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Graham Adams: Chris Hipkins is fêted for… retreating?

British writer Samuel Johnson quipped: “When a man knows he is to be hanged… it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”


Eighteenth-century gallows humour is obviously just as apt in the twenty-first as we watch Chris Hipkins make a show of jettisoning many of Labour’s policies he apparently backed just a month ago.


The prospect of his party being hanged at October’s election has obviously concentrated our new Prime Minister’s mind to such a marked extent he has lost the sense of embarrassment most political leaders would feel about extravagantly ducking and diving to get away from what have clearly been highly effective Opposition attacks.


The hate-speech law that has already had its first reading has been side-lined by passing it on to the Law Commission for further (and, no doubt, painfully slow) review.


The RNZ / TVNZ merger — due to be legally established next month — has been dropped while Grant Robertson’s beloved income-insurance scheme has been put on ice. The Sustainable Biofuel Obligation Bill will not proceed.


And there are more policy defenestrations to come.


For its election slogan, the Labour Party might consider adapting Groucho Marx’s famous line to read: “If you don’t like our principles, don’t worry, we’ve got others (and any or all of them may be abandoned at short notice!)”


What must really be confounding to the Opposition is that Hipkins is being hailed as stunning and brave on account of his dramatic retreat while questions are being asked about his opponents’ performance — with Luxon in particular under fire.


Some in the media have seized on a handful of polls taken while Hipkins still enjoys the novelty factor of being the nation’s new Prime Minister and have decided that Luxon is a lacklustre leader and that National has lost direction.


This despite the fact Luxon — aided by David Seymour — has just seen off Jacinda Ardern, a celebrity politician who even a year ago was a very popular Prime Minister, and has forced her successor to retreat swiftly on several fronts.


Journalists seem to have fallen for Hipkins’ implausible impersonation of a new broom — which can only be said to be true inasmuch as he has lifted a corner of the Labour government’s tattered carpet and is busily sweeping as much contentious policy under it as possible so it is firmly out of sight before the election.


Generally, however, using “under new management” as a marketing slogan only works when the management team is actually new… not just old faces reshuffled around the table.


As National leader Christopher Luxon put it: “Chris Hipkins has been part of this Labour Government and been part of that engine room with Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson driving all of this agenda.


“It’s rather disingenuous — and some clever Jedi mind trick really — if you say, ‘I have got nothing to do with that and now I believe this… I actually think it could be all about the economy.’


“Well, where have you been for the last 15 months?”


Why would anyone imagine Hipkins is deeply dedicated to reforming Labour policy — especially co-governance — rather than superficially reacting to polls that had been plummeting?


And why would anyone imagine that the very same policies Hipkins is now jettisoning won’t be resuscitated if Labour finds itself in a position to form a government in October?


His true test in the Great Leap Backward will be how he handles the concept of co-governance — especially in Three Waters — and how much he is willing to backtrack on it.


The initial signs are not promising. He has — without a trace of embarrassment or awareness of public sentiment — suggested that rebranding co-governance as “mahi tahi” (“work as one”) might be helpful. In fact, he has been reported as saying he “loves the phrase mahi tahi”.


Does Hipkins really have such a low opinion of those opposing co-governance that he thinks that will do the trick? Does he have no idea how much resentment exists already to renaming government departments and government policy with Māori names?


Many are annoyed that, even after Māori have been given a dedicated health authority to serve them, the organisation representing the other 84 per cent of the population is routinely referred to in the media as Te Whatu Ora, despite the fact it has an English name — Health New Zealand.


In the run-up to Waitangi Day, Hipkins acknowledged the government could have better explained co-governance to the public, but then pointed the finger at Opposition parties as being responsible for creating “fear”.


Hipkins: “Those who seek to use misunderstanding around co-governance for political advantage need to reflect on their own behaviour.


“I certainly think the Opposition — National and Act — have used, as they have done in the past, uncertainty to try and stoke fear.”


For a Prime Minister to pass off widespread opposition to a reshaping of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements as fear-mongering should be beneath him.


It appears not to have crossed Hipkins’ mind that many New Zealanders object to co-governance because of fundamental concerns around the erosion of democracy.


Their “fear” is that principles of “one person, one vote, of equal value” — and policy being based on need not race — are being overturned in favour of a society where ancestry can confer rights denied to everyone else.


This is true of Three Waters, where iwi get to select half the members of the Regional Representative Groups, which set strategy, and in the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Act, in which the iwi can appoint two councillors with full voting rights.


Perhaps New Zealanders’ fierce attachment to democratic principles is something that Hipkins — like his immediate predecessor, Jacinda Ardern — simply doesn’t understand.


What is particularly hilarious is that Hipkins is pretending that once the public understand more about co-governance they will fall in love with it.


In fact, the real danger for Hipkins is that the mainstream media will actually do its job and voters will get to see clearly what the government has planned for them via the notion of “partnership” — and its offspring “co-governance” — which under this government has been intricately laced through official policy from health and education to Three Waters and the rejigged RMA legislation.


As Audrey Young wrote in the NZ Herald last week with reference to a new book about the Treaty by historian Claudia Orange: “She notes there has been a marked shift of focus within government agencies. Since 2019, the Cabinet Office has required the public service to consider the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi in all policy development and implementation.”


Orange also remarked there is little knowledge of what is happening with regard to co-governance and co-management agreements: “I think the general public is not aware that we are going through huge revolutionary changes in the country and, in fact, we have taken that such a long way, there is no going back.”


Hipkins will be hoping fervently the public doesn’t suddenly grasp the scale of the revolutionary changes that have taken place under the government he has served in for five years — and that have been imposed without any specific public mandate.


If they do, their fury will see Labour crushed in October — no matter how much Hipkins likes to posture as the fresh-faced new boy suddenly dedicated to “bread-and-butter” issues.


Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This column was first published at The Platform

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