Hipkins scores a point that Luxon lost in Auckland

Jo Moir

Jo Moir

Wellington, February 14, 2023

Hipkins’ decision to be in Auckland has proved propitious (Newsroom Photo by Matthew Scott)

The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader took different factors and advice into account while deciding whether to be in Auckland when Cyclone Gabrielle hit.  

Chris Hipkins made the smarter political move.

Advice to abandon non-urgent travel to Auckland at the weekend was issued on Saturday morning at which point two different political decisions were made.

National alerted media that Christopher Luxon’s planned State of the Nation Speech on Sunday (February 12, 2023) in Auckland had been postponed because of cyclone-related travel warnings.

A second complicating factor was the venue that it had planned to use was no longer available as it had been designated a Civil Defence shelter.

Disrupted flights

While the severe weather had not hit at this point, it was clear by Saturday (February 11, 2023) morning that it was coming thick and fast at some point on Sunday and would last until Tuesday (February 14, 2023).

On Saturday afternoon, Hipkins made his way to Auckland for the Ed Sheeran concert that night (Luxon went on Friday night) and to stay on for planned visits on Sunday afternoon followed by an APEC business meeting that evening, to which he had made a previous commitment.

There were already warnings that flights would be disrupted and by Sunday, airlines cancelled flights until midday on Tuesday, meaning that Hipkins’ Monday flight would not take off.

This had been foreshadowed by Air New Zealand and Auckland airport on Friday when it first asked customers to reconsider non-urgent travel from Sunday.

Because of the Ed Sheeran concert, flights were few and far between and hence, even if Hipkins had changed his return flight to Sunday, chances were that he would not have been able to do so.

Hipkins’ flight was booked to return to the capital after his regular Monday morning media round where he had planned to do interviews in-studio at TVNZ, Newshub, RNZ and Newstalk ZB (something former leader Jacinda Ardern moved away from over recent years).

On Saturday, the Prime Minister was aware of the risk of not getting out of Auckland in time to make the first sitting day of Parliament but chose to go ahead to fulfil commitments made and with the knowledge Cabinet could be held remotely online.

Parliament schedule changed

On Sunday evening Luxon caught his scheduled flight out of Auckland back to Wellington to prepare for the first sitting week back at Parliament.

He was unaware Hipkins did not have a flight back and would end up staying in Auckland until flights resumed on Tuesday, meaning that the schedule for Parliament had to be changed.

On Monday afternoon the Business Committee, which has representatives from each political party, met with the Speaker to discuss what to do about Tuesday and Wednesday’s sitting programme.

Tuesday’s planned Prime Minister’s Statement, which is Hipkins’ speech setting out the Government’s work programme for the year ahead to which all party leaders responded, has been moved to Wednesday.

The first Question Time where Hipkins and Luxon will go head-to-head has shifted to Thursday.

On Tuesday, MPs who make it through the cyclone to Parliament will instead speak about the situation in Turkey and Syria followed by a ministerial statement on the floods and cyclone.

Luxon will be there on Tuesday – even if the MP for Botany wanted to return to Auckland, flight disruptions will not allow him to do so.

While the Opposition Leader must already know that he has missed an opportunity of not being in the city which is the current focus of the county, he made a choice based on the expectations that he should be in Parliament when it is in session.

His political antenna should have gone off, however, and as Aucklanders hunker down for the second severe weather event in two weeks, Luxon should have been there with them.

Hipkins is no slouch on the political strategy front. He would have weighed up the pros and cons of going to Auckland versus sitting tight in Wellington and decided if Cyclone Gabrielle was going to strike in the country’s biggest city, then that is where he needed to be.

It may have caused a few rescheduling issues in Parliament but people do not care about that.

On Monday afternoon Hipkins told media that he was “quite comfortable with being in Auckland and being able to visit the emergency teams on the ground and speak to some of those affected by the extreme weather.”

Despite being the MP for Mt Albert, Jacinda Ardern moved to Wellington during the Covid-19 pandemic to be closer to officials and Ministers making snap decisions, including the repeated lockdowns Auckland endured.

While arguably necessary, it created an impression among some people in Auckland that there was little to no understanding of what they were going through.

Hipkins is doing everything it takes to show the last leadership got it wrong on occasion and he is now physically there to listen.

Unlike Luxon, he will be feeling comfortable indeed about his travel decisions at the weekend when Parliament resumes on Tuesday.

Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above article has been published under a Special Agreement.

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