IT REMAINS to be seen whether Chris Hipkins can overcome the political contradictions which drove his predecessor from the prime-ministership. Jacinda Ardern resigned her office in recognition of her personal incapacity to confront and overcome the problems that were driving her government inexorably towards defeat. When she told New Zealand that she had “nothing left in the tank”, Ardern was courageously acknowledging that after five-and-a-half years of unrelenting crisis management, she simply could not summon the energy for the political fight required to save her government, her party, and, ultimately, her country.
In many respects Ardern was the author of her own misfortune. In dealing with core challenges confronting the New Zealand state – practically all of which are traceable to the consequences of colonisation – the former prime-minister had demonstrated both excessive cultural generosity and insufficient political realism.
Predictably, the resulting “revolution of rising expectations” so clearly evident among Māori, especially young Māori, has generated an equal and opposite political reaction among the Pakeha population – especially older Pakeha – which is driving the electorate sharply to the right. The prospect of arguing her caucus, her party, and a good chunk of her electoral base into abandoning Labour’s commitment to the radical decolonisation project of its Māori caucus was simply too big an ask for Ardern – so she quit.
A prime minister possessed of less “kindness” and goodwill would have coldly informed Labour’s Māori leadership from the get-go that their programme of constitutional transformation was much too broad and far too radical to impose upon an electorate insufficiently prepared for such a revolutionary “break in the wave” of New Zealand’s political evolution. Ardern should have put it bluntly to Willie Jackson and Nanaia Mahuta, that prior to any enduring legislative changes being attempted by her own, or any, government, the unavoidable philosophical, cultural, and practical political arguments would have to be won – decisively.
All-too-clearly, such an ultimatum was never put to Labour’s Māori caucus. Like so many well-educated and well-meaning Pakeha, Labour’s non-Māori MPs – led by Ardern – were unwilling to challenge the programme being promoted by their Māori colleagues. Fearful of the charge of racism, and mindful of the bitter recriminations that followed Helen Clark’s 2004 Foreshore & Seabed legislation, the Prime Minister and her caucus waved through policies that could only be described as revolutionary.
Except, of course, they were not described – not to the broader electorate. Mahuta commissioned the report that became known as He Puapua in so quiet a fashion that Labour’s NZ First coalition partner was unaware of its existence. The electorate was similarly kept in the dark concerning the document setting 6th February 2040 – the 200th anniversary of the signing of te Tiriti o Waitangi – as the date by which the transformation of New Zealand culturally, politically and economically was to be accomplished.
When, inevitably, the document was leaked, and the public acquired some inkling of what was being considered, Prime Minister Ardern was forced to deny unequivocally that the document in any way represented official government policy. By this stage, however, the electorate was growing sceptical.
That scepticism was not diminished when the full extent of Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” legislation became known. Putting to one side the bitter controversies arising out of the Labour Government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic, no other government initiative has aroused so much public opposition and suspicion as “Three Waters”. Indeed, it has become a talisman for that part of the electorate which purports to feel the political ground shifting under its feet – even as its government lies, prevaricates, and at times appears to be led by the nose by those with the most to gain from the “Three Waters” legislation’s passage.
And still the case for co-governance, decolonisation and indigenisation is not made. The construction of an argument from first principles may indeed have been accomplished by the project’s Māori initiators, but, if it has, then it has been presented in the absence of Pakeha, a critical news media, and always behind firmly closed doors.
Moreover, it is not a case which the Māori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, is prepared to put in front of his Cabinet colleagues. He knows that, even among Pakeha as sympathetic as Labour’s, the arguments and recommendations contained therein simply would not fly. In recognition of their sheer unacceptability, Jackson has announced his determination to keep the revolutionaries’ interpretation of te Tiriti o Waitangi and its constitutional implications under wraps – at least until the general election is out of the way.
But it is precisely this sort of political cynicism that is fast eroding Labour’s support in the opinion polls. “Three Waters” may be the leading cause of voter disillusion, but it is merely emblematic of the voters’ growing unease that this government is hell-bent on doing things to them, rather than for them.
In considering Labour’s deteriorating electoral position, and its causes, over her summer break, all the while contending with the unrelenting torrents of misogynist and conspiracist hate pouring down upon her head from social media, Ardern correctly concluded that the task of righting Labour’s ship was beyond her powers. Without Winston Peters’ ability to stare down her Māori caucus, Ardern had conceded far too much ground to Jackson and Mahuta, more than she could hope to reclaim personally.
Boxed into a corner ideologically, electorally, and personally, Ardern rightly concluded that her best (and only sensible) move was to exit the game entirely. Only someone coming into the top job fresh, and unburdened by the concessions of five-and-a-half prime-ministerial years, could entertain the slightest hope of prevailing upon his colleagues to change course.
There is little doubt that Ardern’s successor, Chris (“Chippy”) Hipkins, has the necessary spinal steel to demand, and be given, a new set of political co-ordinates. On the vexed questions of co-governance, decolonisation and indigenisation, the new prime minister need not even repudiate the Māori caucus’s revolutionary ambitions, merely state the obvious truth that they have so-far failed to convince their fellow citizens that such radical constitutional changes are either necessary or desirable. In the same breath, he can then reassure the Pakeha electorate that Labour will never connive in the arbitrary imposition of a new, ethnically-bifurcated, constitution from above. To be accepted, constitutional changes must first be ratified, democratically, by all the people.
Were Hipkins to make this position clear to the Māori leaders gathered at Ratana – that they must win the debate for change before attempting to legislate their programme into being – a significant fraction of the Pakeha electorate, quite possibly a winning fraction, would be both relieved and reassured. As a consequence, both the National and Act parties would be forced to discard some pretty important face cards from what had been their very strong electoral hands.
In the days and weeks ahead, as the Hipkins ministry takes shape, the only question that matters is whether New Zealand’s new prime minister possesses both the wisdom and the courage to correct his party’s currently suicidal political course. If “Chippy” is able to steer Labour into less contentious and more bounteous electoral waters, then Jacinda Ardern’s sacrifice will not have been in vain.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 23 January 2023.