Saturday, May 27, 2023

Graham Adams: O lucky man! Hipkins and an indulgent media

The Prime Minister must be keeping his fingers crossed that the mainstream media continues to largely ignore the fact he was an influential minister in Jacinda Ardern’s government. He’s got away with it for the four months since he took Labour’s leadership — and there is less than five months to go before the election. His luck may well hold.

By anyone’s reckoning, it is an extraordinary indulgence to overlook the five years Hipkins spent as part of Ardern’s kitchen Cabinet, especially given his mediocre record in portfolios that included education, health and police.

From the moment he stepped up to be Prime Minister in late January, most journalists have been happy to cast him as a new broom. This can only be true in the very limited sense that he has lifted a corner of the carpet and swept policies such as hate-speech laws and the social insurance scheme under it, from where they can be retrieved after the election.

How often do journalists remind the public that the disastrous push to centralise the nation’s 16 polytechnics under the Te Pūkenga umbrella was Hipkins’ baby as Minister of Education? Or the compulsory history syllabus foisted on school children this year that views New Zealand’s past almost entirely through a lens of colonial oppression? Or the transgender ideology of sex being a “construct” having been inserted into the Religious and Sexuality Education guidelines for primary school children — in the science section?

On Tuesday Hipkins deplored the alarming number of ram-raids, but few, if any, journalists have pointed out that he was the Minister of Police from last June to 25 January this year.

With such determined amnesia by the media, Hipkins can continue to pretend to be a special envoy parachuted into the Beehive’s ninth floor to clean up the nation’s problems as if he had nothing to do with the policies that helped produce them.

That dislocation is certainly one explanation for how Labour is level-pegging with National in the polls — a fact which is discombobulating many people as they observe rampant crime, the strained health system and plummeting results in education. These are disasters that would normally sink a government.

In the race towards the election, Luxon and Hipkins are effectively being judged on who can best clean up the mess New Zealand is in without attributing a big part of that mess to Hipkins himself. It’s as bizarre as telling a well-known arsonist that if he helps to put out a fire he started he could be made Chief Fire Officer as a reward.

No similar indulgence is offered to Chris Luxon. His missteps — or perceived missteps — are instantly seized upon as serious leadership flaws. They are then used to bolster a rumour of journalists’ own making that National MPs want to roll him in favour of his deputy. The fact there has been no evidence of a putsch being planned by National’s caucus seems not to matter.

In contrast, Hipkins’ tardiness in dispatching Stuart Nash as a minister after breaches of the Cabinet manual has not been portrayed as evidence of a weak leader. Nor has his unwillingness to discipline his Justice Minister, Kiri Allan, after she breached broadcasting law by giving advice to RNZ on its policy towards Māori staff at a farewell marking the resignation of her fiancée, Mani Dunlop.

His sophistry in arguing in April that co-governance plays no part in Three Waters because the Regional Representative Groups will only appoint the water services entities boards has not been depicted as evidence that he is willing to bend the truth to breaking point to win political points.

These events could easily be used as evidence to show Hipkins to be indecisive and shifty but journalists prefer to indulge him with a confected image of a working-class boy from the Hutt with the chummy nickname of “Chippy”.

Such apparent favouritism towards Hipkins is a very dangerous strategy for journalists to employ with an election in less than five months. Trust in the mainstream media has been falling steadily for several years and prominent among the explanations people offer to pollsters is the belief the media has been bought by government cash — principally via the $55 million doled out through the Public Interest Journalism Fund over the past three years.

Perceptions of a one-eyed stance in election year will only harden that view — summed up succinctly in a tweet by the pseudonymous political analyst Thomas Cranmer: “Media are going hard on Luxon’s leadership. It’s almost as if their jobs depended on it …”

One recent example has been the reaction to Luxon dropping to 16.4 per cent in the Newshub-Reid Research poll for preferred Prime Minister. “It’s lower than what former leader Judith Collins scored on our last preferred Prime Minister rankings ahead the 2020 election,” Newshub advised.

But they could equally have pointed to the fact that, at 23.4 per cent as preferred Prime Minister, Hipkins’ tally is a full 6.5 percentage points lower than Ardern achieved last November in the previous Newshub-Reid Research poll — just two months before she resigned as her chances of fronting a successful election campaign looked increasingly tenuous. For a sitting Prime Minister who has enjoyed the benefits of an extended media honeymoon over nearly four months, Hipkins’ approval rating in the low 20s is dismal.

Luxon didn’t appear too fazed, however, by journalists questioning him about his poll performance. It is hard not to surmise that his contact with voters gives him a very direct sense of the deep dissatisfaction with the government that polls may not be accurately reflecting.

