At first sight, Chris Hipkins looks like a better potential Prime Minister than Jacinda Ardern. Where she had acquired skills only in communication, and in other respects had been poorly educated, possessing little knowledge of New Zealand’s political history, Hipkins was a top student at Victoria University where he graduated in politics and criminology, chairing the students’ association along the way. His teachers speak of a good temperament and a pleasant personality. He comes across as himself, and not scripted like Ardern by those in the back office. And he has a formidable capacity for shouldering huge ministerial loads, albeit sometimes showing signs of overload.
However, closer examination of Hipkins’ record doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. In my day in Parliament, Labour MPs had read whatever had been written about the party’s history. We endlessly discussed the reasons why our predecessors had taken the actions they had. What had worked, and what didn’t? Why had some long-standing Labour policies not stood the test of time, while others had?
None of that political curiosity seems to have motivated Chris Hipkins, or his colleagues in this ministry. Coming into Parliament in 2008 as a 30-year-old, his maiden speech revealed a huge level of ignorance about the crisis faced by the Fourth Labour Government, and he seemed little moved by the considerable skills shown by Helen Clark’s Fifth Labour ministry which he’d seen at closer quarters. If anything, his maiden speech indicated a romantic hope that Labour could return to its ancient dogma. He wasn’t as dreamy as his weaker colleague, Michael Wood, whose immigration and employment policies sound alarmingly like the 1930s visions of Michael Joseph Savage that finally crashed in a train wreck under Robert Muldoon in 1984. Like it or not, today New Zealand is part of a globalized economy. Trade and employment policies based on centralised social engineering down here in the South Seas behind tight rules and regulations are bound to fail. Unless Hipkins quickly grasps this fundamental reality, economic progress under him will be very slow. It’s because of centralization and over regulation that we have so many skills shortages under this government and can’t find enough people for our health and educational services. Our globalized economy limits New Zealand’s economic options, but provides exciting opportunities for those who are prepared to get an education and to explore them. The new government needs to help, not hinder.
Hipkins’ early speeches in Parliament stressed education and the need to keep improving standards and opportunities. It wasn’t surprising that he emerged as Labour’s spokesman on education; eventually, more than five years back, he became the Minister. But name me any substantial achievement of his during those years? Educational standards achieved by school leavers have dropped this last five years; school attendance figures are the worst they have ever been, and it’s not all just due to Covid. The weakest educational bureaucracy in decades is part of Hipkins’ problem. Making matters much worse has been his and Jacinda’s determination to re-design school curricula, introducing a demonstrably false history syllabus for schools. Ardern, Hipkins and the rest of the Labour ministry went much further when they proceeded with a complete restructuring of the Ministry of Health during a pandemic. For a time, after the goofy David Clark was dropped as Minister of Health in 2020, Hipkins was in charge. He managed to keep the show on the road, but careful monitoring of major decisions was beyond him. He was directly involved with policies that contributed to the current staff shortages in hospitals. He put a smiley face on his public Covid briefings, but careful analytical back-up assistance never seemed available to him. Same with his role as Minister of Police. Neither Hipkins, nor any of his colleagues has shown the slightest inclination to hold parents to account for the disastrous juvenile crime wave that has been allowed to develop in recent years. It’s under Hipkins’ roles as Minister of Education and Minister of Police that tens of thousands of children are wagging schools, many of them preferring to join gangs and engage in the excitement of ram-raiding. His colleagues, meantime, talk about easier penalties for misbehavior amongst teenagers. Quite often, no one seems in charge.
Sad to say, Chris Hipkins has been a key figure in an incompetent government that has pushed up almost every bad social statistic. And I haven’t mentioned this government’s very destructive racial policies that might well do more than any of the failures listed above to finish off his time as Prime Minister on 14 October. A few hardy souls think he could pull Labour up, but after a probable momentary blip in the polls, I suspect that six years of a mostly dead-loss administrative record will sink the Hipkins Ministry. It’s a pity. With more able, less dogmatic colleagues, he might have had better prospects.