‘Chippy is nononsense, pragmatic, and wants to win’
Aotearoa’s soon-to-be prime minister has a ruthless streak that could propel him to victory, say those who know him - although they add he’s also a “real nice guy”. Andrea Vance reports on the rise of “a boy from the Hutt” to the top office in the Beehive
Just a few weeks before Christmas, an exhausted Chris Hipkins was crouched on the side of the road, trying to fix a puncture. As cars rushed by on busy state Highway 1, he was utterly drained – both from the pressures of the job and long hours absent from his two young children.
A keen road cyclist, the 44-year-old had tried to snatch a few moments to himself, and some exercise, eschewing the ministerial Crown car for an early morning commute to the Beehive.
Now he was late, fed-up, and wrestling with an uncooperative inner tube. It was an appropriate end to an utterly miserable year for the Covid-19 response minister.
Most of Labour’s senior ministers finished the year feeling the same, pummelled by three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, bruised by the Government’s crumbling popularity and anxious about a looming recession.
At the press gallery’s traditional end-ofyear party, as they sipped sweating beers outside on a muggy evening, they looked beaten. Could Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s inner circle muster the energy over the summer break to fight the coming election?
Ultimately, Ardern couldn’t. She signalled her attention to resign on Thursday, and her friend, once a regular fixture alongside her at daily press conferences, will take her place.
Hipkins was the logical – some colleagues say only – choice, once Finance Minister Grant Robertson made clear he held no inclination to lead. All three entered Parliament together in 2008, and over 14 tumultuous years out and then in office, forged a strong alliance.
Fairly soon after Ardern’s press conference, a shell-shocked caucus resolved this was to be an orderly transition, with the preferred option that support coalesce around one candidate rather than a drawnout and damaging competition. In an economic crisis, the party couldn’t be seen to spend weeks talking about itself.
The highest-ranking members – Hipkins, Robertson, Megan Woods, David Parker, Kelvin Davis – had endured the post-Helen Clark years, where three terms of Opposition were defined by infighting and self-inflicted instability.
There was determination, which then became a sense of pride, that Labour would also not follow the recent example of National, now on its fifth leader since Sir John Key quit.
This display of unity was made easier because most of the caucus were gathered in Napier, for an annual MPs retreat.
By the time MPs started to return home on Friday, to their electorates or straight to Wellington for a Sunday meeting to vote on the new leadership, the decision was made: Chris Hipkins would be New Zealand’s 41st prime minister.
A more challenging decision came over his deputy, with an awareness that the strength of the Ma¯ ori and Pasifika caucus must be acknowledged. High-profile and charismatic Justice Minister Kiritapu Allan was the popular choice of the left, and social media agitated for her selection.
But on the inside there was more caution. She lacked the experience of others. And an effective deputy must be low-key and good at building relationships, not Allan’s main strengths (one source witheringly described her as the ‘‘Kevin Rudd’’ of the Labour Party).
Carmel Sepuloni is Hipkins’ pick. The social development minister is also of the class of ’08 and was once junior to him as chief whip.
The Ma¯ ori caucus abandoned a plan to meet yesterday, and the parliamentary party will gather only for a ceremonial rubber-stamp.
With the minimal amount of fuss and (publicly aired) turmoil, Hipkins was presented to media on Parliament’s sunny forecourt. ‘‘I am absolutely humbled and honoured,’’ he said, joking that it was about time New Zealand had a ginger premier.
‘‘I’m pinching myself, to be honest,’’ an insider said, paying tribute to Hipkins’ main rival, Immigration Minister Michael Wood. ‘‘Michael is someone who has the best interests of the party at heart as opposed to selfish, selfish.
‘‘It is also remarkable how professional
the party machine has become since those days in office, from Parliament to head office at Fraser House. It’s a different party from the one Ardern took over. The polls are challenging but we’ll see. It’s a much more formidable machine.’’
A source close to Labour says Hipkins has ‘‘the political nous to do it’’. His selection gives Labour ‘‘a bit of runway’’. Already the party is pinning its hopes that Hipkins can shift the dial, and that the polls remain tight. MMP may yet nudge them over the line, if alliances can be forged with Te Paati Maori and a reconciliation with Winston Peters.
Hipkins grew up in the Hutt Valley in the 1980s, the youngest son of Doug and Rose, and brother to Dave. Rogernomics – neoliberal reforms
which rolled back the state and divided the Labour Party – were the backdrop to his upbringing.
He attended school alongside the children of public servants who lost their jobs and were struggling to make ends meet, and had no means of retraining for a new career. The child was deeply affected when the financial support they received was slashed by the next government, in National’s ‘‘mother of all budgets.’’
The country, he felt, had turned its back on his friends and neighbours.
Hipkins’ early political beliefs were also shaped by his mother, an education policy researcher.
As head boy at Petone College in 1996, the future education minister wrote a letter to the Dominion, then the local newspaper, troubled by poor standards, low discipline, low pupil morale, and a failure
to keep good teachers.
