It began, as so many years do, in early January. Jacinda Ardern was Prime Minister: a rock star international leader heading a one-party government with a rock-solid majority and a rock-solid cabinet. Total political stability. The weather was glorious, the Covid was vanquished to a point no-one cared for the dozens dying of it every week relegated to a sentence in a news brief. Good times were to come – a co-governed bi-cultural Aotearoa was being carefully laid out on the nation’s table like a festive banquet where everyone was going to get gravy, even if they were vegetarian.
It ended, as so many years do, in late December. Christopher Luxon is Prime Minister: a CEO in the mould of David Brent heading a three-party government starting with a clown car of a cabinet. Total political instability. The weather is shit, Prof. Hendy is predicting a fifth wave of Covid. Bad times look certain – a tableau of white settler New Zealand’s phobic wish list was being spewed across the nation’s Christmas table like a racist uncle whose had too much gravy with his red meat and too much rum with his Steinies.
But what about the bit in between Jacinda’s glamour and uncle’s projectile vomiting? The part of 2023 where Chris Hipkins was PM will be a blip easily skipped in the nation’s story, a woeful tale, or likely footnote, in political history, on par with the low key personalities Rowling or Palmer. Hipkins has by all recent accounts learned nothing whatsoever from his enumerable personal failings and his government’s implosion and by implication will lead the Labour Party on this auto pilot directly into the same avoidable misfortune. No contrition, no self-awareness on his part and therefore there can be no forgiveness or emmpathy on our part. So any review of the year 2023 is really going to be an assessment cum indictment of the Hipkins ministry rather than any charting of heroism of those now in charge. Labour gave up and lost, National did not exactly win. What were the high points and achievements? No, I can’t think of anything either – it was all too little, too late, or simply nothing at all. The frame is negative to match the picture.
We could take this post mortem chronologically, by person or party, or by subject or theme. I will attempt them all simultaneously. If it was a performance report beyond the political there might well be positive outcomes, like lower inflation, house prices and interest rates levelling off somewhat etc. but for every metric on which Labour has claimed victory it seems tarnished, underwhelming, undesirable, misleading or accidental.
As an overview the Hipkins strategy was insipid policy and the delivery was of Wellingtonian slowness: Fair Pay Agreements, raising benefit levels, housing – it all took too long and some of it still left uncompleted. The answer to this creeping pace is to speed it up – the answer from eternally lazy Wellington is a four year term to do three year’s work. Rather than cry about social media they could have used it like everyone else was. Blaming the last government is easier than solutions, even after six years. To see Labour activists in the last few weeks on television railing against the poverty and overwhelmed food banks, the housing crisis etc. – when their own Labour government was wholly responsible for all of it – is partisan sociopathy at its finest. And what of the lefty things that they never even tried to do: end the 90 day employment trials for small workplaces, end Voluntary Student Membership of student unions, end the 25 year old rule for student allowances? Labour had the backs of the big unions and whatever focus group of Karens that Clint and Neil reported on like they were the oracles of Delphi and fuck everyone else. So let us delve into the whys and wherefores.
The balling we saw from those caucus members after Jacinda announced her retirement was the only real emotion most of them have ever expressed on camera. They were stunned, they were real tears. Half of them knew – not thought, but knew – that they were also going to lose their seats.
Those that had taunted her about her planning an early departure (including TV3’s AM show which put it to her directly in late 2022 and which she denied emphatically) who based their prediction on the grounds she was weak and superficial and wanting to be a stay-at-home mum with a Netflix contract and not have to deal with all the haters anymore weren’t stunned of course, although the stunned commentariat pretended that everyone was as stunned as they were. Nevertheless it was quite logical that someone who had been on $500,000 pa for five years was a millionaire and might want the once in a lifetime opportunity to spend quality time with her daughter before the wee one developed fully all of Clarke’s mannerisms, characteristics, speech and mediocre dress sense. She could redecorate the beer crate wendy house that Clarke made for a start. So many things better to do with one’s day than gritting one’s over-sized teeth at Ryan Bridges barely suppressing a smirk asking another shitty question at 7:30am and still being expected to attend some meeting o’ crisis that might not end till midnight, in the back of her mind an impending election thrashing to be the taste in her mouth to end her political career? Why burn off any more political capital preserving the mana of inept and shady time-servers like Nanaia Mahuta and Stuart Nash when the favour would have inevitably been repaid by yet more scandal. So many reasons not to care. She “had nothing left in the tank”… so everyone had to get out and walk.
