There has been a desperate and palpably false rumour circulating in recent weeks that the resignation of the Prime Minister is imminent. Meanwhile, Jacinda Ardern remains just as firmly ensconced in office as she ever was. However, it does raise the intriguing question of just who might take over as leader of the Labour Party in the most unlikely event the Prime Minister decides to move on any time soon.
The general view has been that Finance Minister Grant Robertson would be best placed to become the next Labour leader. After all, he is the current Deputy Prime Minister, although not the deputy leader of the Labour Party, a role he has held previously, and has gained respect as a competent Finance Minister. He is a close friend of the Prime Minister and is one of the most recognisable faces in the current government.
However, he has tried and failed twice before to become leader of the Labour Party – first in 2013 following the resignation of David Shearer, and again in 2014 when David Cunliffe stood aside after that year’s election debacle. After his second defeat he appeared to rule out future leadership bids, although that has not stopped other political leaders from changing their minds as the political circumstances shift. Although still only 49 years old, Robertson’s bigger problem in any future leadership bid could be that in this era where the value of experience seems heavily discounted, he might be considered too much of the old guard to be Labour’s face of the future.
In any case, he now has
a clear rival for the status of heir apparent. The star of Chris Hipkins has
been rising over the last couple of years. Although he has been in Parliament the
same length of time as Robertson, he is seven years younger, and looks more
youthful. Like Robertson, he is affable and a fluent communicator, but with
more of a twinkle in his eye.
Whereas Robertson is so laid back he can sometimes appear a little languid, Hipkins, while no less relaxed, comes across as more energetic. However, unlike Robertson, he is starting to reveal some of the smugness of Ministers who know that they are on top of their portfolios develop, which may count against him.
Both Robertson and Hipkins have been tested in tough government portfolios and have not flinched. Hipkins, though, seems to have become the Prime Minister’s “go to” Minister in crises. He added Health to his already busy roles as Education Minister, Public Service Minister and Leader of the House, after the David Clark debacle. Now, he has swapped Health for the no less demanding role of Covid19 Response Minister, in addition to all his other responsibilities, and is increasingly becoming the government’s face on Covid19 matters, surpassing even the Prime Minister. He comes across as no less soothing or assured than the Prime Minister, but crisper and more precise in his presentation.
His big current negative, which he can easily curb, is that his enthusiasm for the Labour cause is so blind that there are times when he sounds like New Zealand’s version of Comical Ali. (Comical Ali was the nickname given to Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi Information Minister who became infamous during the Iraq War for his repeated colourful assurances that all remained well in Bagdad, right until the bitter end.)
Hipkins’ assertion that the government’s recent disastrous public sector pay-freeze, which it has now backed down from, was actually “the opposite of that” and really about enabling “the people on the lowest incomes to do disproportionately better than those on the highest incomes” was sufficiently incredible it could have been a straight lift from the Comical Ali playbook. Similarly ludicrous is his claim that the Covid19 vaccine rollout is going so well and quickly that we are actually now in danger of exhausting our vaccine supplies before the next shipment arrives at the end of June. It hardly fits the repeated reports of confusion and delays at vaccination centres or the reality that around 120 other countries have already achieved far higher vaccination levels than New Zealand – which, according to his colleague Megan Woods last year, would be at the head of the vaccination queue because of the way the government had responded.
The biggest obstacle Robertson and Hipkins, and anyone else for that matter, would have to overcome in any post-Ardern leadership contest is Labour’s convoluted leadership selection process. The Caucus, which best knows the strengths and weaknesses of potential candidates as it works alongside them day in and day out, has only a limited say in this process, with the shadowy, unelected trade union bosses who seek to control so much of what the modern Labour does and is about, having an influential role in the selection of the party leader.
Robertson has already come up against this barrier twice before and has lost both times. Hipkins, on the other hand, is not yet so tarnished or scarred. Perhaps that, and an eye to the future, explain his desperation to present to the state sector unions with the best possible explanation of the state sector pay freeze Robertson had announced.