Political Roundup: Hipkins’ very smart policy bonfire needs to be bolstered with substance

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ policy bonfire yesterday is exactly what the Labour Government needed to do. It sends the most powerful signal yet that with Jacinda Ardern’s departure, a new direction is being embarked upon – one that is less concerned with ideological pet projects, and more about delivering the things that matter to the public.

Ditching or kicking down the road policies that seemed half-baked around media mergers, hate speech laws, biofuel mandates, and social insurance, was the right thing to do politically. These are policies very few voters care about, so they won’t be missed by many. The big question is what Hipkins will replace the jettisoned policies with.

Focused on the things that matter

Very broadly, the first big policy reset continues the theme that this government is less about woke politics and more about working people and focusing on the cost-of-living crisis. That’s an oversimplification, but largely it will come through that under Hipkins this is a more no-nonsense administration focused on traditional Labour concerns.

Hipkins once again used the phrase “bread and butter” to explain the focus of his Government and this reset. And in his press conference repeated the phrase “cost of living” numerous times.

Increasing the minimum wage at the same time as axing other policies was a very smart move. The $1.50 increase is quite substantial, and the message underlines his attempts to reposition Labour as being more about working class concerns and the economy.

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Leftwing commentator Chris Trotter says the minimum wage increase “was the new Labour Leader’s pièce de résistance. Nothing could better signal Labour’s return to its political roots – a movement dedicated to the welfare and uplift of ordinary working-class New Zealanders. For these voters, Hipkins’ turn away from wokeism will have been the ‘bread’ of this afternoon’s announcements, but his announcement of a new $22.70 per hour Minimum Wage was, unquestionably, the butter.”

A U-turn that signals Labour is listening to the public

Usually when governments carry out U-turns they attempt to underplay how significant the change in direction is. They are normally viewed as a sign of weakness – an admission of an error, diminishing the credibility of the politicians in charge. And usually, it’s their opponents who emphasise the significance of the shift.

Yesterday it was the other way around. It was Labour emphasising the magnitude of these changes, and National playing them down, suggesting they were minor and merely deferred until after the election.

So this U-turn isn’t embarrassing for Labour – quite the opposite. It will be read as a sign that the Government is listening. It is likely the public will reward Labour for this U-turn, and Hipkins has given voters greater reason to trust his judgement. It underscores that Hipkins is the new broom, fixing the mistakes of the previous leader (even though Hipkins has been in the inner circle of leadership the whole time).

Hipkins needed to underline that the 2023 Labour Government is different to the failing Ardern Government of last year. So far he has managed to differentiate himself and show that he’s ruthless, listens to and acts upon public feedback, and is able to make tough decisions.

Peter Dunne argues today that effectively Labour wants to give the impression that they are a brand new government, and therefore there’s no need for change in October: “Hipkins is aiming to pull off a change of government within a government. He hopes this will stave off any need for that to happen at this year’s election.”

Momentum for further change

This gives Hipkins momentum, and he will therefore be able to stamp his authority further, and make some even bigger changes in the near future – such as substantial changes to the Three Waters reforms, and pulling back from the co-governance agenda.

There was no consensus amongst commentators on how big Hipkins’ policy bonfire was – for example, broadcaster Rachel Smalley said “the party’s direction hasn’t so much pulled a u-turn…. more a backflip and a triple somersault”. In contrast, Peter Dunne argues the reset has been completely over-sold, and the policy areas are still being overseen by “the same Ministers who championed and staunchly defended the government’s unpopular policies”.

But most commentators do agree that yesterday’s announcement heralds further change. As Luke Malpass puts it, “the iron laws of political arithmetic surely mean there will be more to come.”

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan says there will now be greater anticipation about other Labour pet projects that might be cancelled: “This places almost all of the Government’s policy agenda in limbo until Hipkins is able to draw a line under the refocusing and move forward. This needs to happen sooner rather than later. It’s not tenable for there to be question marks hovering over everything from light rail, to the fuel tax review, to the Lake Onslow hydro scheme, to the future of local government review.”

Some on the political left and in progressive institutions such as unions and NGOs, have expressed disappointment today with the demise of the hate speech laws and social insurance proposals. But the more that the public hears such complaints about Labour’s U-turns, the more this will actually help Labour.

Are the policy changes big enough?

