Deputy Opposition Leader Carmel Sepuloni; Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins and a staff member (left) and MPs David Parker and Duncan Webb (right) during lunch at Labour's Caucus retreat in Martinborough yesterday.

It was not so much the Labour Party but really the Chris Hipkins party yesterday at Labour’s caucus retreat in Martinborough.

The former Prime Minister was more or less consistent on wealth tax, which he was at best equivocal about, and social insurance, which he was not willing to revisit.

However, both of those moves have strong support from within the Labour base.

The party organisation, specifically its Policy Council, is believed to favour a wealth tax, and the Combined Trade Unions (CTU) have always supported the social insurance scheme.

The wealth tax debate extends into Labour’s Caucus.

Former revenue and finance spokesperson and wealth tax advocate David Parker openly discussed his support for it with the media while standing only metres away from Hipkins during the retreat lunch break.

There are not only gaps within the Caucus but also a potentitally much serious one opening up with the party organisation.

When it is in Government, Labour’s Caucus tends to have a free hand in developing policy.

But in Opposition, the party’s 14-person Policy Council is responsible for party policy, and the Caucus may only differ from that with the approval of two-thirds of the Council.

In practice, in government, the Council adopts a light-handed approach, but in Opposition, it is much more influential.

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POLITIK understands that a substantial majority of Council members now favour a wealth tax, which they would probably want to see accompanied by a tax switch such as a reduction in income tax or GST.

But yesterday, Hipkins did not acknowledge this.

“The Policy Council will be helping to facilitate and lead that discussion (on tax),” he said.

“We’ll have some policy discussion documents setting out issues on a range of options, on a range of issues and which the Policy Council will help to lead.

“But the spokespeople will also be involved in that process. 

“I’ve met with them. I think they’re doing a fantastic job.

“They’re very focused on the future, but they’re also very focused on the fact that whatever decisions we make around tax, they have to actually fit within the broader policy agenda that we’re putting forward.

“You can’t consider tax an isolated issue, and the Policy Council isn’t considering it an isolated issue.”

But if Hipkins was equivocal on a wealth tax he was firm in his Opposition to a social insurance programme.

This was first proposed in 2016 in Grant Robertson’s “Future of Work” programme and then developed in tripartite talks involving the government, the Combined Trade Unions and Business New Zealand.

An agreement to proceed was announced in February 2022.

Then, a year later, in 2023, Hipkins announced that the scheme would not proceed as proposed.

“We will need to see a significant improvement in economic conditions before anything is advanced,” he said.

POLITIK Labour leader Chris Hipkins at his press conference in Martinborough yesterday.

But at first, during his press conference at the retreat, it seemed he may have changed his mind.

“The nature of work has changed,” he said.

“The nature of the jobs people are doing is changing, and we need to adapt and evolve to help the gig economy. We started this conversation about the future of work when we were last in Opposition and will continue it now.”

The main purpose of Social Insurance was to fund a worker while they retrained after losing their job because of technological change.

However, when he was asked specifically about Social Insurance, it was a different story.

“Look, I’m not going to start announcing policy on the hoof,” he said.

“The way we ensure that people are properly supported in work, the way we ensure that people are properly supported during gaps between work, whether that’s because they lose their job or because for health-related reasons, they’re unable to work; those are all live issues that we absolutely will work through.”

But didn’t the party work through the last time it was in Opposition?

“And a lot’s happened since then,” he replied.

“That‘s something that we produced about eight years ago now, and the world’s moved on.

“So naturally, I’m not going to commit to everything that we were saying eight years ago. Things change.”

Less than six months after an election is too early to expect a defeated political party to start reshaping its policy.

But the way he handled the press conference suggested that  Hipkins has some very firm ideas of his own about which direction that policy should head in.

“We’re not spending a huge amount of time looking backwards, although we do look backwards for the lessons that we can learn from that,” he said.

“We had a really disruptive six years in government where a lot of the things that we campaigned on proved to be very challenging because of the environment that we were governing through.

“There’s a lot to learn from them, and we’ll make sure we learn those lessons, but we’re very much focused on applying that in the future.”

Maybe looking back at the size of the party’s defeat has focused Hipkins, and he sees the centre as the place to make a stand that will return him to the Beehive.

His problem will be that his rank-and-file party membership won’t want the centre; they will want the kind of policies he seemed to be rejecting yesterday.