New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ most urgent task is to convince Labour-sceptical voters his Government is different to Jacinda Ardern’s.
To do that, he needs to cut Three Waters immediately.
Nothing else would signal change as clearly as ditching Three Waters.
This policy is radioactive to voters. It is a symbol of how distracted and arrogant the Ardern government became.
Nothing screams “distracted” more than Labour pouring huge amounts of energy, money and time into water reform while Kiwis struggle to pay their mortgages and grocery bills.
Nothing screams “arrogant” more than Labour forging ahead with a policy voters hate. Hatred is not a strong word in this case. Voters filled town hall-style roadshows opposing it, they erected signs along rural roads begging the Government to drop it. Sixty per cent of Kiwis opposed it. Only 23 per cent supported it.
Few Labour policies generated more negative headlines. From the early dirty-tricks TV advertising campaign designed to scare voters with nonsense threats of filthy water, to Nanaia Mahuta’s attempt to entrench part of the law behind her colleagues’ backs. It’s been a dog from start to finish.
Such was Labour’s weird determination to ignore opposition and persist that voters came to suspect this policy was less about cleaning up water and really more about inserting Māori co-governance into water delivery.
Hipkins must kill this policy to tell voters he is listening and actually cares about what they think.
If he doesn’t, he will make the same mistake as Ardern and end up defending the indefensible.
Three Waters is made up of three bills. Only one has passed.
We know that one alone was extremely controversial. Unexpectedly so. Mahuta was busted trying to entrench parts of the law, she was forced to insert definitions overnight to limit the scope of the law, critics were surprised to see parks above pipes at risk, they were surprised to see geothermal and coastal water included at the last minute.
If that’s what happened with the passing of one bill, it’s not unreasonable to expect more drama for the passing of the remaining two. That means Hipkins facing weeks of defending Three Waters and Mahuta from negative headlines.
He would end up squandering political capital he doesn’t have. He’s not Jacinda. There is no Hipkins-mania. His only appeal right now is that he isn’t Jacinda. The hope attached to that is that he won’t put the country through the same angst as Jacinda has, Three Waters included.
But the reality is tough for Hipkins. He might not be able to kill it.
Three Waters is Mahuta’s baby. She has spent years getting it to this point. In my opinion, her reputation has suffered badly defending it, especially in the last six months. Both she and Ardern spent a lot of political capital keeping Three Waters alive in the face of popular outrage.
Hipkins will have a Herculean task on his hands convincing Mahuta to kill her darling.
She has 14 other Māori MPs backing her up.
The power behind the throne stays the same. Ultimately, a change in leader changes little.
This will test Hipkins’ mettle. How badly does he want to win the election?
On currently polling, he will lose. He can do any number of other things to try to win over voters: crackdown on crime, relieve cost-of-living pressures, wipe student debt. But, those things take time. Weeks, months, years. If he starts his prime ministership defending and pursuing a deeply unpopular policy, he’ll have lost the argument already. The phone - as they say - will be off the hook. What comes after that is defeat.
This is his chance to prove to upset voters that a Hipkins Government is not more of the same.
* Heather du Plessis-Allan Drive, Newstalk ZB, 4pm-7pm, weekdays.