Mishmash of metaphors and lacklustre politics fail to impress

Chris Hipkins (left) avoids Three Waters, while Christopher Luxon gets phugoid (RNZ Photo)

Analysis by Peter Wilson

Wellington, February 24, 2023

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon have gone head-to-head for the first time after National’s wobbly start to its Parliamentary year, and there are questions about how the government is going to pay for cyclone damage.

Parliament began its first full session of the year on Tuesday (February 21, 2023) with Chris Hipkins delivering the annual Prime Minister’s statement.

It was his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister, and Hipkins devoted most of it to the cyclone’s catastrophic impact on the East Coast, again vowing that the government would do everything needed to see people through and “build back better.”

National’s leader Christopher Luxon had decided, probably wisely, not to be overly combative and pledged his Party’s support for the rebuild.

He did cast doubt on the government’s ability to do what it was promising, reverting to the “it just does not get things done” theme he used for most of last year.

He linked that with another familiar theme – that nothing much had changed under Hipkins.

“That statement was written for Jacinda Ardern and read by Chris Hipkins. We got the same laundry list, the same slogans, the same spin,” he said.

‘Mishmash of metaphors’

Stuff Political Editor, Luke Malpass said that Luxon’s performance was “low energy,” packed with old talking points and “a mishmash of metaphors” to describe Labour. “Some of his own MPs appeared to grimace at times. National still seems a little thrown by the transition. Performance in the House matters as much for caucus morale as anything else,” he said.

The media picked up on Hipkins not using the term ‘Three Waters’ anywhere in his statement, saying that instead, the government would “get on with the job” of fixing the water infrastructure.

“Stuff understands that the Hipkins’ government has decided to stop talking about Three Waters – a politically charged title for the reform of fresh, waste and stormwater systems – and instead talk of the issues facing cash-strapped councils,” Thomas Manch reported.

The next day saw the much-awaited first question time and the Hipkins-Luxon head-to-head.

National had weeks to come up with a strong strategy to attack the new Prime Minister, but Luxon picked up from where he left off last year.

He wanted to know: What impact had increased government spending had on the cost of living? And did Hipkins agree that increasing government spending actually contributed to inflation?

“Depends on the spending,” Hipkins replied.

Luxon also pulled out the well-worn ‘addicted to spending’ line: “Is it not the case… that it is the same old Labour – addicted to spending and just cannot get anything done?”

Hipkins replied: “The member keeps going on about wanting to get things done. He does not seem to have too many ideas about what it is he actually wants done.”

New Zealand Herald Political Editor Claire Trevett said that Luxon had taken Hipkins through the usual topics.

“All of that was easily handled or brushed off by Hipkins… it was a peppy enough exchange but also predictable and so neither really emerged triumphant,” she said.

Tax issue raised

Luxon’s Deputy and Shadow Finance Minister Nicola Willis had something new.

She tackled (Finance Minister Grant) Robertson on how the government was going to pay the billions of dollars needed to fix the cyclone damage, and she particularly wanted to know whether he was going to raise taxes to do it.

This issue lasted through the week, and Willis was onto it because Labour promised in 2021 that it will not introduce any new taxes this term.

Robertson has not explicitly ruled that out, Willis is after him and she is persistent.

Robertson told her: “No decisions have been taken to do anything other than the tax policy that the government has. However, what responsible governments do in this situation is assess options.”

Why would he not rule out “smashing Kiwis” with a new tax?

The next day (Wednesday), Treasury Secretary Caralee McLiesh was at a routine Select Committee hearing and Willis tried to lay it on her as well.

“Was the Treasury giving the government advice on ways to pay for the cyclone damage?” McLiesh, who never gives anything away, said it was working on all sorts of advice.

“Had Treasury been told the ‘no new taxes’ no longer applied?

McLiesh had started saying that she would not comment about advice to the government when Willis interjected: “I take that as a ‘yes’.”

National wobbly

National’s Parliamentary year got off to a wobbly start, with Luxon having to handle a problem that he really did not need as he prepared to present his caucus as a capable, responsible government-in-waiting.

On Tuesday morning, West Coast List MP Maureen Pugh, interviewed in Parliament, said that she was waiting to see evidence that humans had contributed to climate change.

National went into urgent damage control, and all the details are in RNZ Political Editor Jane Patterson’s article.

Pugh had changed her mind by 2 pm, fronting the media and reading from a written statement saying that she accepted “the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real.”

In between, there had been what Luxon described as “a conversation” that he had with Pugh.

He emphasised how deeply committed National was to climate change and said that he would give Pugh a reading list “so that she has a fuller understanding of why we believe so strongly in climate change.”

All this gained huge publicity and an outbreak of cartoons.

The Herald published two stories, one of them headed “Climate Pugh-turn steals Luxon’s thunder on the first day back.’ Thomas Coughlan recalled that Pugh had once said that she had been struck by lightning three times.

“As someone who struggles to keep her head above water at the best of times, you would think that Pugh would take rising sea levels a little more seriously. Luxon will be ropable… he will have hoped that returning to Parliament would level the playing field, allowing him the oxygen to prosecute the issues he wants to focus on. Pugh ruined that for him,” he said.

Pugh said that she had not been forced to issue her statement and explained that media interviews were not her comfort zone, which was something of an understatement.

“You guys in front of me with cameras… I probably was not calm enough this morning to articulate properly,” she said.

Luxon later told Morning Report that Pugh was doing “a really good job” as an MP.

“She expressed herself poorly and I have asked her to do some reading to alter her understanding to make sure that she understands the science base,” he said.

The previous Prime minister had an election campaign catch-cry of “Let us do this,” and now Hipkins has a variation of his own – “Let us get cracking.”

That could be a counter to National’s never-ending complaint that the government “does not get things done,” and this week there was some evidence that Hipkins means what he says.

Addressing truancy

Education Minister Jan Tinetti announced $74 million for new school attendance officers. The truancy rate is something National has been getting traction on, and Hipkins has moved to neutralise the opposition.

Tinetti said there would be 82 school attendance officers.

Tinetti, who has 20 years of experience as a School Principal, said, “We are going back to basics on attendance. The decline began in 2015 but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. We need to be doing more to help schools and kura support students who are not attending or engaged in education.”

National has also been active on another problem, one that has enraged East Coast cyclone victims – forestry debris, called slash, which has caused widespread damage after being carried down in rivers and flood torrents.

Slash was a metre deep on Gisborne beaches, RNZ reported. It is not a new problem and it is something successive governments have failed to effectively deal with.

Luxon called for forestry companies to be held to account.

Inquiry into Forestry

“It is the only business, the only sector I know which gets to internalise the benefits and to socialise the cost and we need to revisit practices, we need to revisit penalties and prosecutions,” he said.

Hipkins got cracking on that as well, announcing a ministerial inquiry.

“Things have to change because slash on beaches, in rivers, on farms is unacceptable,” he said.

Former National Cabinet Minister Hekia Parata, who is Gisborne-based, will head the inquiry which must report with recommendations by the end of April.

Forest Owners Association President Grant Dodson said that a two-month inquiry would probably be too brief, the Herald reported.

“We have introduced safe harvesting techniques since the 2018 Tolaga Bay storm, such as harvesting smaller areas at a time and removing more slash from the forest. We have protected more native tree riparian strips to keep wood out of rivers. We must do better,” he said and acknowledged that slash volumes had to reduce.

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

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