Some commentators aren’t convinced these policy changes are enough. Even a substantial 7 per cent increase in the minimum wage needs to be weighed against the rate of inflation at the moment. Such workers will be merely standing still – so Labour couldn’t really have justified giving minimum wage workers anything less.

BusinessDesk’s Dileepa Fonseka points out today that, although a big increase to the minimum wage is useful for those at the bottom, it’s “a poor form of wealth redistribution mainly because it targeted people on the minimum wage rather than people on low incomes. While these two groups might sound like the same thing, they are not… A significant proportion of people on the minimum wage were actually teenagers living in relatively well-off households.”

And what about climate change? Dropping the half-baked bio-fuels policy might be sensible, but it will need to be replaced by something more substantial, otherwise Labour is simply failing to fulfill its promise to make meaningful progress on emissions.

Also, at this stage most of these policies have been deferred rather than dumped. Social insurance and hate speech laws have been parked but not ditched entirely.

In reality, these policies are probably dead in the long-term as well, and it was only diplomacy that stopped Hipkins pronouncing them to be completely gone. But it does leave the door open for attacks from opponents about whether those issues will be revived in the future.

National will be particularly keen to push the idea that a vote for Labour is a vote to bring these deferred policies back during a third term of power. Thomas Coughlan puts this well today: “If Hipkins isn’t careful, the election could turn into a referendum on these half-binned policies. If the Government is convinced they are truly harmful to its electoral prospects, it may be forced to bin them entirely.”

Similarly, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says: “That still makes it potent territory for National to campaign on. The jobs tax? Could be next term. Hate speech? More consultation.”

The Problem of a small target strategy

It’s hard to see Hipkins’ policy bonfire as anything other than pure pragmatism – he’s ditched distracting and fringe parts of the policy programme with the aim of winning a third term. But will this kind of realpolitik be enough to enthuse voters?

Getting rid of unpopular policies is a start, but the question is what he will replace them with, if anything. Labour now appears to be emulating National’s “small target strategy”, in which they have very few substantial policies in the hope that this will reduce what they can be criticised over.

But the problem for Labour is that they have been in office now for nearly six years, and yet they have carried out very few big reforms. What have they got to show for their time in government, and what reform programmes will they implement if they keep on ditching key parts of their work programme? Can Labour properly differentiate itself from National?

As Dileepa Fonseka argues today, “adopting your opponent’s agenda carries the unfortunate side-effect of making it look like you’ve left the people who voted for you high and dry.”

Fonseka also comments on the cynicism involved: “Perhaps Hipkins wagers that if it comes down to a contest of two parties with virtually indistinguishable agendas, the public will prefer his own, and judging from recent polls he may not be wrong. Thursday’s mass-jettisoning has the makings of creating an environment for not just a small target election but a micro-target one. Those who wanted better have every right to feel annoyed.”

It’s going to be a very empty election campaign if all the parties suddenly start dumping their policies as soon as they come in for criticism. So, yes, it’s good that Hipkins has listened to public feedback and is re-orientating towards the cost-of-living crisis – but he’s going to have to deliver something of substance that convinces the public Labour has a plan beyond U-turns.