Hipkins had even lobbied his local MP, Trevor Mallard. His crusade created a minor kerfuffle – and an indignant back and forth in the newspaper pages between the schoolboy and the Education Review Office’s public affairs manager – especially when the Government moved to close the school (Hipkins would go on to become a regular correspondent to the local paper).
But it gave Hipkins a taste for a political fight, and in their yearbook, his classmates judged him most likely to lead the country.
A year later he was among dozens arrested on Parliament’s lawns while protesting tertiary education reforms proposed by Jim Bolger’s Government. Speaker Doug Kidd issued a trespass notice and Hipkins was one of the first led away.
The indignity of being incarcerated for hours, and fed a cold McDonald’s takeaway, led Hipkins to sue police, who wrongly claimed the protest was violent. A decade later, a judge awarded compensation of $200,000 to 41 demonstrators, who also won an apology.
The protest was a defining moment for Hipkins – although a friend says he didn’t go with the intention of being arrested.
At the time, he was in his first year at Victoria University, studying politics and criminology.
He gravitated immediately to student politics, and it was there he formed lifelong friendships (and crucial bonds) with present-day Labour figures like Robertson, Andrew Little and Wellington councillor Fleur Fitzsimmons (tipped to win the safe Rongotai seat this year).
By 2000 he was student president, advocating for compulsory student unionism and criticising plans to shift the administration of student loans from universities to Work and Income.
Hipkins didn’t shy from criticising Clark’s new Labour Government. At one point, he called then education minister Steve Maharey ‘‘mean-spirited’’ over a refusal to honour a promise to reinstate emergency unemployment benefits for students. Maharey would later become his boss.
His negotiating skills were already evident. Neale Jones, later chief of staff to Little and Ardern, first met Hipkins in a dispute over student newspapers. ‘‘Even then he was the consummate politician. We were really having a go, and he just defused the whole situation. He was very fair and reasonable.’’
‘‘You knew he was going to be a politician, and probably a minister,’’ a fellow university activist said. ‘‘He was politically driven, but also very clever. But my recollection of those days is more of Grant Robertson and Andrew Little, who were much stronger, more charismatic individuals.’’
What stood out most was Hipkins’ babyfaced looks. ‘‘Even then, he looked much younger that he is.’’
For a long time, Hipkins seemed irritated when attention was drawn to his
‘‘If he sees something that is not right, he’ll point it out. He has a level of political courage that is sometimes missed.’’
boyish appearance, and friends say his ‘‘Chippy’’ nickname grated, perhaps fearing it lacked gravitas.
In recent times, especially after becoming a father, he became more comfortable in his own skin and has ‘‘grown into’’ the affectionate tag.
On graduating, Hipkins worked as a policy adviser at the Industry Training Federation and as a training manager in the oil and gas industry in Taranaki.
Only a few years after being dragged off Parliament’s lawn by police officers, he was back, working for Mallard, who schooled him in parliamentary procedure and how to master the public service, and Maharey.
He impressed Clark and after an OE, backpacking in Europe and living briefly in London, he started work in her office.
By 2007 the prime ministerial adviser had moved from the backroom into the limelight, gaining the nomination to stand in the safe Rimutaka (now Remutaka) seat.
He was 29 and his win over a 54-year-old rival was seen as a sign of the party’s push for rejuvenation – a month earlier, Robertson had become the Wellington Central candidate, and Ardern had returned from London to stand in Waikato. Carmel Sepuloni, his likely new deputy, was a list candidate.
At the time, Hipkins said he was ‘‘on the left of the party’’. A friend notes that by the ninth year of the Clark Government, that ‘‘probably wasn’t that radical. He’s not some studentradical-turned-PM’’.
Former president Mike Williams, who chaired the selection panel, said Hipkins wasn’t the favourite but won over locals, and steadily increased the candidate vote share. ‘‘He had a warmth about him that people find quite appealing,’’ he said.
Opposition was rough on what was left of the Labour Party, but Hipkins was quickly marked as a new talent, revealing how the new National Government was hiring private contractors to help trim public service budgets.
His ambitions were initially frustrated – new leader Phil Goff made few changes to the front bench. It was not until after the 2011 election that Hipkins won promotion – as David Shearer’s chief whip, and state services and associate education spokesperson, halfway to meeting pledges made in his maiden speech to get better funding for schools and break down the barriers to participation in higher education.
Hipkins landed blow after blow on then education minister Hekia Parata, first over the refurbishment of Christchurch schools following the 2011 earthquakes and then over the Novopay scandal. But he could not wrest the portfolio from Nanaia Mahuta, despite criticism of her performance.
As David Cunliffe jostled to unseat Shearer in 2012, with a dramatic conference floor fight, Hipkins remained loyal. He was rewarded in a reshuffle, climbing five places to finally claim the education portfolio, and was recognised as the party’s best attack dog, even earning the respect of political rivals.
In the bruising leadership battle that followed Shearer’s resignation in 2013, Hipkins backed his old friend Robertson, regularly facing down the left-wing factions who hoped to install the former health minister.
