Hipkins’ line of least resistance on the Nash indiscretions

Minister Stuart Nash (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

Tim Watkin
Wellington, March 18, 2023

When word went out that Prime Minister Chris Hipkins would be making an announcement about Stuart Nash on the tiles at Parliament at 2.45 pm on Friday, March 17, 2023, the assumption was that it was over.

That we had reached the tipping point for Nash’s time as Minister. But by 3 pm, when, coincidentally, the game show Tipping Point began on TVNZ – Nash was still a Minister.

His ministerial career had not spilt into the tray below as expected, even though Hipkins had revealed a third infringement by Nash. Like those stubborn little coins in the arcade game, Nash seems to have defied (political) gravity.

The third transgression was going direct to an official last September to lobby on behalf of a medical professional in his Napier electorate, rather than through the Immigration Minister.

It came on top of a call to the Police Commissioner urging him to consider appealing a court ruling of home detention for a man on firearms charges and criticising a judge on the radio, followed by the revelation that the Solicitor-General had considered prosecuting him over other comments on the radio, to the effect that the man accused (but at that stage not convicted) of killing Police Officer Matthew Hunt should be locked up for many years.

It was a third strike.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins: No appetite for risk (RNZ Photo by Katie Scotcher)

The logic for retention

The prime minister’s logic of keeping him on after his first offence had been tortured enough. Nash’s call to the Police Commissioner had been made when he was not the Minister of Police, a role he held before and after the call. So the phone call was in breach of the Cabinet manual and worthy of disciplinary action, not because the independent public official he tried to influence had to answer directly to him as Police Minister, but because as Minister, it is wrong to pressure any public servant.

Ipso facto, he needed to lose his ministerial warrant altogether, not just the single portfolio, because which portfolio he had at the time was irrelevant.

So, the news of a second and then third similar offence backed up the opposition parties’ claim that this showed a “pattern of behaviour” that made his position untenable. He had to go, right? Yet Nash remains; his only punishment for the second and third failings is an essentially meaningless demotion within the Cabinet.

Thursday’s “final warning” turned out to be not final at all.

The question is why.

No appetite for risk

Every decision that Hipkins has made as Prime Minister has suggested that, in the runup to the election, he is a man with no appetite for risk.

In every choice thus far as the Prime Minister, at least, in every policy choice, he has chosen the path of least resistance. The path of compromise and concession.

TVNZ/RNZ merger, hate speech reform, the biofuels mandate and social insurance? Gone.

Grants for environmentally friendly cars, alcohol law reform and speed limit reductions have also gone, while Auckland’s light rail is kicked down the road.

So why has Hipkins chosen to resist on a matter of personnel, rather than policy?

Well, there is another way to look at these choices. Not just as a path of least resistance but as a path of most popularity.

Getting rid of broadcasting policies or the ‘social engineering’ of alcohol law and speed limit changes are popular with swing voters.

Focusing on “bread and butter issues” is popular with swing voters. Know what else is popular with swing voters? Stuart Nash.

Hipkins revealed his calculation when he said that Nash has a “colloquial” style that “often reflects the sentiments of a significant proportion of the community.”

Hipkins needs a proportion of that proposition to vote Labour in October.

Both of Nash’s Cabinet manual-breaching public comments came on Newstalk ZB, where he is the most frequently appearing government Minister.

Jacinda Ardern famously refused to be interviewed by the anti-Labour breakfast show host, Mike Hosking.

The swing voters’ connection

Nash got the job of fronting and his ‘tough on crime’ comments were a reflection that he was doing his job of trying to connect with swing voters.

I switched on ZB when Hipkins’ announcement was made and straight away a couple of texts arrived defending him as a straight talker and saying how unfair it is for someone to be punished for that.

Of course, that misses the point.

No one is saying that he cannot say it straight, it is a question of how and where he says it.

And to whom he addresses it.

What has saved Nash though, is not just his popularity on ZB. He is an ally of Hipkins’ on the centre/right of Labour.

They are more class warriors than agents for social change, more bloke than woke, more “bread and butter” than a “chardonnay socialist.”

He is also a rare regional success for Labour, having won Napier in 2014 when he and Damien O’Connor, in West Coast, were the only Labour MPs to win seats outside the main centres.

What is more, the reasons why Nash broke the Cabinet manual were to sound tough on crime and protect a local health professional; not to take a stand on identity politics.

These are issues Hipkins wants to be seen as championing, not punishing.

He could not afford the takeaway to be ‘Nash spoke out against criminals and on behalf of doctors and nurses and got punished for it.’

A note of hypocrisy

Yet these political compromises leave a taste of hypocrisy in the mouth.

Let us not forget that just a couple of weeks ago, Hipkins refused to express confidence in Health New Zealand Chair Rob Campbell when he crossed the line in that sensitive relationship between public servants and Ministers.

Yet when his own Minister and political ally crosses the line from the other direction? Hey, nothing to see here. Campbell had to go, but Nash can stick around.

Different person, a different tipping point.

In defending Nash not once, but three times, Hipkins has rejected a quick fix for the first time in his short tenure as the Prime Minister.

In doing so, he has given us an insight into how his political judgment works.

While it is a riskier play than ditching unpopular policies, saving Nash shows Hipkins’ singular focus this year is ensuring that he is the Leader of the Party with the most votes, come 14 October.

And if the Cabinet manual gets a bit battered on the way there, so be it.

Tim Watkin is a founder of the political news website ‘Pundit.’ He has had a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ. The above article and pictures have been published under a special agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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