Election 2023: Labour makes big pitch to party faithful with apprenticeship announcement as National does housing U-turn

Labour's promising to permanently pay businesses $500 a month for apprentices if reelected. 

It was leader Chris Hipkins' big pitch to his party faithful in Wellington on Sunday as he switched gear into election mode.

But a policy backdown from National may have backed Labour into a tricky corner.

Hipkins was Mr Chippy turned Mr Whippy at Te Papa on Sunday, handing out free icecreams for the chippy cheerleaders.

It was after his lights, drums, action moment inside. He entered the conference as a new leader with a new theme tune - Elemeno P's 'Baby Come On'. But he wasn't so familiar with it when asked.

Newshub asked if he was an Elemono P fan.

"What? Why do you ask that?... Maybe?" Hipkins replied.

Beginning election season with the Labour Party faithful and a classic Labour policy - Apprenticeship Boost. 

"Today, I can announce that, if re-elected, Labour will make the Apprenticeship Boost programme permanent," Hipkins said.

The scheme was introduced during the 2020 COVID crisis. It pays employers $500 a month for the first two years of an apprenticeship to support training employees

"That's more plumbers, builders, mechanics, engineers, hairdressers, drainlayers, gasfitters, welders, panel beaters, and sparkies."

But Sunday was not so much about fresh sparkly policy than about the rebrand - to the Hipkins Labour Party. 

Hipkins is willing to go where Ardern wouldn't: on the attack. 

"For all New Zealanders, not just for the wealthy few who are sinking millions of dollars into National and ACT," he said during his speech. 

"They pulled the rug out from under New Zealand's future," he also said.

"Only the weakest of leaders use race relations as a wedge to stoke fear and division," he added.

It was topped off with his attack line du jour: "The coalition of cuts."

National on Sunday cut the tie that bound the two parties on housing, U-turning on housing density rules the two major parties worked on together

"We've always said we'd listen to sensible changes and it's been clear from both councils and communities up and down the country that there are some changes that we can make," said leader Christopher Luxon.

Housing Minister Megan Woods said: "I think its a U-turn, I think its a flip-flop, I think it's all of those things. This is actually walking away from legislation they had a hand in writing."

The law - passed last year - allows for property owners to build three-storey townhouses three deep without requiring a consent. It was the anti-NIMBY moment.

It was drafted by National's then-housing spokeswoman, now deputy leader Nicola Willis, but scuppered by her boss.

"The medium density rules were a big improvement on the status quo and this policy is a big improvement on that," said Luxon.

Labour might yet back away too.

"The Government's position remains that it would be better to have a bipartisan approach to these things because actually giving certainty around the regulatory environment for building new houses is going to result in more houses being built faster," said Hipkins.

Serving up a taste of what's on offer come October.

Jenna Lynch Analysis

So what was the vibe like at this year's conference with Hipkins compared to previous ones with Jacinda Ardern?

One of the biggest cheers of the day was actually for Jacinda Ardern. While she wasn't in the room, Hipkins gave her a gushing thank you and the crowd was rapturous with applause. His own reception was not quite at that level.

We saw the two sides of this election story on Sunday. 

Labour with its middling apprentice policy - not rocking the boat - lets this month's Budget breathe. Labour is painting itself as the party of stable, familiar government.

National is pushing the change vote, even changing its own policy, to differ itself from the current lot.