Other items of interest and importance today

Policy bonfire
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Chris Hipkins puts stamp on Government – but is it really a policy purge?
Henry Cooke (Guardian): Jacinda Ardern’s successor makes a big strategic retreat
Peter Dunne: Hipkins’ policy reset was oversold
William Hewett (Newshub): Political expert Bryce Edwards says policy changes by Chris Hipkins will give him momentum ahead of 2023 election
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Chris Hipkins has just bought himself a chance to win
Bernard Hickey: Hipkins clears the decks and crouches down low
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Chris Hipkins’ policy bonfire risks causing as many problems as it solves (paywalled)
Tim Watkin (Pundit): How To Read Chipp-Ese: Translating Chris Hipkins’ First Post-Cab Statement
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Ardern’s resignation allowed Labour to save face, try resurrect election hopes
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): A Modest Exercise in Arithmetic
Jo Moir (Newsroom): PM axes Ardern’s projects, takes wind out of Nats’ sails
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Chris Hipkins’ policy purge and the cost-of-explaining crisis
Dileepa Fonseka (BusinessDesk): Chipping away at Ardern’s legacy (paywalled)
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): The major announcements from Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ big policy refocus
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Chippy’s Bread and Butter bonfire of woke policies
David Farrar: Why it is good Labour u-turned
Thomas Cranmer: Hipkins ditches hate speech laws
Anna Whyte and Thomas Manch (Stuff): RNZ-TVNZ merger gone, minimum wage rises, policies delayed in Government ‘refocus’
Brent Edwards (NBR): Govt dumps policies as it refocuses on ‘bread and butter’(paywalled)
RNZ: Watch: TVNZ/RNZ merger scrapped, income insurance and hate speech laws delayed
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): Chris Hipkins sets fire to Labour’s policy programme
Adam Pearse (Herald): Chris Hipkins’ ‘policy bonfire’: Government cops criticism for refocus with more changes to come
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Chris Hipkins announces end to public media merger, social insurance scheme not proceeding as planned
RNZ: Government reprioritisation a ‘mixed bag’ for businesses and unions
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Chris Hipkins’ policy refocus called ‘total shambles’ by National, Greens want ‘bolder solutions’
Stuff: Recap: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins reveals details of policy shake-up, defends cuts
Shane Te Pou (Herald): Who’s there for the battlers? (paywalled)

Public broadcasting merger cancelled
Colin Peacock (RNZ): Public media policy put out of its misery
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): The media merger is dead. How did it hit inside RNZ and TVNZ, and what comes next?
Daniel Dunkley (BusinessDesk): Why the RNZ-TVNZ merger is dead (paywalled)
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): More than $16m spent on TVNZ/RNZ merger before it was called off
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): TVNZ-RNZ merger dead – what’s left of Labour’s broadcasting policy?
Mark Jennings (Newsroom): TVNZ-RNZ merger gone by prime time
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): TVNZ/RNZ merger killed – Winners, Losers, Predictions
Glen Kyne (Stuff): We must still reform our public media sector in 2023
Spinoff: TVNZ, RNZ and NZ On Air respond to purging of merging
Justine Hu (1News): TVNZ-RNZ merger fully scrapped amid election year refocus

Biofuels mandate cancelled
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Prime Minister Chris Hipkins opens a hole in the carbon budget
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Government to keep petrol cheap and dirty
No Right Turn: Climate Change: Labour abandons the carbon budget

Social insurance scheme deferred
Esther Taunton (Stuff): Delay to income insurance scheme a blow for workers, union says
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Proposed income insurance scheme put on ice (paywalled)

Minimum wage increase
RNZ: ‘More modest’ minimum wage hikes possible if inflation cut – National
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): What impact will minimum wage hike have on inflation? (paywalled)
RNZ: Minimum wage rise means ‘thousands of NZers don’t go backwards’ – Hipkins
1News: Minimum wage increases will be passed on to consumers – retail head
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): ‘Small businesses will struggle’ with minimum wage increase, BusinessNZ says

RNZ: No need for truth and reconciliation commission ‘at this point’ – Chris Hipkins
Richard Prebble: Race, the treaty, co-governance and representative democracy
Morgan Godfery (Stuff):  Christopher Luxon opposes co-governance. Or does he?
Kerry Burke (Stuff): The need to cut through the confusion over co-governance
David Farrar: The worst possible way to describe New Zealand
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): Co-governance is not the way forward for New Zealand

Martin Van Beynen (Stuff): Christopher Luxon hijacked by anti-vaxxers, conspiracists at packed public meeting
Gordon Campbell: On National’s selling of its “social investment” policy
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Who is Tamatha Paul – the councillor James Shaw stood aside for in Wellington Central? (paywalled)
Steven Cowan: Willie Jackson: Living in a glasshouse, throwing stones
1News: White supremacist Philip Arps attacks new Green Party candidate Francisco Hernandez

Tom Hunt and Gianina Schwanecke (Stuff): Where will you find $450? Wellington poised for another eye-popping rates rise
Tom Hunt (Stuff): ‘It is depressing’: Another eye-popping rates rise on cards for Wellington
RNZ: Wellington ratepayers facing nearly 13% hike
Brendon McMahon (Local Democracy Reporting):  Council assured dump poses little risk to Greymouth water
Katy Jones (Stuff): Mayor recommends not replanting council’s commercial pine forest, pending forestry review
Jonathan Leask (Local Democracy Reporting): Ashburton’s new $56m library and civic centre delayed again