Hipkins was an arch-critic of Robertson’s main rival, and one of the founding members of the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) group. He kept his job, and was bumped up two rankings because Cunliffe couldn’t afford to lose his skills, but lost the whip.
After Labour was crushed in the 2014 election, Hipkins again supported Robertson in his unsuccessful race against Little. He held education and became shadow leader of the house, a keen match for veteran Gerry Brownlee, who came to respect his mark.
Robertson and Hipkins remain close, but it is a friendship that has become professional over their careers. It would be a mistake to assume his support was blind loyalty.
‘‘Hipkins put his career and reputation on the line [over Cunliffe] because if he sees something that is not right, he’ll point it out. He has a level of political courage that is sometimes missed,’’ a Labour insider said.
‘‘When they came in in ’08, Grant was a bit older than Chippy, and it was obvious he had leadership potential. But now the dynamics have changed. As Chippy matured, he’s seen in Cabinet as very much his own man. He is nobody’s poodle.’’
Hipkins thrived in Opposition, especially relishing getting up the nose of then Prime Minister John Key. Most who know him describe ‘‘a real nice guy’’, but he is also deeply partisan.
While mostly pragmatic, that tribalism occasionally gets him into trouble. He was once accused of dirty tricks by the Australian Government over his role in revealing deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce was a New Zealand citizen and ineligible to sit in Parliament.
A ruthless streak was also in evidence when his office released personal details and incorrect information about pregnant journalist Charlotte Bellis as she
‘‘He’s been doing quiet little lunches with key people in the Auckland business set for the last 18 months, totally under the radar.’’
sought to return home from Afghanistan, launching a public attack on the Government’s managed isolation regime. He had to apologise.
But these are occasional missteps. And it is a natural gift for sensing the public mood, as well as his friendship with Ardern and Robertson, that saw him drafted into Ardern’s kitchen cabinet when Labour took office in 2017.
As education minister, he began reforms instantly, scrapping national standards and (most) charter schools, and merging polytechnics into a single entity.
When David Clark was forced to step down over a breach of Covid-19 rules, he took over as interim health minister, good preparation for the Covid-19 response portfolio which he assumed after the election. He emerged as Ardern’s ‘go-to’ to solve tricky problems – both with the controversial managed isolation regime, and when Labour came under pressure in law and order.
‘‘National is running this line that Luxon wants to be prime minister to get things done. Well, no-one gets things done in the political system and the public service like Chippy. You can see in the way that he’s operated during Covid. He really mastered the communications,’’ says an insider.
‘‘And he was like a blacksmith bashing the anvil trying to get the Ministry of Health into shape. He asserted himself in a way that David Clark couldn’t.’’
As the pandemic receded, Hipkins recognised another problem: Business confidence was draining away. ‘‘He’s been doing quiet little lunches with key people in the Auckland business set for the last 18 months, totally under the radar,’’ a source revealed. ‘‘I stress, not because he thought he was going to be PM but he felt it important as a senior minister.
‘‘They liked him. He said: ‘Tell us what we’re f ..... g up.’ He is not as defensive as Ardern. But he pushed back too, though: Asking them, ‘what are you actually complaining about?’’’
The party sees the opportunity for a reset and Hipkins seems authentic, and relatable as a Hutt Valley boy juggling fatherhood (he is separated from his wife) with a demanding job. His style – cargo shorts, sunglasses and a cap – raised some eyebrows last week, but friends say he won’t be changed.
He also holds membership for all the Cossie and RSA clubs in the country, and loves meat pies. Some years ago colleagues began raising concerns about his daily habit of wolfing down a sausage roll and Coke in Parliament’s canteen. He switched it up, for a Coke Zero.
There is optimism within the party that Hipkins can charm the electorate, but they stress there is more to him than unvarnished charm. Hipkins is incredibly organised, one of his best strengths. ‘‘You couldn’t guess to look at him, but he has the tidiest, cleanest desk in the Beehive, and that is the way his mind works,’’ an insider says. ‘‘It’s how he gets things done.’’
Like Ardern, he also likes to keep an iron grip on messaging and political communications, although is much more relaxed with reporters.
Despite promises this would be an open, transparent government, as state services and police minister, Hipkins has regularly rubbed up against the Official Information Act.
In October 2021, he alleged three women who travelled from Auckland to Northland, sparking an 11-day lockdown, had done so on false information. It was later revealed he knew officials’ mistakes were to blame but has not apologised to the women, nor corrected the record that they were gang-affiliated sex workers.
Supporters reject the idea that Hipkins is a caretaker: the ‘‘1990 option’’ brought in like Mike Moore to stop an inevitable loss being catastrophic.
They predict that Robertson will remain by his side as finance minister, and that he will quickly move to axe the unpopular state media merger, and tweak the contentious Three Waters reforms to make them more palatable.
‘‘He’s up for doing do some things we couldn’t have done beforehand, and there are things he can do and Ardern and Grant couldn’t,’’ an insider said. ‘‘Chippy is no-nonsense, pragmatic, and wants to win.’’