Labour leader Chris Hipkins has this afternoon called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, bending convention to speak in his role as Labour leader rather than caretaker Prime Minister. National has shot back, accusing Labour of playing politics over the conflict.
Hipkins is caretaker Prime Minister while the new Government is being formed, but his latitude to act and speak in that role is limited because he must consult with members of the incoming Government.
On Friday, the caretaker Government had talked with National about calling for a ceasefire. National did not agree to that so Hipkins decided to go it alone and call for a ceasefire as Labour leader, rather than Prime Minister of the caretaker Government.
“I want to acknowledge that this is an unusual period for New Zealand. While we wait for a government to be formed, we will continue to uphold the caretaker convention and as Prime Minister I will work within what can be agreed with the incoming government,” Hipkins said.
“However I speak today as the Labour Leader. I, and the Labour Party, cannot stand by any longer in the face of the horrific scenes we are witnessing without calling for a ceasefire,” he said.
Hipkins acknowledged that his decision to make the call the caretaker period was an unusual one, and one that “constitutional purists will also probably not necessarily welcome”.
“But this is something that I believe that I do have a responsibility to do,”Hipkins said.
He said that it had been more than five weeks since the election, during which time he had operated in caretaker mode in consultation with the incoming Government.
“It has been become untenable for me and it runs against the Labour Party values to stand by and watch the horrific scenes we are witnessing without calling for a ceasefire,” Hipkins said.
National soon shot back saying with a spokesperson saying the party “supports the goal of a ceasefire, but acknowledges the conditions have not existed for one so far”.
The spokesperson said the party was approached about calling for a ceasefire on Friday afternoon.
“In response, National asked to see MFAT advice on the matter - we provided feedback on that advice and indicated we were open to a discussion with Labour on it.
“National was then informed of the Labour Leaders’ statement four minutes before the press conference commenced,” the spokesperson said.
“Given New Zealand’s long standing bipartisan approach to foreign policy it is very disappointing that Chris Hipkins is playing politics with such a serious issue.
“If reports of a possible temporary ceasefire being close are correct, with hostage exchanges from both sides and humanitarian aid into Gaza, this is what New Zealand has consistently called for. It is hoped that any temporary ceasefire could last longer than five days and lead to peace talks,” they said.
Conflict has raged in Gaza since Hamas terrorist attacks rocked Israel on October 7. Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and soon launched a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza, inflicting heavy civilian casualties on its inhabitants.
The Government has called for humanitarian pauses in the conflict to allow aid to be delivered. Meanwhile a recent Talbot-Mills poll showed 60 per cent of New Zealanders want a full ceasefire. Sunday also saw a large march in Wellington calling for a ceasefire in the conflict.
Hipkins said he still backed Israel’s right to self-defence but this right was “not unlimited”.
“All parties have an obligation to take all possible steps to protect civilians,” he said.
“We also urge Hamas to release hostages immediately and unconditionally and to work towards peace.
“We call on all parties to strive to restore calm and restraint and to refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.
“We remain very concerned about the humanitarian impact of the conflict and the blockade, preventing essential services from reaching people in Gaza,” he said.
On Saturday, the caretaker Government, acting in consultation with Opposition leader and incoming Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, announced a suite of aid to the region, bringing New Zealand’s total aid commitment to $10 million.
Saturday’s announcement included $2.5m to the International Committee of the Red Cross’ (ICRC) response in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.
The Government said its response included the deployment of a war surgery team and weapons contamination specialist to Gaza; the provision of urgently needed medical and water purification supplies; and efforts to facilitate the release of remaining hostages, monitor conditions of detention and re-connect families with missing relatives.
The Government also increased support to the World Food Programme (WFP) by $2.5m. The WFP has offered emergency food and cash assistance to over 764,000 affected people in Gaza and the West Bank.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.