Much of what will mark the early days of Chris Hipkins’ Prime Ministership would have happened anyway.
By December, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister were making it clear the summer break and early days of this year were going to be spent on a reset of government policy.
At the same time, there will be a new emphasis on issues like science, innovation and technology.
In what may be an important piece of symbolism, Hipkins is planning to meet Auckland business leaders this Thursday.
He may be able to shed more light on the Government’s policy reset, which was announced by Jacinda Ardern last December.
Hipkins on Saturday appeared to acknowledge the reset, which he will have played a key role in developing.
“We’re dealing with the economic aftermath of Covid and how much of that is global, but we have a responsibility to lead New Zealand through that, and we absolutely will do that, and I’ll talk more about that,” he said.
It will begin with what the bureaucracy likes to call a “reprioritising”.
The Budget Policy Statement released on December 14 said some of the 2023 Budget operating allowance had already been allocated in last year’s Budget through multi-year allowances.
“This approach brings forward the funding decision rather than any costs, but reduces the overall size of funding available for future Budgets,” the statement said.
And then came the critical sentence: “This emphasises the importance of finding reprioritisation opportunities within existing baselines.
“Ministers are exploring options for reprioritisation to fund cost pressures and new spending priorities at Budget 2023, which will support the wellbeing objectives for this Budget as well as the Government’s overarching policy goals.”
On December 12, in the wake of the Hamilton West by-election defeat, Jacinda Ardern said: “I’m giving Ministers this summer to go away and look at our legislative programme and different policies to consider, and then get into the situation of ruling in or out a whole bunch of policy.”
There are major issues either under Cabinet consideration or before Select Committees, most notably the two resource management reforms bills and the He Waka Eke Noa farm emissions levy proposals.
The Government is unlikely to scrap them, but controversial proposals like the broadcasting merger and the social insurance (which no longer has employer support) are said to be prime candidates for the backburner.
Most interesting yesterday in Hipkins’ first formal press conference was his reference to co-governance.
“I think there is an uncertainty in New Zealand around what we mean when we’re talking about co-governance,” he said.
“I just want to make sure that in each context, we’re very clear about what we mean.
“And I acknowledge that that hasn’t always been clear.”
That raises a question as to whether the “reset” might include a review of the controversial Three Waters legislation, particularly the co-governance requirements.
But it also suggests that Hipkins might be willing to put some distance between himself and the identity politics advocates within his Caucus.
Environment Minister David Parker has been the only Minister so far to go public with his scepticism about identity politics with his rejection of co-governance proposals for the Natural and Built Environments Bill.
This raises questions about the role played over the weekend by Labour’s Maori caucus.
On Friday, it was announced that the Caucus would meet on Saturday afternoon before the proposed caucus vote on the leadership on Sunday morning.
But that proposal was made redundant by the Labour Chief Whip, Duncan Webb, announcing that nominations for the leadership would close at 9.00 a.m. on the Saturday and then the favoured Maori candidate, Kiri Allan, announcing she would not seek the nomination.
She also failed to become deputy leader in a move that Te Pati Maori interpreted as a slight on Maori.
“This is another example of why Labour will never truly represent our people,” the party tweeted.
“It has been nearly 100 years of the Labour relationship with Māori, and they’ve still never elected a Māori Leader.”
Hpkins was anxious yesterday to underline that no backroom deals had been done.
“No deals were done at any point during that process,” he said.
“Of course, other people may have taken soundings of their colleagues, and that’s absolutely acceptable; you would expect that to happen in a process such as this, where you’re striving to get consensus.
“Not one of them asked me for anything in return in order for their support.
“So no deals have been done.”
But perhaps conscious of the kind of criticism the Maori Party was making, Hipkins’ first formal engagement will be to travel on Tuesday to Ratana (near Whanganui) for the annual commemoration of the birthday of the Ratana Church’s founder, Tahupotiki Ratana.
But if Maori were sceptical about the new leadership, Pasifika were delighted with the elevation of Carmel Sepuloni to become deputy leader.
Sepuloni’s proximity to the leadership was marked on the morning after the 2020 election when Ardern gathered her inner circle, Grant Robertson, Kelvin Davis, Megan Woods and Chris Hipkins, together at a Mt Eden café for a media picture. Sepuloni was also there.
Not only does she have an unblemished record in five years of administering the potentially politically troublesome Social Development portfolio, but she will also be a key figure in Labour’s election campaign.
“It is going to be important that we’re out on the ground making sure that our families are enrolled to vote and that they understand how to vote,” she told POLITIK during Labour’s annual conference last November.
Our Pacific MPs, but all MPs, will be engaging with Pacific communities and. making sure that they feel like there is a reason to vote, and that’s certainly what our job is.”
Hipkins is unashamedly from Labour’s middle-class base. His electorate, Remutuka, or Hutt North (if you wanted to describe it geographically), consists almost entirely of wage earners, many of whom commute to Government jobs in Wellington by train.
It is a far cry from the increasingly affluent inner-city Mt Albert electorate of Jacinda Ardern.
In what was possibly a veiled criticism of the Ardern Government’s focus on the kind of issues that excite young inner city voters, Hipkins yesterday disagreed that the party had forgotten working families but then said: “But I think that some of them might feel they feel that they are not hearing enough from us about the issues that are that really matter to them at the moment. And that’s absolutely where our focus will be.”
With the policy reprioritidsation, the elevation of Sepuloni and the focus on getting out the Pasifika vote and a new emphasis on the issues that matter to working families, Hipkins is re-invetning Labour, albeit that much of what he is doing is going back to its past as the aprt of workers.
That approach worked for Anthony Albanese in Australia; National might now need to worry that it could work here too.