Cyclone Gabrielle dominates Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' major speech in Parliament, warns 2023 could be 'very difficult year'

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has warned 2023 has the potential to be a "very difficult year for many Kiwi families" in a speech dominated by Cyclone Gabrielle and cost of living crisis concerns.

Hipkins delivered the Prime Minister's Statement on Tuesday, an outline of what the Government believes will be its priorities for the year. He was originally scheduled to make an address last week until Cyclone Gabrielle caused significant devastation and led to Parliament being adjourned.

"The year 2023 has unleashed a series of extreme weather events unparalleled in New Zealand's recent history," Hipkins said at the start of his speech.

He said even before Cyclone Gabrielle caused havoc, Auckland, Coromandel and Northland had experienced widespread flooding that claimed the lives of four people, displaced thousands, and cut off main routes.

"At that point, it was believed to be the costliest weather event New Zealand had ever experienced," Hipkins said. "And then there was more to come. Along came Cyclone Gabrielle."

He reflected on how the cyclone led to New Zealand declaring a state of national emergency for only the third time in the country's history. It was stronger than Cyclone Bola in 1988 and Cyclone Giselle in 1968, he said.

At least 11 people have died and many more forced to leave their homes - some will never return. Hipkins said New Zealand is "grieving with you".

"It has left enormous damage in its wake across large parts of the North Island from Cape Reinga in the Far North down to the Tararuas in the Wairarapa," he said.

"The recent weather events have wreaked havoc on millions of Kiwis' lives. Tairāwhiti and the Hawke's Bay have seen the devastating impact in particular." 

He shared a story about a family in Auckland whose home had a waterline halfway up the wall.

"They were cooking dinner when the rain started. It took 15 minutes for the water to inundate their home and for them to lose everything," he said.

"That's an enormously traumatic experience to have to go from cooking your dinner to losing everything that you own in the space of 15 minutes."

PM Hipkins speaking in the House.
PM Hipkins speaking in the House. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Government announced on Monday a number of measures to respond, including a taskforce to inform the recovery, a new Cyclone Recovery Minister, and $250 million for a transport fund to rebuild roads.

The overall cost of the cyclone won't be clear for some time, though both the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister have assured Kiwis the Government's books are in good shape to respond

"We don't yet have a complete assessment of what the cost of that is going to be, but we know it will be significant. A multi-billion-dollar price tag is ahead of us," Hipkins said.

"There is no point in sugarcoating it, we know that there are some tough times ahead for the whole country as we work our way through that.

"2023 has the potential to be a very difficult year for many Kiwis and many of our families and businesses and our communities will be under an enormous amount of pressure.

"But we will get through this. Kiwis are resourceful and we are determined and I know that once again we will tap into our collective strength and our spirit in the weeks and months ahead to come back even stronger. We will do whatever it takes to recover."

The Prime Minister said the country must "build back better", warning extreme weather events "are becoming more common and they are of greater intensity". 

"We've got to build back safer and we've got to build back smarter. New Zealand is now without question experiencing the effects of climate change," he said.

Hipkins' next remark could be seen as a dig at National Party MP Maureen Pugh, who on Tuesday initially refused to say she believed in human-induced climate change, before saying she regretted those comments. 

"We are well past the point where we should question the impact of human beings on climate change," he said. 

Much of the rest of Hipkins' nearly 20-minute speech focused on the cost of living crisis, which at the start of his premiership in January Hipkins said was his Government's main focus.

He followed that up by announcing earlier this month a number of policies that would be slashed or deferred, including the TVNZ-RNZ merger and social income insurance scheme. Hipkins said more reprioritisation will follow.

"The usual systems and processes of government will need to adapt to the challenge in front of us. We will need to make some tough calls and we will need to prioritise carefully."

Hipkins axed some policies earlier this month.
Hipkins axed some policies earlier this month. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Already, the Government's announced an extension to the fuel tax cut and half-price public transport fares.

"There is no question that the cyclone has changed a lot from a Budget perspective and we will work our way through that," Hipkins said.

"But this is not the time for austerity. It is the time to continue our investment in health and education and in the social services that New Zealanders rely on and that is where our focus will be."

He said it is possible to deal with the cyclone recovery while also "building a country of opportunity and energy where our kids can thrive". 

"We can do these things, we can rebound strongly from the cyclone, we can navigate the global pandemic of inflation, we can invest in the skills, the innovation required to power up for the future.

"We can build back better, we can build back safer and we can build back smarter and we will do that by working together. So let's get cracking."

Following Hipkins' speech, other political parties responded. 

National leader Christopher Luxon said the party would be "supportive and we will be constructive" on the cyclone recovery but raised concerns about the Government's ability to "get things done". He said there was a "very poor record of delivery". 

The Green Party's James Shaw focused on the effects of climate change and how policies can both cut the cost of living and make New Zealand more resilient. 

ACT leader David Seymour said while much is still unknown about how to respond to the cyclone, there will be serious challenges and a need for good policy. That would include taking a different approach to climate change. 

Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer mihied to those affected by the cyclone and the responders. She also said her party intended to "be accountable as Te Tiriti partners" and making sure the Crown and Opposition stay true to Te Tiriti.