Chris Hipkins' 'capital O' opportunity to rebrand post-Jacinda Ardern Labour

8:04 pm on 25 January 2023
WHANGANUI, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 24: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Incoming Labour leader and Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, arrive during Rātana Celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand. The 2023 Rātana Celebrations mark the last day as Prime Minister for Jacinda Ardern following her resignation on January 19. Labour MP Chris Hipkins became the sole nominee for her replacement and will be sworn in as the new Prime Minister at a ceremony on January 25.  (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Chris Hipkins with his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, at Rātana, January 2023. Photo: Getty Images / Hagen Hopkins

Analysis - It's a big day for New Zealand; our 41st Prime Minister has taken office and the new 'Chippy' era of politics is underway. Or, on the other hand, the Labour Party continues to govern with an overall majority and much the same leadership team in place. Life goes on and it's no big deal.

Right now, you can look at today both ways; how we look back on this day though will depend on what happens in the next nine months leading up to this year's general election and how new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins chooses to play the hand he's been dealt.

Labour is hoping today is a reset, something to arrest its slide in the polls over the past 18 months and allow it to move on from being the party of Covid-19 and a cost-of-living crisis. It's an unexpected political opportunity with a capital O, and means anything you thought you knew about this year's election now comes with a question mark. The key political question facing Hipkins is what he's going to do with his newfound power.

Already, Hipkins has made it clear that his priority will be the cost-of-living crisis facing New Zealanders. The "global inflation pandemic", as he's labelled it. The inflation that has seen the price of many food staples leap up in recent months. (Note his use of the word "global". Much of his job will be to explain to New Zealanders that the inflation stems from Ukraine, OPEC and other offshore influences, not his government).

Hipkins has said he wants to "run the ruler" over the government's reform programme and refocus on "bread and butter issues", such as - er - the price of bread and butter. That almost certainly means doom for the RNZ-TVNZ merger, any further changes around co-governance or the voting age, and perhaps elements of the Three Waters reforms.

But the truth is that's nothing new. The narrowing of Labour's focus to core economic concerns was part of former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's plan for the year anyway. Hipkins has to calculate whether voters have already priced in these changes (meaning he has to go further) or whether he can sell them as his own. But either way, a more narrow economic focus was always a given.

Jacinda Ardern says goodbye to supporters on her last day as prime minister.

Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was greeted by supporters on her final day in the job on Wednesday. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

So how can Hipkins exploit this 'capital O' opportunity? What arrows does he have in his quiver? Two stand out - one more substantial, the other more stylistic.

First, his newness. National and ACT have both stressed this is the same old Labour as last week or last year. National's leader Christopher Luxon said Hipkins is one of "the holy trinity" that has run the country for five woeful years (Ardern, Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson). He wants voters to see National as the only path to change.

But Hipkins now has the power to rebuff that message, if he has the courage to use his newness. Will he find a signature policy or two to show that his Labour Party is different, re-energised, and not just the party of lockdowns? A party worthy of a third term? To do that, trimming policies won't be enough; he needs to find new ones to create a post-Ardern vision voters can buy into.

Chris Hipkins and Carmel Sepuloni being sworn in

Chris Hipkins is sworn in as prime minister, with deputy Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

With Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni as his new deputy, could Labour finally act on the big, gnarly bits of the Welfare Working Group's recommendations from 2019? Could it reignite the debate over a capital gains tax, now that the party is no longer bound by Ardern's promise never to introduce one? Or could it steal heartland ground from National by offering tax cuts? There are many options, if Hipkins is prepared to risk it.

His second arrow is his gender. We've seen lots of debate since Ardern's resignation over whether she - and women in general - have suffered more abuse than male leaders. The evidence suggests she has, amidst a rising tide of vitriol and judgment that is taking a toll on all those in the public eye. Women cop gendered abuse on top of all the rest and Ardern has had to endure more again, given the times she has led through.

And if that's not enough to convince you, you only have to look at how Labour has gone about rebranding itself in the past few days.

Labour has instantly begun using the gender of its new leader to position itself as less "woke" and more "bloke". Hipkins is already playing up his "stained the deck" and "down the pub" personality and every bit of party messaging - including the auction of his stereotypically male sunglasses and cap and his stereotypically male nickname 'Chippy' - is stressing his blokiness rather than his kindness. I mean, heck, Hipkins can't even name which New Zealand fashion designers he likes.

Chris Hipkins being sworn in as PM

Chris Hipkins smiles at his swearing-in ceremony. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

That's not to say this doesn't reflect Hipkins' genuine personality or that the party is doing anything insidious or sexist. (Although it is clearly spin and somewhat misrepresents Ardern, who is in truth a very stoic and conservative politician a long way from the "red witch" and "woke Hitler" nonsense). But it's obvious Labour sees Hipkins' gender as a way to reposition the party in the public eye - less stardust, more sawdust, you might say. The hope being that a different face and demeanour at the podium may give voters a reason to look again at Labour and compare it with National in a different light.

So as Hipkins takes the reins, he has some big political choices to make both in terms of substance and style. The choices he makes this week will have a huge impact on what happens in October, when we go to the polls.

*Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ.

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