A game changer or a death knell?

“A game changer or the party’s death knell?”

Editor Tracy Watkins tracy.watkins@stuff.co.nz



Stuff NZ Newspapers



His cuisine of choice is a can of coke and a sausage roll. He’s known by everyone as just Chippy. And he’s not afraid to bang a few heads together to get some traction. Labour’s new leader Chris Hipkins is no Jacinda Ardern, although that’s the point. Ardern might still be New Zealand’s most popular politician, but even if she hadn’t lost the desire to carry on, it’s as likely as not that she would have led the party to a loss in October. Ardern has become increasingly polarising – a ‘‘love or hate her’’ politician – and the ledger was tipping against her. The bigger question now is whether a nearing-middleaged everyman politician without a modicum of charisma has a better chance of winning than one of the world’s most recognisable and charismatic leaders. The good news for Hipkins is that it’s at least a level playing field on that front; his opponent – the other Chris, National leader Christopher Luxon – is just as nondescript. And voters still seem unsure about Luxon. Despite Labour’s plummeting support, he has so far failed to take National back to the heights of the Key years or the support it enjoyed under Bill English. So Hipkins has a window when voters might be persuaded to put the phone back on the hook. Luxon has the advantage of carrying none of the baggage that will burden Hipkins trying to lead a government on which the tide has been going out. Hipkins has the advantage of knowing the political playbook inside out, and of being far more ruthless than the cheerful boynext-door persona suggests. Bright, highly personable, and with a laid-back humour that can often disarm his opponents, Hipkins was a member of Ardern’s inner circle and a close friend. But he will spare no sentiment putting distance between himself and her leadership. In his first public outing as the incoming leader there were already some clear signals: his repeated references to wanting ‘‘working New Zealanders’’ to get ahead was a nod to middle New Zealand doing it tough with the cost of living and feeling ignored by Ardern. Hipkins is making clear that he’s going to be less ‘‘woke’’ and more attuned to their needs. With business, whose relations with Ardern had become increasingly frosty, he has already demonstrated that his door is open. There has been a series of low-key lunch meetings with key members of the Auckland business set over the last 18 months. There will be other moves. The RNZ-TVNZ merger is surely dead in the water, and Hipkins will have to navigate a course through the contentious Three Waters legislation that has been toxic to Labour in the provinces and rural New Zealand. Whether the implementation of Three Waters is parked or Hipkins strips it back to its original purpose of fixing degraded rivers and beaches and dodgy town water supplies, it will involve tough conversations with Labour’s powerful Ma¯ ori caucus about cogovernance that Ardern was unwilling to have. The policy has ripped open a fault line on race relations that polarises an already divided electorate. Politically necessary maybe, but neutralising unpopular policies isn’t going to be the game changer. Finding a connection with voters with a message that resonates is what sets leaders apart from politicians. That’s the political hoodoo bit – and it can’t be learnt. Just ask Phil Goff, David Cunliffe, David Shearer, or Andrew Little. Those close to Hipkins say he’s got what it takes. But he’s going to need a lot to go his way; incumbents around the world are being punished by voters for a host of post-pandemic problems –the soaring cost of living, recession, labour shortages, crime and ongoing sickness to name a few. Ardern’s cult-like status, and the legacy of Labour’s remarkable turnaround under her leadership, was enough to hold the party machine together in the face of such huge problems. Hipkins won’t have that backstop. If voters fail to deliver him the hoped-for political honeymoon he might find that the runway has suddenly got a lot shorter.