RNZ: Govt announces $5m support package for flood-affected businesses in Auckland
Rayssa Almeida (RNZ): Waitangi Day disrupts timetable for council payouts to flood-hit Aucklanders
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Stormwaters run deep: Auckland councillors call for audit
Libby Kirkby-McLeod (RNZ): Kiwi Harvest to work with MPI to ensure safety of food salvaged from floods

Esther Taunton (Stuff): Why some people returned the cost of living payment and others didn’t
Iain Lees-Galloway (Stuff): Families’ demand for food relief at record levels in New Zealand
No Right Turn: We need to fund foodbanks, but they shouldn’t exist

Brianna MciLraith (Stuff): Unjustified dismissal, leave mix-ups: Here are employers’ biggest mistakes
Stuff: Liquor shop bosses ordered to pay $259k for violating minimum pay and holiday rules
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): National wants median wage rule for work visas scrapped (paywalled)
RNZ: Lines company challenges Transpower over 427% hike in transmission charges
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Rich Lister Olympian goes to ground in new row over his aggressive alcohol sales
Damien Venuto (Herald): The Front Page: Should New Zealand raise the superannuation age?

Andrea Vance (Stuff): Twenty at-risk birds killed on a single fishing trip
RNZ: MPI to visit farm where 50,000 chickens died in barn fire
RNZ: Iwi set to spend thousands during kaimoana ban
Laura Mills (Greymouth Star): No new mines policy ‘shocking cynical move’ by Govt
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Government eyes tightening of new mining rules on conservation land
Matthew Rosenberg (Local Democracy Reporting): Ministers, stakeholders meet to discuss Gisborne land-use practices
Gerhard Uys (Stuff): Zespri moves to liquidate company that illegally exported kiwifruit vine cuttings to China and owes $12m in damages

Tom Hunt (Stuff): Years of sewage flows into Wellington harbour after pipe error
Robin Martin (RNZ): Taranaki Regional Council told remediation of chemical plant site will take years
Heidi Bendikson (Newsroom): Fiord-less National Park
David Williams (Newsroom): Defining braided rivers will help avoid future disasters

Brent Edwards (NBR): The real need to get resource planning law right (paywalled)
Richard Harman (Politik): Here comes another contentious piece of legislation (paywalled)
Ian Llewellyn (BusinessDesk): RMA reform submissions agree on problems but not solutions

Virginia Fallon (Stuff): Census 2023 will do better, especially for Māori, Stats NZ says
RNZ: Census redesign hoped to boost Māori participation rates
James Perry (Whakaata Māori): 2023 Census to give more focus to Treaty relationship with Māori

Bernard Hickey: When a $5 fee costs us all $2.65 billion
Krystal Gibbens (RNZ): Covid-19 outbreak: Probe exposes failings in contact tracing within Pacific community
RNZ: Wellington and Hutt hospital emergency departments ‘very busy’, unclear why
Herald: Mike King is going the extra mile (800km) to raise cash for mental health

RNZ: Mediawatch: Rebooting crisis coverage in the social media age
Elisabeth Easther (Herald): Mihingarangi Forbes: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther (paywalled)

Michael Johnston (Herald): Pressure points for educational reform (paywalled)
Delia Baskerville (Newsroom): There are no easy fixes for NZ’s growing truancy problem

Gill Bonnett (RNZ): Data ethics group discusses constraints of not having regulatory authority
Phil Pennington (RNZ): Ministry’s ‘competing demands’ delay red tape-cutting project for two years
Phil Pennington (RNZ): Increase in commercial drivers falling asleep at the wheel – Autosense
Tom Kitchin (RNZ): Broken roads: Who pays to fix the damage?
Debbie Jamieson (Stuff): First stage of Ngāi Tahu’s new Queenstown housing development complete
RNZ: Vendors ride wave of optimism with asking prices despite house prices falling
Mana Wikaire-Lewis (Whakaata Māori): Give Kororāreka name a go, marae chair tells reluctant Russell residents
Lydia Lewis (RNZ): Japan to delay nuclear wastewater release into Pacific Ocean says PIF
Alexia Russell (RNZ): The air force’s new flying machines
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk ZB): Authorities keep finding ways to not punish criminals
Newshub: Patrick Gower questions why the arts sector doesn’t receive more funding


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