Analysis: Hipkins needs Nash for swing voters at election

6:05 pm on 18 March 2023
Stuart Nash

Minister Stuart Nash. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

By Tim Watkin*

When word went out that Prime Minister Chris Hipkins would be making an announcement about Stuart Nash on the tiles at parliament at 2:45pm yesterday, the assumption was that it was over. That we had reached tipping point for Nash's time as minister. But by 3pm - when, coincidentally, the game show Tipping Point began on TVNZ - Nash was still a minister.

His ministerial career hadn't spilled into the tray below as expected, even though Hipkins had revealed a third infringement by Nash. Like those stubborn little coins in the arcade game, Nash seems to have defied (political) gravity.

The third transgression was going direct to an official last September to lobby on behalf of a medical professional in his Napier electorate, rather than going through the immigration minister.

It came on top of a call to the police commissioner urging him to consider appealing a court ruling of home detention for a man on firearms charges and criticising a judge on radio, followed by the revelation that the Solicitor-General had considered prosecuting him over other comments on radio, to the effect that the man accused (but at that stage not convicted) of killing police officer Matthew Hunt should be locked up for many years.

It was a third strike.

The prime minister's logic of keeping him on after his first offence had been tortured enough. Nash's call to the police commissioner had been made when he was not minister of police, a role he held before and after the call. So the phone call was in breach of the Cabinet manual and worthy of disciplinary action, not because the independent public official he tried to influence had to answer directly to him as police minister, but because as minister it's wrong to pressure any public servant.

PM Chris Hipkins announces Stuart Nash's demotion

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced Stuart Nash's demotion. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Ipso facto, he needed to lose his ministerial warrant altogether, not just the single portfolio. Because which portfolio he had at the time was irrelevant.

So news of a second and then third similar offence backed up the opposition parties' claim that this showed a "pattern of behaviour" that made his position untenable. He had to go, right? Yet today Nash remains, his only punishment for the second and third failings an essentially meaningless demotion within cabinet.

Thursday's "final warning" turned out to be not final at all.

The question is why.

Every decision Chris Hipkins has made as prime minister has suggested that, in the run up to the election, he's a man with no appetite for risk.

In every choice thus far as PM - at least, in every policy choice - he's chosen the path of least resistance. The path of compromise and concession.

TVNZ/RNZ merger, hate speech reform, the biofuels mandate and social insurance? Gone.

Grants for environmentally friendly cars, alcohol law reform and speed limit reductions also gone, while Auckland's light rail is kicked down the road.

So why has Hipkins chosen to resist on a matter of personnel, rather than policy?

Well, there's another way to look at these choices. Not just as a path of least resistance but as a path of most popularity.

Getting rid of broadcasting policies or the 'social engineering' of alcohol law and speed limit changes are popular with swing voters.

Focusing on "bread and butter issues" are popular with swing voters. Know what else is popular with swing voters? Stuart Nash.

Hipkins revealed his calculation when he said Nash has a "colloquial" style that "often reflects the sentiments of a significant proportion of the community".

Hipkins needs a proportion of that propotion to vote Labour in October.

Both of Nash's Cabinet manual-breaching public comments came on Newstalk ZB, where he's the most frequently appearing government minister.

Jacinda Ardern famously refused to be interviewed by the anti-Labour breakfast show host, Mike Hosking.

Nash got the job of fronting and his 'tough on crime' comments were a reflection of him doing his job of trying to connect with swing voters.

I switched on ZB when Hipkins' announcement was made and straight away a couple of texts arrived defending him as a straight talker and saying how unfair it is for someone to be punished for that.

Of course that misses the point.

No-one is saying he can't say it straight, it's a question of how and where he says it. And who he says it to.

What's saved Nash though, isn't just his popularity on ZB. He's an ally of Hipkins' on the centre/right of Labour.

They are more class warriors than agents for social change, more bloke than woke, more "bread and butter" than "chardonnay socialist".

He's also a rare regional success for Labour, having won Napier in 2014 when he and Damien O'Connor, in West Coast, were the only Labour MPs to win seats outside the main centres.

What's more, the reasons Nash broke the Cabinet manual were to sound tough on crime and protect a local health professional; not to take a stand on identity politics.

These are issues Hipkins wants to be seen as championing, not punishing. He couldn't afford the takeaway to be 'Nash spoke out against criminals and on behalf of doctors and nurses and got punished for it'.

Yet these political compromises leave a taste of hypocrisy in the mouth.

Let's not forget that Hipkins just a couple of weeks ago refused to express confidence in Health New Zealand chair Rob Campbell when Campbell crossed the line in that sensitive relationship between public servants and ministers.

Yet when his own minister and political ally crosses the line from the other direction? Hey, nothing to see here. Campbell had to go, but Nash can stick around.

Different person, different tipping point.

In defending Nash not once, but three times, Hipkins has rejected a quick fix for the first time in his short tenure as PM.

In doing so he's given us an insight into how his political judgment works.

While it's a riskier play than ditching unpopular policies, saving Nash shows Hipkins' singular focus this year is ensuring he's the leader of the party with the most votes come 14 October.

And if the Cabinet manual gets a bit battered on the way there, so be it.

* 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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