Election 2023 analysis: New Zealanders will see through Chris Hipkins' 'change' charade

ANALYSIS: Chris Hipkins' attempt to present his team as offering 'change' shows the Labour leader will try anything as an election victory for the left appears to be slipping away.  

Speaking to media on Tuesday morning after bombshell Newshub-Reid Research results showed Labour's support was falling through the floor, Hipkins acknowledged the public wanted change.

He then suggested it was Labour – made up of many of the same people who have run the country since 2017 – who could also offer that.  Hipkins repeated that idea later at a media standup. 

While the Prime Minister is no carbon copy of his predecessor, Dame Jacinda Ardern - his awkward, forced campaigning has more than shown that – no one believes Hipkins, a senior member of Ardern's Cabinet, will take the country in a drastically different direction.  

He has been running on the line that Labour represents certainty, continuity and a safe pair of hands in contrast to the potential chaos of National and ACT. 

Burning Government policies at the start of the year was less a repudiation of Ardern's manifesto or a desire to change ideological lanes, than it was a cleaning of the decks to narrow the focus onto Kiwis' main concern – the cost of living.  

It was electoral math. Keep the message on what matters most. Not the sideshows.  

During Hipkins' premiership, Labour has introduced cost of living measures like removing the prescription co-payment and reducing public transport fares for some, while proposing others like cutting GST from fruit and vegetables. 

Although these policies will help struggling Kiwis, they don't represent a major change in tack from the past six years.  

Hipkins may have a 'back to basics' approach. But what he has so far delivered is just tinkering. It is certainly not a radical shift from the Ardern times or what people perceive Labour as currently standing for.  

This lack of genuine change being offered by Hipkins becomes all the starker when comparing his policies with Labour's usual bedfellow, the Greens. 

Labour's promise of free dental for under 30s was expected to be a gamechanger for the party - and it does go further than anything Ardern presented in this space - but when the Greens are offering universal free dental, Labour's promise becomes a bit stale.  And clearly voters agree, the policy didn't help Labour's hopes at all. 

Sure, Labour may be promising to extend free dental to more New Zealanders down the track. But that's currently just a pipe dream and is unlikely to ever be implemented by Hipkins himself.

The Greens’ proposed free dental would be paid for by a wealth tax, while there would be no wealth or capital gains tax under Labour – again, two policies that reflect significant 'change' for New Zealand's tax system – as Hipkins wanted to promise certainty to the electorate. 

He made it very clear – his position on taxing assets would follow the line of Ardern. 

"New Zealanders I talk to want certainty and continuity right now, and that’s what I’m delivering with this policy," he said in July. 

"When I became Prime Minister I said the Government I lead will focus on the basics. Experimenting with a wealth tax doesn’t fit that approach which is why I’m ruling it out. My position on CGT is a continuation of the position the Government has held since 2018." 

He can't now be turning up on breakfast media and introducing himself and his team as a party offering change for the electorate. 

Remember, this is a Prime Minister whose Government received a report from Inland Revenue that was effectively a roadmap to making a fairer tax system, but who then declined to take any significant action.  

Maybe it is Labour that is New Zealand's true 'squeezed middle'? 

The Greens are on one side proposing an ambitious slate of ideas that appeal to the left base and represent actual transformation, while National is on the other side with a fresh set of faces (even if their own policies seem like a modified status quo compared to ACT's). 

It was Hipkins' decision to continue down a path of incrementalism in the centre of the political spectrum.  

That's completely justified.  

That's where the biggest pot of voters is and if you're convinced any big actions (like large tax cuts) are too risky in the current economic conditions, it’s the right course to take to show prudence and responsibility. But don't then present yourself as able to quench the population's thirst for change.  

Hipkins shouldn't dress himself up as something he isn't.  New Zealanders will see through that charade. 

Jamie Ensor is a Newshub political reporter.