From Waitangi to binned policies, it was a week of contentions

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaking at Waitangi (RNZ Photo by Ella Stewart)

Tim Wilson
Wellington, February 11, 2023

RNZ Analysis: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins lights his policy bonfire but will it burn brightly enough to make a real difference? Politicians tone down their Waitangi speeches as the weekend passes peacefully, and Hipkins goes to Canberra to meet Anthony Albanese.

This year’s Waitangi weekend at the Treaty grounds could be summed up, most unusually, as “everybody seems to have had a good time.”

Stuff headlined its report “Serene scenes as the nation comes together at Waitangi” while the Herald chose “Festival mood ignores talk of racial division.”

Party Leaders spoke, with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins urging people to calm down over co-governance and Māori rights. He would probably like them to calm down to a point where they stopped talking about it altogether.

Hipkins later expanded on that when he told Morning Report: “In terms of public discussion that we have about (co-governance) I find just talking about co-governance as a very broad concept isn’t that fruitful, because it doesn’t mean a lot to people unless it’s attached to a particular concept.”

That could be his most precise explanation yet as to why the term is confusing, and why it has caused the government so much trouble. Hipkins is trying to hose it down so it does not fester on until the election. He has suggested an alternative, mahitahi, which means working together. That would be “a fantastic concept,” he said.

Christopher Luxon speaking at Waitangi (RNZ Photo by Ella Stewart)











Luxon on Waitangi

Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon began his Waitangi speech in te reo, as did Hipkins, RNZ reported, acknowledging mana whenua: “It is a great privilege to be here… the birthplace of our nation.” He did cause a minor controversy by saying: “We started on the 6th of February 1840 as a little experiment, and look at us now…”

That did not go down well with Labour’s Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime. “It was not an experiment. Our tupuna when they came here had a very clear understanding of what it was that they were coming to do,” she said.

Te Pāti Māori co-Leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said Luxon had “a lot of learning to do… we are anything but little, we are anything but experimental.”

Green Party Co-Leader Marama Davidson thought Luxon had been “a little bit patronising.”

He later explained that he had not been alluding to the signing of the Treaty itself, but rather was trying to say, “New Zealand has been an experiment like every country.”

It was another example of Luxon not getting his meaning quite right when he says things.

There was more, it is all in RNZ Political Editor Jane Patterson’s article, ‘What the Party Leaders said at Waitangi.’

Luxon reviewed his first visit to Waitangi during an interview with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner. It is on the (RNZ) website and it is essential listening for anyone who wants to get a grip on what the National Leader believes. In it, he distanced himself from former Party Leader Don Brash, saying that the era had not been a great one for National, and he did not support the type of politics Brash was known for regarding Māori.

He again said that people were concerned about co-governance and what it meant, and that was followed by some close questioning about what Luxon thought it meant. His explanations were not always to Espiner’s satisfaction.

Chris Hipkins with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)











Hipkins in Australia

Hipkins left Waitangi to catch a plane for a day trip to Canberra, his first international outing as Prime Minister, to meet his Australian counterpart, Anthony Albanese.

It was described as an informal catch-up and there was a joint press conference.

Not a lot came out of it, but not a lot had been expected.

Albanese talked about New Zealand and Australia being a family while Hipkins said New Zealand had “no closer friend or partner.”

“The Prime Ministers emerged after their talks to announce that nothing had changed since before their talks,” reported Herald Political Editor Claire Trevett.

Some of the heat had been taken out of the 501 deportee issue by Albanese having previously announced officials would now have to consider how long a person had lived in Australia before cancelling their visa.

Stuff reported Albanese at the joint press conference: “It is a big distinction between someone who comes to Australia… and commits offences, and someone who has zero connection in New Zealand, who might have come here as an infant.”

That has been the biggest bone of contention over 501 deportees – people who were born in New Zealand but lived nearly all their lives in Australia being sent here having little or no connection to the country and sometimes leaving families behind.

Hipkins said there had been “encouraging developments.”

He came home to chair a cabinet meeting and then make his big announcement of the week – which policies would be scrapped or put on hold as the government “refocuses” on dealing with the cost of living.

It was more or less in line with media speculation over the last few weeks.

TVNZ-RNZ merger scrapped

Hipkins confirmed that the TVNZ/RNZ merger was being scrapped and other policies, including the income insurance scheme and hate speech laws, were being deferred.

RNZ and NZ on Air will receive a funding boost to strengthen their public media roles.

The biofuels mandate, part of the government’s climate change response, will be halted and potential changes to Three Waters will be considered.

Hipkins said that the policies were not being canned or delayed because they were bad ones.

“I want to be clear here that we hear from people that a lot of these things are good ideas and worth pursuing but now is not the right time to forge ahead with them. I said that the government is doing too much too fast and that we need to focus on the cost of living. Today we deliver on that commitment,” he said.

During the press conference, he was asked whether communication failure had been a factor. Hipkins replied that when a government did too many things at once, the focus could be lost. It was better to do fewer things and communicate them better.

He said that the policies on which decisions had been made were the ones which most needed certainty around them, and he was giving that certainty.

He did not rule out further policies going on the scrap heap or being put off.

There is a lot of detail around the policies and the decisions, and what they mean, all of which are in the RNZ website report.

Re-election chances

The next day the question was: had he done enough to make a real difference to Labour’s chances of re-election because that is what this is all about.

Stuff’s Political Editor Luke Malpass said that Hipkins had shown that he was prepared to be a bit ruthless and have a red-hot crack at getting back into government in October.

“He has framed this as Labour re-prioritising towards bread and butter. But is it really?” Malpass asked.

“The RNZ/TVNZ merger has been killed indefinitely, but how many people really care about the issue? Or, put another way, how many votes would it really change?”

Malpass said that the rest of the policy changes would have the National Party licking its lips.

“That is because most things have not been cancelled – just been kicked into the long grass. That still makes it a potent territory for National to campaign. The jobs tax (National term for the income insurance scheme) could be next term. Hate speech? More consultation.”

(The government has passed hate speech laws over to the Law Commission to make recommendations.)

Malpass concluded that the announcement was not about tightening the purse strings, resetting the economic agenda and not even “yanking the government in a different direction.”

It was about “taking unpopular policies off Minister’s plates and getting them out the news.”

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan said that if Hipkins was not careful, the election could turn into a referendum on the “half-binned” policies.

“Only the TVNZ/RNZ merger has been completely killed, the others simply have one foot in the proverbial grave,” he said.

Coughlan said that the changes were “purely about public perception – giving the government more space to spend more time talking about things it wants to talk about and less time talking about things it does not.”

National reacted the way Malpass predicted. Luxon said voters could expect to see the deferred policies revived if Labour won the next election.

“Chris Hipkins wants Kiwis to think Labour is listening to voters’ concerns about their policies, but the reality is the jobs tax (income insurance scheme) is just being delayed, hate speech legislation is out for more consultation and Three Waters is still happening,” he said.

Hipkins’ response to this: “I have come to accept that the National Party just like to whinge and moan about things. It is difficult to have a contest of ideas with them when they do not seem to have any.”

Parliament in 2023

Parliament opens next week and it will be humming when Hipkins sets out the government’s agenda for the year in the annual prime minister’s address.

He said at his press conference he would be setting out what policies will be retained and implemented before the election, in contrast to those that will not be implemented.

The speech will set off a debate on the whole of the government’s programme, and it will be interesting to see how Hipkins handles his first question time sessions against Luxon.

Peter Wilson is a Life Member of the Press Gallery of Parliament, 22 years as NZPA Political Editor and seven as Parliamentary Bureau Chief for NZ Newswire.

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