He told news media that he was “up and down this country each and every week, meeting with people... I’m listening to their concerns”...

“I can tell you right now, they’re focused on the cost of living crisis, restoring law and order, how to get better health and education. Those are the conversations they want us focused on.”

What will hearten National’s strategists is that the switch from Ardern to Hipkins hasn’t dented the numbers of those who think the country is on the wrong track. Since mid-June last year, polling has shown the government has been consistently on the wrong side of that ledger.

To capitalise on that dissatisfaction, on Sunday Luxon launched a whistlestop tour of more than 50 towns and cities over the next few months under the slogan: “Get NZ Back on Track”. The first meetings were held on Auckland’s North Shore at Birkenhead and Northcote on Wednesday.

“Get New Zealand back on track” is a phrase that has popped up repeatedly in several senior National politicians’ speeches in the past three weeks and has now emerged as part of the party’s campaign branding. It is a clever way of capitalising on the common observation that New Zealand is no longer the country that many citizens knew and loved even a few short years ago.

Last month, TVNZ’s former Europe correspondent Daniel Faitaua summed up that feeling after having not been home since 2019: “Three and a half years ago, you could walk down the street and Kiwis would be so friendly. Now, I feel like people are just so closed off, which is not the Kiwi way that I remember.

“I feel like I’ve come back to this new world, this new era, where there’s been, I sense, a lot of tension and a lot of division. Everyone you talk to seems to be upset about something. This is not a New Zealand I recognise.”

Even six months after his return, Faitaua hadn’t adjusted: “I’m still trying to find my way to belong here, in a country I really felt I belonged to. It’s just weird.”

As a slogan, “Get New Zealand Back on Track” neatly avoids any unfortunate resemblance to the MAGA-ish “Make NZ Great Again”. It also avoids any grand talk of transformation, which was Ardern’s lofty, and eventually despised, promise.

A nationwide series of public meetings is undoubtedly the best way for Luxon to counter charges that he is out of touch with ordinary people. It also gives him the chance to appeal to voters directly rather than via the media. And it’s hardly surprising that he might want to do that. On Tuesday, Pattrick Smellie, the managing editor of BusinessDesk, showed the disdain that many influential commentators exhibit towards Luxon. Praising the politics of the $140 million gift Hipkins had just given to a giant Australian multinational for an electric furnace at its Glenbrook steel mill, Smellie wrote scathingly: “Meanwhile, what was Christopher Luxon up to while Labour ministers were hobnobbing with their new business mates? He was nailing up election hoardings in Northcote and announcing a national tour of regional centres where the national media will most likely ignore him.”

What is ironic is that the media often paints Luxon as not determined or fierce enough. It’s true that Luxon does himself no favours by flip-flopping on some issues before arriving at a settled position, but equally he hasn’t been left gasping like a fish out of water when asked “What is a woman?” as Hipkins famously was last month, and he has a firmer grip on his caucus than the Prime Minister has. No National MP has defected to Act, yet one of Hipkins’ ministers, Meka Whaitiri, didn’t even bother to warn her boss before she publicly humiliated him by slipping away to join Te Pāti Māori this month.

Luxon has been firm on repealing Three Waters, promoting one standard of citizenship, advocating for crime having serious consequences and a return to basic competencies in education. Journalists have sneered at these policy planks as “dog whistling” and signalling a return to a 1950s mindset, but they cannot be called timid.

Whether Luxon will get the opportunity to reset the nation’s path after October’s election depends to some extent on whether the mainstream media will deal with him fairly. So far, it’s not looking promising.

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anonymous said...

An incisive comparison of these two leaders.

But, the leader to be elected is the person who commits to blanket repeal of any and all laws involving co-governance until a referendum is held for the people to decide. Not just 3 Waters - or the two new RMA laws which will probably pass.

Anonymous said...

Hipkins as Education Minister closed all the charter schools - most were specifically beneficial to Maori children.
More idealistic virtual signalling.
Who gave that green school about $12M for some wacky concept of a proper useful education ?
Both things that have fallen out of the news cycle, and public memory.
Time for a reminder
Hipkins track record is appalling wherever he goes - bumbles his way through his portfolios, puts on his smiley face and says " haven't I done well ? "

Anonymous said...

They will be working on how to cut out the voters who are not on their side or will start an intimidation process

Anonymous said...

National's catch cry, "Get New Zealand back on tract" is.dangwrously ambiguous to say the least. 'On track', to do what?
Luxon's first interview with the media on being promoted to National's leader was, "i am the man to take National through 'THE NEW RESET". Isn't that what ARDERN of Labour was attempting to do? Same ideology, same agenda, even had coaching from the same organisation, the WEF.
Seems to me they are peas from the same pod.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind my name being used.