Chris Hipkins has one almighty problem.
At his first outing after being nominated as Prime Minister, he could not name all three articles of the Treaty of Waitangi and had to concede that no one understands what co-governance means.
Said Hipkins: “There is an uncertainty in New Zealanders about what we mean when we are talking about co-governance. I want to make sure that in each context we are very clear about what we mean, and I acknowledge that that hasn’t always been clear.” These are extraordinary admissions given the assumed importance of the Treaty to this Labour Government.
Hipkins’ comments suggest that he believes New Zealanders’ angst about such policies such as the establishment of a Māori Health Authority alongside Health New Zealand, the appointment of Māori to local government and injection of Māori decision-makers within the various governance architectures of the organisations which comprise “Three Waters” will diminish if the Government simply explains better what it is on about.
There is an element of sophistry to this approach.
The counter-factual is that right from the start Labour has not pursued change in an open and transparent manner.
The controversial He Puapua project was pursued by Labour away from the glare of its then-coalition partner New Zealand First. Labour did not campaign on this and subsequent recommendations have not been consulted with New Zealanders outside of Māoridom.
The upshot is that the Labour Government has made it a priority to right historic wrongs between the Crown and Māori in ways which many New Zealanders have found deeply confronting because they do not feel part of the decision-making process.
There has been division within Cabinet on the approach. But the powerful Māori caucus has held the whip hand.
New Zealanders are entitled to question the pathways the Government is pursuing without being subjected to accusations of racism.
Expectations are riding high that the new Prime Minister is, in fact, about to take an axe to controversial policies like the Three Waters reforms, the TVNZ-RNZ merger and a $3.5 billion income insurance scheme that will be funded through a 2.77 per cent annual levy split equally between employees and employers.
These expectations have been strengthened by the readout that Auckland Business Chamber CEO Simon Bridges gave when he hosted a bunch of CEOs to meet Hipkins in his first major foray as Prime Minister.
Said Bridges: “They really are at the top of the list. At a difficult economic time, those sorts of things should either be on the back burner or frankly, from a business perspective, canned.”
Hipkins is sufficiently attuned to businesses’ concerns to have publicly focused on the economy’s major enemy — inflation and the “cost of living”. This will be his major target as he endeavours to concentrate more on the bread-and-butter issues concerning New Zealanders in the nine months to the election.
But pause here, please.
It’s no secret that senior businesspeople have been exasperated that the Labour Government has been pursuing a major policy reform agenda during, first, a global pandemic, and second, a cost-of-living crisis.
This rather than concentrating on executing a handful of priority policies and responding to their very real concerns about issues like a chronic shortage of labour.
These concerns have spread much further than the business sector.
The three policies highlighted at the CEO soiree were all in the mix as part of the reprioritisation exercise that Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson spearheaded just before Christmas.
The critical fallacy is to assume that the new Labour Cabinet will in fact axe such policies altogether, rather than simply pause work on implementing them until after the October 14 election — that’s assuming Labour can cobble together the next Government.
Case in point: Robertson has already deferred the implementation timetable for the employment insurance scheme to mid-2025. Does it stay there, get pushed out further or axed altogether? Or — now that Ardern is no longer Prime Minister — will the policy be finessed by removing health from the scheme and just insuring against redundancy.
Why risk also jettisoning the media merger altogether?
Amending Three Waters is more problematic.
When it comes to stacking the boards of the four new water entities, being deeply acculturated in the Treaty should not be a priority.
Hipkins’ own Cabinet career should inform him of the difficulties such change entails.
He’s been dubbed a “Mr Fixit” by the press gallery.
Brought in by Ardern to lead the Covid-19 response agenda, he performed to expectations.
But his performance in his prize education portfolio has at times been wanting. The transformative plan he spearheaded to merge the country’s polytechs into one organisation, Te Pūkenga, has not been executed well. The first CEO took a rain check, costs have blown out and the impression — much as with other Labour-driven State-centralised projects including the health and the Three Waters reforms — is of a focus too much on building grand bureaucratic edifices rather than achieving quick productivity boosts through other mechanisms to achieve better education outcomes, improved patient health dividends and improved water infrastructure.
He has a difficult road ahead.
The business response would be to rip the plaster off and axe all three policies.
But Hipkins is a politician.