Out with the earnest and in with some saltiness
Luke Malpass Political editor
Stuff NZ Newspapers
If there was one thing that stood out in soon-to-be prime minister Chris Hipkins’ first press conference, it was the repeated view that he was for aspiration: people who work hard having the opportunity to get ahead and provide a better life for their children. It was an informal press conference, outside the front of Parliament on a sunny Wellington day in a city that has had a comparatively sunny and dry summer compared to much of the rest of the country. Hipkins wouldn’t be drawn on any sort of policy prescriptions or new direction for the Government. Except for getting ahead: aspiration, opportunity, hard work. This will clearly be a theme that will be built out more fully in Hipkins’ first official speech behind the Prime Ministerial podium in the Beehive on Thursday. He has both the runway and permission to use it. With hindsight, outgoing Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s promise that Labour would do a ‘‘reprioritisation’’ of policies early this year may have been designed with the possibility of a new leader in mind: Hipkins can now change up and ditch a bunch of things without either his colleagues or the public thinking he is undermining Ardern’s legacy. Labour knows that it needs to seriously reset. The slow but steady downward trend in the polls last year is devilishly hard to reverse and some imaginative policy and political communication is required. National’s Christopher Luxon is now facing a very different opponent to his predecessor. Hipkins is a political mongrel when he needs to be. Hipkins is a very different character to Ardern; he rarely wears his heart on his sleeve but is usually open, matter-of-fact and very often funny. Loves a sausage roll and a Coca-Cola. Ardern was an earnest leader – especially earlier in her tenure – empathising, imploring people to be kind and clearly holding the view that with enough will and persuasion, virtually anything could be done. Hipkins is cut from different cloth. When he first became health minister, after David Clark, he faced an early border worker testing debacle. He went to officials and asked how testing worked. Dissatisfied with the high-level answers he received, he grilled officials and found out exactly what happened from the time a person took a swab to when they got to their results. He wanted to know everything in the process so he could identify any obvious bureaucratic snafus and also be able to ask officials tough questions as well answer questions from media with authority. He was considerably more bullish than his former boss when it came to opening the border early , wanted to open MIQ earlier and was clearly less enamoured with some of the more highly mediamanaged aspects of the Covid-19 response. The fact that he was in charge of the MIQ gulag at the border will be remembered with loathing by many, especially the million-odd kiwis abroad unable to easily get home at times, many of whom voted Labour last time. But he was the guy who ran it, not the one who invented it. Sitting to the right of Ardern and many of his colleagues he could have more of an appeal to the sorts of voters Labour will need to convince to stay with them. He is a knockaround bloke who likes to do DIY – and can actually do quite a bit of it – is a bit of an amateur carpenter and likes to get on his bike when he can. While not an overly useful term, he also doesn’t share some of the more ‘woke’ culture affectations that some of his colleagues do. He’s all about inclusion and diversity and that sort of thing, but it is clearly in a context of what he views as a fair society not some sort of social engineering agenda. In other words, Hipkins will also be more in the oldLabour mould of delivering improvement in peoples’ lives, rather than adhering to a ‘progressive’ march of history view of the world, presentationally at least. Based on even a snippet of yesterday’s informal press conference, while he may not have the star power of Ardern, he will bring a bit of fresh air into the place. Out goes earnestness, in comes a bit of saltiness. He’ll be out to try to prove that if you want a Chris running the joint, he’s the genuine article.