It was Me time, not WE time. She got it all her own way. Locked in an earlier election date to suit her walking out on her electorate too, locked in a damehood as the corrupt patronage system allows, locked in not having to account to Maori at Waitangi as she had promised to do. A majesterial exit at everyone else’s expense. It had nothing to do with succession or policy, just I’m too nakered to keep bailing out a boat I don’t want to be on even if it does happen to be the lifeboat holding the caucus. Supremely selfish, flaky as fuck, but you have to respect the making of such a difficult decision and the finesse of the departure.
Less enamouring and problematic is her narcissistic spin lines justifying her selfishness and tiredness and letting the team down as some sort of role modelling for women. There is an incongruity over this that women entertain and in which men acquiesce: a woman can have everything like have a baby and keep working and also can suddenly quit because they’ve got a child and are tired. It’s a privileged position though isn’t it. We all should be fully conscious that her job is one of a kind and allowed her the privilege of quitting when most working parents aren’t in that situation, but more importantly it proves the opposite: actually in real life you can’t have everything, that sacrificing is inherent, she had to give up one to have the other and no, ultimately she couldn’t have both and so chose motherhood. How many men watched her trite explanation and thought them a contradiction – nothing more than a string of sopping wet platitudes hung out to dry on a flimsy line of feminism – and precisely the reason not to hire a woman? We will never know how many because in 2023 men are not permitted to wonder this aloud in public discourse, but I’m guessing it would be in the millions. Good on her – but don’t pretend things. Don’t pretend. Don’t pretend as though the trajectory she faced was anything other than a Labour defeat. If Labour was on a course to win the election does anyone, other than the most credulously delusional links of the same Mt Albert LEC daisy chain that was beguiled by the heinous Helen White, believe she would have thrown it in? Would she have been tired and wanting to be a stay at home mum if Labour were polling in the 40s? C’mon now. There is no question her own confidence, energy and Labour morale would have carried her on had they been projected to win a third term. Child neglect and death threats had been tolerable if polling was in the high 30s, not so much in the low 30s going into an election year – these are just facts. The electorate could see the captain abandoning the ship for what it was – Labour knew they were doomed.
Jacinda may have been a fair weather friend, but it seems obvious now that she had herself been following John Key as a role model of self interest and reputational survival. He too was a winner. Once your reputation is winning you can’t lose because there goes part of your identity. Key orchestrated his resignation well however and his replacement went on to carry the party to a very creditable 44%. Jacinda simply left them in the lurch with no obvious successor and a very crappy 27% result.
My instinct tells me that Jacinda’s evaluation on her future over the holiday break was influenced by Grant Robertson putting the succession issue on the table in terms of him being the it and the when being in the next term. Brown did the same thing to Blair as she would have witnessed first hand on the PM’s staff when she was at No. 10. She knows how this rolls out from the inside.
How much can you give when your 2IC is now openly doodling a new PM’s office lay out on his desk pad and pencilling on the calendar when he wants to take over your job? It’s not even a plot – it became a plan as soon as she had agreed to the concept of it. So, hey little girl she was thinking, going into Christmas, comb your hair, fix your make up: even on the outside chance we scratch together a coalition and remain PM it will merely be interim until Robbo takes over. Soon he will open the door. Two paths leading out the same gate, and fast approaching. Win the election and be a lame duck leader, or lose the election and resign. Don’t think because there’s a ring on your finger. Meanwhile the daughter’s speech and vocabulary is noticeably descending into a flurry of Clarke’s infuriating verbal idiosyncrasies and the only way to make her Jacinda’s mini me is to clock in the hours. That you needn’t try anymore. I would guess the amounts of fucks given by any PM to their position after five years regardless of gender or anything else would very suddenly fall to near zero contemplating this political euthanasia. For wives should always be lovers too, run to his arms the moment he comes home to you. Oh, and better marry thingo. I’m warning you.
So being used as Robertson’s human shield to take the election hit wasn’t that appealing after taking three weeks off to think about it. That would have been the decider – nothing else and most certainly not policy! Christ no! Labour was helping the big unions, Mahuta’s mates and enacting the Wellington bureaucracy’s tail chasing – what policy would any of them die in a ditch for? They were all other people’s policies, Labour didn’t have any – caucus members had to submit those into the private bills biscuit tin and pray. They were so bereft they came out with policies of things they promised not to do. They revelled in a bonfire of Maori aspiration once Jacinda left, but then denied the event, the kebab sticks, burnt tin foil, ashes in a pile and posts on instagram. Jacinda’s child poverty climax, her legacy achievement, of one out of a dozen other measures not being negative was not a Princess Diana flack jacket in the minefield moment she would have hoped for the biopic. Quit while you can claim you were at least slightly ahead on something. She is currently our greatest export. The domestic market will need some time to recover and should do so in the next three years as nostalgia sets in for a stable, coherent government with an intuitive leader.
