WASN’T IT ALL TOO SMOOTH? The official explanation for the textbook transition from Jacinda Ardern to Chris Hipkins – “nothing left in the tank” – is beginning to strike more and more political journalists as inherently implausible.
What sort of political party manages the acutely volatile business of swapping one leader for another so seamlessly? Was the sole nomination of Chris Hipkins’ strictly kosher? Why did no challenger step forward? Ambition, in Shakespeare’s words, should be made of sterner stuff. Contrariwise, if this leadership change was a stage-managed affair, then Labour’s stage-managers are second to none!
Before conspiracy theories take root and spread like briars across the political landscape, it is worth recalling that Labour has pulled-off such a transition before.
Hadn’t the woman who, on 19 January 2023, announced her intention of stepping-down from Labour’s leadership stepped-up and into that role with an equal absence of fuss and bother back in 2017? Relying, once again, on Shakespeare: is it not true that nothing so became Jacinda’s leadership like her elevation to it? And should we really be all that surprised to discover that the Labour MP who did the most to ensure Jacinda’s effortless ascent was none other than Chris Hipkins?
How interesting it would be to read the reports of Labour’s focus-group convenors and to study the confidential data of its pollsters. Because, if the transition from Jacinda to “Chippy” really was a premediated and carefully-planned affair, then the chances are high that the story the experts were telling the three people at the top of the Labour Party – Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins – was a grim one.
In the two-and-a-bit years since the Prime Minister’s electoral triumph of 2020, virtually every decision she made had gone politically awry. In the minds of many thousands of voters a chilling metamorphosis had taken place. The Faerie Queen had become the Wicked Witch. From a resplendent balloon, carrying Labour effortlessly to victory, Jacinda showed every sign of becoming Labour’s Hindenburg – a disaster waiting to happen.
It is a measure of just how tight Labour’s leadership troika had become during their 15 years in Labour’s caucus that they could contemplate the grim psephological data set before them and conclude dispassionately that the “Jacinda” brand – once Labour’s most important asset – was now its most significant liability.
It was time for her to go.
That Jacinda did not demur is explicable largely in terms of the extraordinary burdens she had been required to carry between 2017 and 2022. Very few Prime Ministers are called upon to lead their nation through events like the Christchurch Mosque Massacres, the fatal eruption of White island and the most deadly pandemic to strike New Zealand in 100 years. In the post-war period, only National’s John Key has weathered storms of equivalent severity. Interestingly, he also decided to make an early departure.
With equal stoicism, the Finance Minister Grant Robertson declined to meet the expectations of the pundits by stepping into Jacinda’s shoes. He would stay exactly where he was – a key figure on the Bridge of the Ship of State, his safe pair of hands welded to the economic tiller. Like his two closest political allies, Robertson’s mission was a simple one: to steer Labour to a third parliamentary term.
Which left only Chippy to slip his feet into the stirrups of power. With weeks to think through and war-game every aspect of the transition, as little as possible was left to chance. In the finest tradition of Hengist and Horsa, not to mention Game of Thrones, Hipkins made sure that all the crucial players were gathered together in one place (Napier, for Labour’s annual “retreat”) before allowing Jacinda’s axe to fall.
Shocked and disoriented, Labour’s stunned caucus offered scant resistance as the Troika’s most trusted allies went to work, furiously spinning the narrative that the smoothest possible transition was an absolute electoral necessity. Anyone attempting to make a fight of the succession would be seen as a traitor to the party. Constrained by a lack of time, outmanoeuvred by Team Hipkins at every turn, potential rivals sensibly opted to fight another day.
Chris Hipkins wasn’t elected – he was crowned.
Once sworn-in as Prime Minister, everything would turn on the public opinion polls proving Hipkins’ colleagues had made the right choice.
On Monday night (30 January 2023) they duly obliged.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 February 2023.