Week in Politics: Luxon's 'low energy' speech and the first head-to-head

3:31 pm on 24 February 2023
Labour leader Chris Hipkins (left) and National leader Christopher Luxon (right) on their respective election campaigns in Tauranga on Thursday.

Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ

Analysis - Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon have gone head-to-head for the first time after National's wobbly start to its Parliamentary year, and there are questions around how the government is going to pay for cyclone damage.

Parliament began its first full session of the year on Tuesday with Chris Hipkins delivering the annual prime minister's statement.

It was his first speech to Parliament as prime minister, and Hipkins devoted most of it to the cyclone's catastrophic impact on the East Coast, again vowing the government would do everything needed to see people through and "build back better".

National's leader Christopher Luxon had decided, probably wisely, not to be overly combative and pledged his party's support for the rebuild.

He did cast doubt on the government's ability to do what it was promising, reverting to the "it just doesn't get things done" theme he used for most of last year.

He linked that with another familiar theme - that nothing much had changed under Hipkins.

"That statement was written for Jacinda Ardern and read by Chris Hipkins," he said.

"We got the same laundry list, the same slogans, the same spin."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Stuff's political editor, Luke Malpass, said Luxon's performance was "low energy", packed with old talking points and "a mish-mash of metaphors" to describe Labour.

"Some of his own MPs appeared to grimace at times," Malpass said. "National still seems a little thrown by the transition. Performance in the House matters as much for caucus morale as anything else."

Media picked up on Hipkins not using the term 'Three Waters' anywhere in his statement, saying instead the government would "get on with the job" of fixing water infrastructure.

"Stuff understands Hipkins' government has decided to stop talking about Three Waters - a politically charged title for the reform of fresh, waste and stormwater systems - and instead talk of the issues facing cash-strapped councils," Thomas Manch reported.

The next day saw the much-awaited first question time and the Hipkins-Luxon head-to-head.

National had weeks to come up with a strong strategy to attack a new prime minister, but Luxon picked up from where he left off last year.

What impact had increased government spending had on the cost of living? And did Hipkins agree that increasing government spending actually contributed to inflation? He wanted to know.

"Depends on the spending," Hipkins replied.

Luxon also pulled out the well-worn "addicted to spending" line: "Isn't it the case… that it's the same old Labour - addicted to spending and just can't get anything done?"

Hipkins replied: "The member keeps going on about wanting to get things done. He doesn't seem to have too many ideas about what it is he actually wants done."

Claire Trevett, the Herald's political editor, said Luxon had taken Hipkins through the usual topics.

"All of that was easily handled or brushed off by Hipkins… it was a peppy enough exchange but also predictable and so neither really emerged triumphant," she said.

Luxon's deputy and shadow finance minister Nicola Willis did have something new. She tackled Robertson on how the government was going to pay the billions of dollars needed to fix the cyclone damage, and she particularly wanted to know whether he was going to raise taxes to do it.

This issue lasted through the week, and Willis was onto it because Labour promised in 2021 it wouldn't introduce any new taxes this term.

Robertson has not explicitly ruled that out, Willis is after him and she is persistent.

Robertson told her: "No decisions have been taken to do anything other than the tax policy that the government has. However, what responsible governments do in this situation is assess options."

Why wouldn't he rule out "smashing Kiwis" with a new tax?

The next day, on Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Caralee McLiesh was at a routine select committee hearing and Willis tried to lay it on her as well.

Was the Treasury giving the government advice on ways to pay for the cyclone damage, she asked. McLiesh, who never gives anything away, said it was working on all sorts of advice.

Had Treasury been told the "no new taxes" no longer applied, Willis asked.

Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, speaking to media after the Prime Minister's first major speech of the year.

Chris Hipkins, Minister of Education, speaking to media after the Prime Minister's first major speech of the year. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

McLiesh had started saying she wasn't going to say anything about advice to the government when Willis interjected: "I take that as a 'yes'."

National's Parliamentary year got off to a wobbly start, with Luxon having to handle a problem he really didn't need as he prepared to present his caucus as a capable, responsible government-in-waiting.

On Tuesday morning West Coast list MP Maureen Pugh, interviewed in Parliament, said she was waiting to see evidence that humans had contributed to climate change.

National went into urgent damage control, and all the details are in RNZ political editor Jane Patterson's article.

By 2pm Pugh had changed her mind, fronting media and reading from a written statement in which she said she accepted "the scientific consensus that human-induced climate change is real".

In between, there had been what Luxon described as "a conversation" between Pugh and himself. He emphasised how deeply committed National was to climate change and said he would give Pugh a reading list "so that she has a fuller understanding of why we believe so strongly in climate change".

All this gained huge publicity and an outbreak of cartoons.

The Herald published two stories, one of them headed "Climate Pugh-turn steals Luxon's thunder on first day back".

In it, Thomas Coughlan recalled that Pugh had once said she had been struck by lightning three times.

"As someone who struggles to keep her head above water at the best of times, you'd think Pugh would take rising sea levels a little more seriously," he said.

"Luxon will be ropable… he will have hoped that returning to Parliament would level the playing field, allowing him the oxygen to prosecute the issues he wants to focus on. Pugh ruined that for him."

National MP Maureen Pugh and party leader Christopher Luxon speak at a stand up in Nelson.

Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Pugh said she hadn't been forced to issue her statement and explained that media interviews weren't her comfort zone, which was something of an understatement.

"You guys in front of me with cameras… I probably wasn't calm enough this morning to articulate properly," she said.

Luxon later told Morning Report Pugh was doing "a really good job" as an MP.

"She expressed herself poorly and I've asked her to do some reading to alter her understanding to make sure she understands the science base," he said.

The previous prime minister had an election campaign catch-cry of "let's do this", and now Hipkins has a variation of his own - "let's get cracking".

That could be a counter to National's neverending complaint that the government "doesn't get things done", and this week there was some evidence that Hipkins means what he says.

Education Minister Jan Tinetti announced $74 million for new school attendance officers. The truancy rate is something National has been getting traction on, and Hipkins has moved to neutralise the opposition.

Tinetti said there would be 82 school attendance officers.

"We are going back to basics on attendance," said Tinetti, who has 20 years experience as a school principal.

"The decline began in 2015 but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. We need to be doing more to help schools and kura support students who are not attending or engaged in education."

National has also been active on another problem, one that has enraged East Coast cyclone victims - forestry debris, called slash, which has caused widespread damage after being carried down in rivers and flood torrents.

Slash was a metre deep on Gisborne beaches, RNZ reported.

It's not a new problem and It's something successive governments have failed to effectively deal with.

Luxon this week called for forestry companies to be held to account.

"It's the only business, the only sector I know which gets to internalise the benefits and to socialise the cost and we need to revisit practices, we need to revisit penalties and prosecutions," he said.

Hipkins got cracking on that as well, announcing on Thursday there would be a ministerial inquiry.

"Things have to change because slash on beaches, in rivers, on farms is unacceptable," he said.

Former National Cabinet minister Hekia Parata, who is Gisborne-based, will head the inquiry which must report with recommendations by the end of April.

Forest Owners Association president Grant Dodson said a two-month inquiry would probably be too brief, the Herald reported.

"We have introduced safe harvesting techniques since the 2018 Tolaga Bay storm, such as harvesting smaller areas at a time and removing more slash from the forest," he said.

"We have protected more native tree riparian strips to keep wood out of rivers."

He acknowledged, however, that slash volumes had to reduce.

"We must do better."

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as Parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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