime minister. That would be a nightmare, were it not for the fact that Hipkins isn’t doing much better, on 25%. Both will hope to rate higher as the exposure of the election nears, but it’s a far cry from, say, the last poll by the same company before the 2017 election, which had Bill English on 37% and Jacinda Ardern on 31%.
In these days of furrowed brows, there seems little taste for hopey-changey politics, for the vision thing, for pledges of transformation. That doesn’t mean people aren’t hungry for fresh ideas. In the absence of those, with the two big parties chiselling out small target campaigns, it may fall to the smaller parties to fill the gaps, echoing a pattern from Australia last year, where the big two were handed their smallest ever proportion of the vote combined. For today, however, the most obvious difference between the two Chrises, personality and branding exercises apart, is that one of them wants to reverse all the things Labour started, and the other only wants to reverse some of them.