Chris Hipkins rips into Christopher Luxon's handling of Winston Peters' media comments, says Govt policies 'dangerously close' to 'endorsing conspiracies'

Labour leader Chris Hipkins has ripped into Prime Minister Christopher Luxon's handling of Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters' attacks on the media, saying he has fallen short of the same set of standards he previously applied to ministers.  

Hipkins also went as far as to say the new Government was bordering on "endorsing conspiracy theories" with in some areas.

The Deputy Prime Minister's incorrect allegation on Monday that the former Government bribed the media through the Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) and sent an indirect edict to state broadcasters to stop using te reo Māori has overshadowed the Coalition Government's first few days in office.  

Luxon on Tuesday claimed to have not seen Peters' remarks but faced a grilling from reporters about them at his first post-Cabinet press conference on Wednesday.  

He said the comments made by Peters were "not the way I would describe it", but he also didn't support the PIJF as "it actually leads to perceptions of bias, rightly or wrong" and he believed many New Zealanders were frustrated with it.   

Asked about criticisms that Hipkins had earlier made, Luxon said he would not taking "any lectures from Chris Hipkins". Luxon said Peters wasn't sending a direction to broadcasters.  

Hipkins on Thursday said Luxon had handled Peters' remarks "very poorly and very weakly".  

The Leader of the Opposition said Luxon had "set very high standards for ministers in the last Government", of which Hipkins was the leader.   

Luxon regularly criticised ministers' conduct and Hipkins' management of them made him look weak.  

"He doesn't seem to have anywhere near those standards for ministers in his own Government," Hipkins said.  

"I think what really he announced yesterday is that he has no control over Winston Peters, Winston Peters has no respect for him, and there is nothing he can really do about Winston Peters' behaviour. I don't think that is good enough from a Prime Minister."  

The fund at the centre of this debate is the PIFJ. It was a $55 million contestable fund for newsrooms made available in 2020 to help news media during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing short-to-medium-term support for roles, projects and industry development. The funding was provided by NZ On Air until June 2023.    

To be eligible, a newsroom must show commitment to Māori, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, public interest journalism, data provision, the New Zealand market, freely available online content, media standards, acknowledgement of the fund, and have the capability to support any proposed work.     

The PIJF was explicitly not to support national political coverage, international news, high-profile crime stories, and other types of news media.     

Chris Hipkins is now the Leader of the Opposition.
Chris Hipkins is now the Leader of the Opposition. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Hipkins also argued the new Government "across a range of areas, appears to be dancing dangerously close to endorsing conspiracy theories".   

"I think some of the guarded comments that Christopher Luxon made yesterday get very close to that."  

During the Thursday Labour press conference, the party's health spokesperson Dr Ayesha Verrall was also asked for her reaction to one of the policies found in the Coalition Government's 100-day plan: Lodging a reservation against adopting amendments to World Health Organization (WHO) health regulations to allow the Government to consider these against a "national interest test".   

Dr Verrall said the proposed regulations were intended to make sure that if another disease with "pandemic potential" comes along, "there is an early warning given out across the word".   

"Imagine if that system worked at the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, and we didn't have a pandemic. It is incredibly important that we have international health regulations that work."  

She said she would be making sure "none of the conspiracy theories that we hear about on the internet with respect to the WHO seep into New Zealand's approach to those regulations".   

"I'm deeply concerned that I see that sort of rubbish about the WHO and international health regulations on the internet and all of a sudden it's in a coalition document."  

Asked on Wednesday whether such a policy was a priority in the first 100 days, Luxon said the decision needed to be made quickly by December 1.  

"We want to take a pause and make sure we understand, and it meets the desire to have a national interest test that we want to satisfy."

The policy was in New Zealand First's manifesto and is now found in the National-New Zealand First coalition agreement.