It was unfortunate that Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ first real test was one in which his predecessor excelled: crisis management.
All the many and varied assessments of the Ardern government published this last week have been united on Jacinda Ardern’s ability in that area.
Hipkins had big shoes to fill and twice during his visit to Auckland on Saturday, after devastating floods in the city, he did not quite manage to fill them.
In one of these areas, the most minor, the problem rests with Hipkins, in the other, it very much does not.
On a third area, Hipkins beat his own path and succeeded in a way Ardern might not have.
Ardern did not have the bad luck of a political adversary ruling our most populous city.
For nearly her entire term, she was blessed with Phil Goff, a mayor who knew when to have a scrap (Three Waters) and when to cooperate (the pandemic).
Wayne Brown appears only to know how to scrap. This has its merits in terms of extracting concessions from Wellington on policy, but it comes up seriously short in a crisis.
His adversarial relationship with central government may have delayed the decision to declare a state of local emergency, and could frustrate further efforts to respond to the crisis if there is more rain.
Nothing could disguise the rift with the Beehive during a chaotic joint press conference with Brown, Hipkins and a shifting blancmange of emergency management staff yesterday.
The conference descended into farce, as Brown appeared less concerned with emergency management than defending his own soggy reputation, after Friday night’s communications failures.
Like a cantankerous Ponsonby Rd Noah, desperate for rescue and absolution, Brown marshalled bureaucrat after bureaucrat to defend his Friday night procrastination.
They came with a hydra of excuses; no sooner had one been dispatched, than two more would sprout in its place. Some were perfectly reasonable defences for Brown’s alleged tardiness, but each defender only underlined the fact that for the mayor, this was an exercise in reputation management rather than leadership.
Brown monopolised the press conference. Hipkins melted into the lineup of politicians and staff (to his left was a visibly ropeable Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty, and fuming Transport Minister Michael Wood).
This would not have happened under Ardern, who one can’t imagine ever sharing a platform with Brown in the first place, and if she had, would have found some way to control him.
Ardern, a veteran of many crisis press briefings, never lost control of a press conference. Her ability to exert power over the press, by controlling the order of questions was famous to the point of parody, but what was less appreciated was her ability to control the cast of characters with whom she often shared a stage.
It’s hard to know what Hipkins was angling for by taking a back seat.
It’s conceivable that he was quite happy to let Brown hang from the livestream gibbet for Friday’s failure - 10 minutes of trial-by-media providing flood-battered Aucklanders catharsis in lieu of succour.
As the disaster farce turns inevitably into a blame game, Brown’s performance suggests it’ll be Auckland, not Wellington, that cops it.
But there’s a less favourable interpretation of the events, which is that Hipkins was unable to control the lineup. That is concerning.
As prime minister, he commands power incomparably greater than the others in the room, power his predecessor happily exerted in a time of crisis.
He failed to exert that power in that moment and as a result, viewers were presented with squabble, instead of certainty.
That squabble appears to be a fair reflection of tensions behind the scenes, but that doesn’t mean the public should see it.
Both sides need to find a vector of co-operation. The initiative to find this must rest with Hipkins, if only for the fact that to find this will not come from Brown. It appears not to be his nature.
But Brown should be wary too. Hipkins’ skills are in driving the gears of government. The success of the Covid-19 response was in no small part down to his control over his portfolios and contribution to Cabinet more generally.
He has a record of understanding and controlling intricate systems, that cut across multiple bureaucratic jurisdictions, like the MIQ and testing systems.
He won’t want to pick a fight with Auckland, which is central to the government’s housing and transport agenda, but he is also unlikely to have much compunction about cutting the council out if it blocks his way.
The second area where Hipkins struggled to fill Ardern’s shoes was public empathy.
Hipkins is not unempathetic - quite the opposite - but Ardern occupied another plane when it came to communing with those afflicted by catastrophe.
She had an abnormal ability to be normal in abnormal settings - and to project that normalcy to a public looking for comfort.
Hipkins is more conventionally “normal” than Ardern - a quality that has its merits - but like any normal person, he appeared quite overwhelmed by the devastation wrought to suburban Auckland.
Meeting residents, he at times didn’t know what to say when the cameras were rolling - a stark contrast with Ardern.
Hipkins did have Ardern-esque conversations with flood victims. He circled back to some victims to chat as the media scrum focused its attention elsewhere. Those conversations are testament to Hipkins’ normalcy. To succeed, however, he’ll need to cultivate the ability to project that normalcy in abnormally public situations.
The area where Hipkins succeeded was in projecting a sense of gravity.
He held a press conference at 2am. The exercise was utterly performative. Hardly anyone is listening at that time and there’s nothing that can be said at 2am that can’t be said at 6am, when breakfast programming begins.
But the act itself demonstrated to people that the prime minister took the matter seriously, and stood in stark contrast to the mayor.
So too was the decision to stand up the Defence Force and fly into Auckland with the Air Force, although this was a largely logistical decision relating to the chaos at Auckland airport.
Ardern herself flew with the Defence Force to Christchurch after March 15.
It’s a deeply symbolic gesture that shows the prime minister is willing to pull the levers of state to resolve a crisis. With the mayor absorbed in rescuing his own reputation, such a gesture will probably be welcome.