The next major event in 2023 of any historical consequence following Jacinda’s well earned/deserved resignation was the election of the egg man, the walrus coo-coo-cachoo. The National+Act+NZFirst coalition deal was a reactionary list of Pakeha insecurities, more tripartheid than tripartite. Winston ran fractals around both Luxon and Rimmer if we compare the bilateral agreements the Nats reached. The trio in a few short weeks of the 54th parliament then demolished the big Labour projects that had consumed so much of their efforts in the 53rd: Fair Pay Agreements, Spatial planning, 3 Waters etc, all gone, all for naught.
Ahead lies an unresolvable tension of Nikki Kay’s annointed liberals, Bishop and Willis, trying to stake out a viable centre ground against Act and NZF pulling to the extreme right socially and economically with a hapless Luxon unfixed by ideology focussed on the team dynamics and not outcomes allowing issues to drift and possibly beyond control. Luxon has yet to face a crisis, but his over-egging of the coalition talks indicates David Brent level self awareness. It helps a bit that Luxon isn’t evil in the way the other two leaders are.
That’s 2023. That’s political history. And Hipkins doesn’t appear, he’s in no way important to the national story is he. He had no impact on anything except for losing ten points worse than Jacinda would have. He cost them 5% and the rest of the cabinet the other 5%. Yes, the back benchers were also dismal: special mention to Helen White’s outreach programme (to Jacinda’s electorate) that showcased her personality was so very, very impactful she personally lost 20,000+ votes. In nixing a wealth tax amid other bourgeois flexes Hipkins had detoured so far from traditional Labour working class interests and values that he was rumoured to have spent weekends during the election campaign glamping with Toni in the upper reaches of Karen’s rectum.
Just a brief word then on the worst cabinet meltdown since the second term of the fourth Labour government. It resolves to a lack of respect – not only towards the rules but towards the leader. Evidently none of them minded disappointing Chippy. Nanaia was never straight, Nash was never straight, Woods was actually straight, but a pussy-whipped whimp with no control over his own affairs, Kiri Allen was off her trolley when she should have been on the wagon, and Tenetti was the school principal turned Minister of Education admonished for not turning in her homework. Robertson and Parker ambushed Chippy when he was in the Baltic licking the boots of NATO and publicly disagreed with him over a wealth tax, followed by every other member of caucus (Chippy’s new Revenue replacement after Parker quit in disgust could only say she was ‘neutral’ on it). Andrew Little was perhaps the most overrated and the least successful of all, kiboshing the cannabis referendum on the Beehive website before the specials were in, permitting appalling travesties in the Treaty settlements of Whakatohea and others, and right before the election allowing in migrants for stop-go men, labourers and other unqualified jobs to flood the country. The two best things Angry Andy ever did in politics was resign as leader and resign as an MP. It was, all of it, self inflicted.
Hard to say how big the footnote will be for the ginger drop-kick from the Hutt, but probably shorter than English (who is easily overlooked after just six years). How will he be remembered? – maybe not all. I once held up the Auckland regionals of the pub quiz disputing the answer to a question: ‘who was the Prime Minister before Jim Bolger?’ The answer they gave was Geoffrey Palmer. Ah, hang on, it’s Mike Moore, so I objected. How could they get this wrong? More alarmingly no-one seemed to be backing me. After five minutes of officials running around I thought this is a dream, like a nightmare. Was Mike Moore never the Prime Minister? But he was, so does that mean this is a dream? It was surreal. Did I imagine that he was, maybe in an alternate reality? Like Sapphire and Steel, I’m in a pub with over a hundred minds and none of them recall this? Everyone was pissed off – but they were all wrong. It shows how even a character like Mike Moore cannot connect with the Prime Ministership if they don’t get an original mandate or a lengthy innings. There seems no way Hipkins will be remembered in the public pantheon in a decade.
Hipkins was put in to steady the ship… so it could collide with the iceberg at a worse angle as it transpired. Astoundingly (to future historians) he was seen as the best choice at the time. My gut says Robertson being a careerist has just done what he has always done in coveting the top job – undermine, like with Cunliffe. Robertson knew he would only be PM for ten months and tainted thereafter if he took over from Jacinda when she quit, so he will bide time and then execute Chippy closer to the next election. Hipkins is just Robertson’s doormat. Rather fitting that Hipkins will be the victim here given Hipkins was part of Robertson’s ABC hit squad on Cunliffe. No mention of policy again, of course, it doesn’t seem to matter to them in the Wellybubble.
Happy New Year.