On a trade trip of which not a minute was left unscheduled, Chris Hipkins spent his press conferences fielding questions about yet another ministerial controversy back home – and the pressure of politics.
By Wednesday, he was deflating. After a chirpy flight over and a busy Tuesday, Chris Hipkins was giving a keynote address to students from Peking University – who, by the way, had attended despite being on summer break – and it was a fizzer. He spoke about the history of New Zealand and Chinese relations, the fiscal realities playing out in New Zealand regarding tourism and education. His half-hour slot never seemed to end.
He looked and sounded exhausted. Unsurprisingly so. His keynote address was the fourth event of the day, after a morning at the Great Hall of the People for an official welcome, then a bilateral meeting with Chinese premier Li Qiang, then a working lunch and a media stand-up. After leaving the university, Hipkins would “give remarks” (none of which were any better than his keynote address) at three more events before calling it a day. The next morning, he would be up at 4am to catch a 6am flight and do it all over again.
At times throughout the week, I wondered what the pay-off was for an appearance from Hipkins. Every minute of his schedule was filled, sometimes with a meeting with the president, other times to pose with a branded apron behind a barbecue. The schedule left little room for rest or prep, let alone crisis management. Perhaps if Hipkins had spent the car rides on Wednesday working on his university speech rather than being briefed to answer 20 minutes of questions about working relationships in Kiritapu Allan’s office, he might have done a better job at promoting our (crumbling) tertiary sector to a hall filled with enthusiastic students.
Instead of answering questions about his meeting with Li – which by all accounts, went well – Hipkins spent his media stand-up fielding questions about Allan’s conduct and explaining the pressures of being a politician in New Zealand. “With all respect to all of you, sometimes [the media] is part of the cause of it,” he told the group of reporters. “Where ministers are under more pressure, are under more scrutiny – a very important part of the democratic process – that will put them under more personal pressure and it will put the people who work with them on a day-to-day basis under more pressure as well.”
It was a fairly straightforward equation he outlined: more pressure equals more pressure equals more pressure. Unfortunately for Labour and Hipkins, the pressure keeps compounding, and is taking out ministers along the way. Stuart Nash got the ball rolling by failing to keep his mouth shut. Michael Wood seemed to not have a spare minute to figure out what shares he owned. And Allan’s self-described “high standards” are now being considered in a different light.
Hipkins failed to give a direct answer on a number of questions regarding Allan’s behaviour, including why, since he claimed to be aware of pressures and tensions within ministerial offices, did he give Allan yet another portfolio (associate finance minister) just last week after Michael Wood resigned? Pressure begets pressure. And with ministers dropping like flies lately, there aren’t many places left for that pressure to land.
Despite being an old institution, parliament as a workplace is more akin to a startup. As soon as someone shows a shred of competency and potential, they’re rewarded with five more jobs. Allan has been tagged as a Labour star since she entered parliament. She had all the makings of a future leader and prime minister, with charisma to spare and a good work ethic. But as portfolio after portfolio was added to her roster, cracks started to show, and that work ethic was expected of her staff too – sometimes unreasonably, according to reports. It’s not the first time Allan has been caught out. There was the RNZ incident (where Allan criticised the operations at RNZ during her then fiancee Māni Dunlop’s farewell), then the Meng Foon scandal (a donation from Foon in 2020 that wasn’t disclosed by Allan as a conflict when she became justice minister), and now these allegations of poor working relationships in her office.
Allan has disputed the claims and Hipkins has mirrored her response, repeating over and over that there have been “no formal complaints” while also very carefully not giving an answer when asked if he was surprised to hear there were “concerns” about her behaviour. Instead, the focus always returns to the “pressures” of parliament and the need for understanding when those pressures become too much. Hipkins confirmed on Wednesday that Allan had requested some time “away from the coal face” last week.
“Ministers, as with everybody else, manage their own mental health. Where they ask for some space and some time, I certainly would never stand in the way of that,” he said. But when asked who was handling Allan’s portfolios while she took that space and time, Hipkins clarified that she was in fact working from home rather than off work entirely. After three years of Covid, everyone knows that “working from home” in high-pressure jobs is indistinguishable, stress-wise, from working onsite. It’s hard to imagine a week of working from home will release the pressures of work and life, particularly when the work is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Given the exodus of ministers of late, Hipkins will be doing all he can to keep Allan around. But if Allan, a self-identified workhorse with high expectations, requested time off due to “personal circumstances, as well as other external things” and only took a few days before entering the eye of a media storm, there’s every chance the decision on her future in politics has simply been kicked down the road.
Meanwhile in China, Hipkins is today wrapping up a successful trade mission, having performed his job well enough in his meetings with Xi and Li, and perked up on Thursday to deliver some slightly more energetic remarks at the Baoshan International Folk Art Museum and an NZ Business Association in China panel lunch. But doing your job adequately relieves only the smallest of pressures, and Hipkins will have had little room to relish the successes of the trip.
After once again spending most of his presser on Thursday responding to questions about Allan, he paused a moment before answering whether or not he would be someone to take time off if the pressure ever got to be too much. “I’d like to think if I needed a bit of a breather, that I would take that.” It was an honest answer that opened the door to a reality where politicians join the growing number of workers proactively managing their mental health against their work. With election season barely under way, it’s something many politicians will likely be reminded of, if only to reduce the chances of scandal down the line.
But as Hipkins prepares to fly home today with the Allan storyline still unfolding and his cabinet shrinking every other week, he’s unlikely to be thinking about taking a breather. There’s no time for that.