What is Chris Hipkins' record as he becomes a 'frontrunner' for prime minister role

6:08 pm on 20 January 2023
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Education Minister Chris Hipkins visit Weltec School of Construction in Petone, Wellington.

Chris Hipkins is one of the frontrunners to replace Jacinda Ardern as prime minister. Photo: Dom Thomas

Opinion - Chris Hipkins is one the frontrunners as Jacinda Ardern's replacement. Theoretically, this makes sense. He is one of Ardern's trusted inner circle, often tasked with fixing up the mess left by other ministers. Caucus seems to have genuinely appreciated the efforts to take one for the team and this may be enough to get him the necessary two thirds support he needs.

But if Hipkins was to continue his current approach to his role in the leadership team in to the role of prime minister, it would represent a sharp departure of the Ardern 'kind' and 'empathetic' rebranding of politics.

The prime minister Key to English transition was continuation of much the same approach to politics. Largely because English in his role as minister of finance was Key's implementer. Hipkins is Ardern's attack dog.

Hipkins and Ardern share a start in student politics. Hipkins was the VUWSA President in 2000 and 2001. But Hipkins' political judgment demonstrates, that unlike Ardern, he has struggled to leave the student politicking aside.

His start in politics was unremarkable. In opposition, Hipkins as Labour's education spokesperson was seen as a puppet of the unions. He opposed and later dismantled charter schools despite support from many of his Māori caucus colleagues.

He had a disappointing first day in government in 2017 when as Leader of the House, he failed to manage the vote for then Speaker Trevor Mallard and was forced to make an embarrassing compromise with the new opposition on select committee composition.

But these examples can be dismissed as shaky starts.

What is more demonstrable of what a Hipkins' prime ministership may look like is the recent examples of him reacting under pressure. Ardern has been criticised for not being accountable on issues but rarely goes on the personal attack to defend her actions. Hipkins has an unfortunate tendency to play the man rather than the ball.

In October 2021, Northland was sent in to an 11-day lockdown after three allegedly "sex workers" with possible gang connections crossed the Auckland border.

Chris Hipkins looking at Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins accused them of using "false information to travel across the border". But it was later revealed through OIAs that Hipkins knew at the time that a blunder by officials had been the reason and the women were at no fault at all. He has never apologised or corrected the record, nor has he bothered to even correct the reports that these were gang-related sex workers.

In the case of Charlotte Bellis, he was forced to apologise and correct the record. But only because the Kiwi journalist, then pregnant and stuck in Afghanistan took legal action.

Hipkins, in his defence of the government's MIQ system used Bellis' personal information as a political weapon and made incorrect statements about her circumstances, including that she ignore consular assistance.

Late last year, in defence of the Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta and government contracts awarded to her husband, Hipkins dragged Bill English and his family in to the response. He later made an apology to Parliament withdrawing his comments.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and health minister Chris Hipkins.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and health minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Furthermore, a unique part of being prime minister is furthering our foreign relationships. There are few who can criticise the role Ardern has played on the world stage for us. Following in these footsteps for anyone will be extremely difficult but Hipkins in particular has a damaged record there too.

In 2017, in what was perhaps the most concerning case of questionable judgment, Hipkins used Parliament to dig up dirt for the Australian Labor Party. At the time, the Australian federal government was rocked by citizenship sagas. A number of MPs and senators were forced to resign after it was discovered they unconstitutionally held dual citizenships.

Hipkins used parliamentary questions to get information on the status of then Australian deputy prime minister.

It is a key tenant of diplomatic relations that politicians do not interfere in the democratic affairs of another country, especially by 'taking sides' with one of the political parties involved. Ardern described it as "unacceptable behaviour".

Hipkins, may have been successful at putting out the fires in other ministerial portfolios but it has come at a cost to his own. The polytech merger has been delayed as budgets have blown out and leadership turned over. In the compulsory education sector, numeracy and literacy performance is down and schools have struggled to manage through the pandemic. It is not the record of performance you want to take to an election.

The transition from attack dog to leader is difficult. Just ask Judith Collins. But if Hipkins wants to lead the country, he is going to have to shake off his natural instincts and follow more closely the statesman approach of Prime Minister Ardern.

*Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant at Franks Ogilvie. She has been a senior ministerial adviser to the Minister of Education in the National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs