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Chris Hipkins is defending something
Why Chris Hipkins is not quite Keir Starmer.
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One of the easiest tricks of political writing is the international comparison.
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You note that a politician is trying out a strategy recently used overseas. You compare the fates of various parties of a similar hue, musing about some kind of global shift in political mood. In desperation, you simply use a foreign leader as a shorthand for international readers, calling someone an “anti-Trump” or a “Thatcherite”.
These comparisons are handy for showing how clever and well-read you are, but they are also often useful for the reader. Politicians do watch what happens in other countries and try to copy it, sometimes even inviting foreign party leaders to conferences, or sending party staffers to embed in foreign campaigns. And the easiest way to describe anything is to describe it in relation to something else - ie here’s how “Medicare for All” compares to ACC. But these comparisons can flatten things a bit much.
I say this because it is occasionally very tempting to put Chris Hipkins and UK Labour leader Keir Starmer in the same bucket. Both are leading their Labour parties firmly from the centre, occasionally almost from the right. Neither have much policy ambition or positive vision to talk about right now, instead defining themselves by what they are against and running what everyone now calls “small target” campaigns with few policies to be attacked on. Starmer and his surrogates spend about as much time attacking the former leader Jeremy Corbyn than they do attacking the Government, betting that this is the way to regain the trust of “traditional” Labour voters alienated in recent years. Hipkins doesn’t attack Jacinda Ardern, but he has spent his first months in power retreating from policies of hers he deems unpopular.
Yet the more you think about this comparison the more it falls apart - because Hipkins is actually defending something.
Labour came to power almost six years ago, and for all the talk of non-delivery and policy rollbacks, it has had some major policy wins that its supporters and MPs care a lot about defending1. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
Fair Pay Agreements
A series of benefit rises, the Winter Energy Payment, the return of the Training Incentive Allowance, reductions in benefit sanctions, and the indexation of benefits to wages
The end of three strikes
Freshwater management reform for farmers
Fees-free tertiary education
Tenancy law reform
Various tax changes - including the 39% income tax rate, the extension of the Bright Line Tax, and the removal of interest deductibility for landlords.
I haven’t included policy wins for Labour that would likely survive a National/ACT win. While this Government would be the most right-wing ever elected under MMP, it is very improbable that it would touch things like Paid Parental Leave and abortion legalisation2. Similarly it is not going to cancel work on state houses that are currently being built or actually reduce the minimum wage. ACT and National now claim to be fans of the Emissions Trading Scheme, which has been strengthened by this Government.
Instead, these are policies that could quite conceivably be tossed into the dustbin of history should National and ACT win. They are all things those parties have opposed and often directly promised to repeal3.
Crucially, however, they are things that become harder and harder to repeal the longer they are in place. The policy status quo has far more power once it has been in place for several years, with effected parties reconciling themselves to whatever it is. That’s why while Labour in opposition deeply opposed partially privatising the power companies it never actually spent political capital buying them back. It’s why National never managed to kill off KiwiSaver or Working For Families after coming to power in 2008 - these policies were too far along and too embedded for fully dismantling them to look very appealing4.
Some of the policies on the above list have probably already reached this stage. It’s hard to see fees-free - especially for trades training - at real risk. National said it would keep the Winter Energy Payment in 2020, although ACT wanted to repeal it. The promise to repeal the 39% tax rate has already proved troublesome for Christopher Luxon. But there are other things there that could definitely survive if National win in 2026 but are doomed if it wins in 2023.
Principal among these is Fair Pay Agreements, a major reform of the collective bargaining system that is still in its infancy. These agreements are designed to set industry-wide floors for pay and conditions for workers, and can be imposed on employers who refuse to bargain. At this point, dismantling this system would be fairly easy, as none are actually in place and only one is in a bargaining stage. But come late-2026 - when National is almost certain to come to power if it doesn’t win this time - there could be tens of thousands of workers working under FPAs, and many others bargaining for more. That becomes a lot harder to get rid of.
This policy legacy is a big reason why Hipkins has a lot of leeway with his party to run a small target campaign from the centre. Labour are not campaigning from Opposition to change the country; it is campaigning from the Government to keep the country the way it is. Michael Wood might be a lot to the left of Chris Hipkins, but he’d still rather see him in power than Luxon and Seymour.
A look at the third-term campaigns of yore
None of this is to say this small target approach will work, or that Hipkins won’t eventually unveil an actual policy.
The other great trick for political writing is to look to history. Let’s take a look at two successful third term campaigns from our recent past - Helen Clark in 2005 and John Key in 2014.
National ran a very literal “don’t rock the boat” small-target campaign in 2014, which made sense given its massive lead in the polls. It largely promised continuity and “not being David Cunliffe or Kim Dotcom”. Its election campaign was launched with a policy package aimed at first-home buyers (the housing crisis was starting to bite) and featured various pledges to reform the RMA and extend paid parental leave. This style of campaigning worked well for National at this point, with reasonable promises for various voter blocs and a lot of pointing at the chaos on the other side.
Hipkins is definitely up for a bit of this, with attacks on National and ACT and small promises from him. Hell, some of the smaller antivax parties may even do a “moment of truth” event of their own.
Labour ran a lot harder in 2005, which reflects the fact that the election was tighter, especially between the main two parties. Clark dipped very hard to the right on on Treaty issues, promising 2008 would be the final date for Treaty claims and of course enacting the Foreshore and Seabed Legislation5. In other policy areas she went for big popular spending - including removing the interest on student loans, big rates rebates for homeowners, and tax cuts for families via Working For Families.
Hipkins was in Parliament at around about this point as a staffer. His commitment to the fuel subsidy shows he is unafraid of spending big money on keeping voters happy. Expect a bit more of 2005 than 2014.
Willy Staley on how being good at Twitter rewires your brain.
Andrea Vance’s excoriating column on National candidates which eventually led to one of them stepping down.
Vernon Small, an old colleague of mine who taught me a lot and a legend of the press gallery, is back writing columns for Stuff after working for David Parker since 2017. I recommend them.
Great Jo Moir interview with Chris Hipkins.
Farah Hancock’s fantastic investigation into bus cancellations.
I wrote a piece in The Guardian pointing out that NZ is going to have trouble getting behind EVs as one of our main source of cars is Japanese imports - they drive on the left! - and Japan sucks at EVs. I will just note, contra a segment on The Project about this article, that I did not argue that we should start driving on the right, as that is plainly ridiculous. It didn’t help that they asked me if I wanted to talk about the article in the middle of the UK night and the segment had already aired by the time I woke up. But hey, things happen fast in the media. No hard feelings.
These are things Labour Party people care about - so I define them as “wins” in that sense, not in a “these things are good and I agree with them” sense.
National’s deputy leader and ACT’s leader were firmly behind abortion being legalised. National ended up voting for the extension to paid parental leave in 2018. ACT opposed it but it’s not going to push to pull down such a popular and bedded-in policy.
See, for example: ACT promising to reverse tenancy law changes, National’s promise to change various regulations aimed at protecting waterways, ACT promising to abolish fees-free, National promising to reinstate Three Strikes.
KiwiSaver is an interesting semi-exception to this. It was only in place just before Labour left power and National did severely weaken it by removing a large tax incentive to use it. But once people put their money in there you could never really get rid of it.
They say if you listen closely you can still hear the dog whistles being blown from 2005.