“Chippy’s a killer.” The politico who vouchsafed this opinion of New Zealand’s new prime minister did not, of course, mean that Chris Hipkins was guilty of homicide – merely that he has an instinct for the political jugular.
Labour’s second prime minister, Peter Fraser, had it. So much so that his great enemy, John A Lee, memorably likened Fraser’s smile to “moonlight flitting across a tombstone”. Sir Robert Muldoon had it – in spades. He called it “counter-punching”, but for many of his victims, like the hapless former cabinet minister Colin Moyle, it was more like a sucker-punch. Even Helen Clark had it. Press Gallery journalists lived in fear of her prime-ministerial “death stare”.
My own first encounter with Hipkins certainly didn’t leave me with the impression I was dealing with a political milksop. It was November 2012, the Ellerslie Convention Centre in Auckland and Labour’s annual conference. I was loitering outside the auditorium when Hipkins sidled up to me and whispered conspiratorially: “Our problems aren’t external – they’re internal.”
As I described it for The Dominion Post a few days later: “Chris Hipkins has one of those eternally youthful countenances which argue strongly against such ominous utterances. It’s as if such old words couldn’t possibly slither between such young teeth. And yet there he was before me, speaking darkly about the enemy within.”
The 2012 conference is best remembered for David Cunliffe’s refusal to rule out a run at the Labour leadership, then held by the luckless David Shearer. But it was also the conference at which the rules governing the election of Labour leaders were finalised. When this process failed to take the shape desired by the “Clarkist” faction (led by Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins), all hell broke loose on the conference floor. The image of a furious Hipkins at the microphone, spitting out his fury at the errant delegates, is one I shall never forget. So, killer instinct? Yep, I reckon.
Certainly, there has been precious little indication of mercy in Hipkins’ ruthless, and ongoing, slaughter of Labour’s policy darlings. Indeed, the insouciance with which our new prime minister has dispatched these embarrassments is remarkable. It’s as if Jacinda Ardern’s entire premiership took place while Chippy was on holiday and that he returned just in time to see her car disappearing down the street and find the note she left sellotaped to the front door: “Fix the mess.”
This he has done, setting Labour’s house in order with an endearing earnestness and absolutely no acknowledgment that he had actually played a major part in creating the chaos. In this respect, Hipkins reminds me of Nikita Khrushchev – the loyal servant of Joseph Stalin who participated either actively or passively in all his excesses only to present himself as the Soviet Union’s saviour by repudiating Stalin and all his excesses. But only after the tyrant was dead.
The question many New Zealanders are asking themselves, “Is this guy for real?”, is intriguing. Hipkins, in his role as this country’s Education Minister, must surely rank as one of Labour’s most woke activists. The policies he set in place between 2017 and 2022 have struck many educationalists as little short of disastrous. Reconciling the minister who signed off on the highly controversial New Zealand history curriculum with the prime minister who stands ready to abandon co-governance, isn’t easy.
One way to reconcile the contradictions that make up Chris Hipkins is to see him not as a political ideologue, but as a political technocrat. It is possible that Hipkins is much less interested in the content of policy than he is in overseeing its introduction.
It is important to understand that Hipkins has been involved in politics for practically his entire adult life – and he’s very good at it. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on one’s own ideological leanings), Hipkins’ political career has coincided with an historical era distinguished by its curious one-sidedness.
The arguments that once divided the world about which economic system was better – capitalism or socialism – had more-or-less ended when Hipkins was just 11 years old. The other “isms” – racism, sexism, environmentalism – involved little in the way of moral complexity. As a consequence, Hipkins appears to be much more interested in the “how” of politics – the techniques and processes best suited to amassing the numbers needed to win – than he is in the “why”. A politician incurious about the “why” of politics enjoys an enormous advantage over his more ideologically-driven opponents. If a policy isn’t working, then the political technocrat will happily ditch it, rather than die in a ditch for it.
Hipkins gives the impression of being mildly surprised by the intensity of public opposition to some of Labour’s policies. Who knew that so many people cared so much about this stuff? But, because it is clearly costing Labour votes, it simply has to go. Guided by the pollsters and focus-group convenors, Hipkins has fixed upon “bread and butter” as the most effective pitch for victory. Everything else is expendable.
The contrast between Hipkins and the man who would supplant him, Christopher Luxon, could hardly be more stark. The sort of politics that equips a person for successfully navigating the perils of life in a political party, and then Parliament, is not the sort of politics in which Luxon is schooled. The politics of the big corporation encourages the acquisition of an entirely different skill-set and, as the latest Leader of the Opposition is discovering, the overlaps are minimal. Luxon differs from Hipkins in another critical respect: he believes in things. But, like the unfortunate David Shearer, the things he believes in are, politically-speaking, a very difficult sell.
Conservative Christian beliefs make most New Zealanders nervous – as do the hard-core neoliberal economic policies favoured by the big end of town. This leaves Luxon, a newcomer to party and parliamentary politics, in the unenviable position of trying to “stay on message” by constantly censoring himself. Hardly the best method for projecting the “authenticity” the 21st century voter craves.
Hipkins’ easy political fluency is born of his familiarity with the communicative exercise. He’s been talking politics and dealing with the issues that fuel it for 20 years, most of them at the highest levels. Hipkins has put in his 10,000 hours – it’s what makes his projection of the relaxed, easy-going, “I’m just a boy from the Hutt” political persona so impressively effortless. No matter how hard he tries, Luxon’s all-too-evident inexperience cannot help but keep him at a near-insurmountable electoral disadvantage.
That being the case, and with the economic skies growing darker by the day, it must have crossed Hipkins’ mind that going to the polls sooner, rather than later, would leave Luxon and the National Party at an even bigger disadvantage. The only real problem with calling a snap election is Labour’s possession of an absolute parliamentary majority, the loss of which could be presented by the Opposition parties as evidence of political incompetence.
Unless, of course, the loss of Labour’s majority could be sheeted home to a woke rump of MPs who actually were prepared to die in a ditch for the policy, or policies, that Hipkins and his equally ruthless front bench were determined to jettison.
Co-governance perhaps? Labour’s sudden transformation into the party that was simply unwilling to impose “race-based policies” on an unreceptive electorate would leave National and Act floundering. Hipkins, the man for whom ideology has always held, at best, a passing interest, would have given New Zealanders an example of the most astonishing political jiu jitsu – one that only a true political “killer” could hope to pull off. ■
Chris Trotter is a political commentator and columnist of more than 30 years’ experience and owner of the Bowalley Road blog ■