In an era of increasingly divisive and polarising politics, incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins is striving to take the heat out of the political environment, Marc Daalder writes

Analysis: Chris Hipkins plans to be a boring prime minister.

He didn’t exactly say that in his first press conference as Labour Party leader on Sunday, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines.

He has no intention of trying to match Jacinda Ardern’s “stardust”, as Bill English famously dubbed it during the 2017 election campaign.

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For starters, he wants to keep his family life private, unlike some previous leaders who have made their partners and children an important part of their public image. “I’ve worked really hard in the time that I have been in politics to keep my family outside of the public limelight,” Hipkins said.

“I’ve got two children. I want them to grow up with a typical Kiwi kid’s life. I want them to be able to make mistakes. I want them to be able to learn and to grow without five million people looking over their shoulder.”

That means no pictures on social media, or in magazines, or media outlets – a decision that will have a small but meaningful impact on the shape of the election campaign.

That’s understandable enough, particularly given Hipkins revealing he had separated from his wife last year, but the incoming prime minister even appears to be rankled by the idea that his personal life is public.

“I know that putting my name forward, to be a minister, to be an MP, to be the prime minister, I make myself public property – I absolutely accept that,” he said, with a tone that suggested otherwise.

Hipkins isn’t overly worried about cultivating a reputation for perfection, whether in his personal life or his political work. That’s already visible in the way he felt comfortable conceding when he didn’t know the answer to a question.

Twice in his debut as leader, he was quizzed on different issues – first economic statistics (the inflation and unemployment rate) and then on the three articles of the Treaty of Waitangi. Both times he admitted he didn’t have all the answers, a far cry from the approach Ardern and others might have taken.

It speaks to his attitude that politics isn’t about Chris Hipkins the person. He doesn’t have to be able to win a pub quiz to be a good prime minister, he just needs good judgment.

Backing bread and butter

Perhaps the best example of this is the way he cast aside Ardern’s inspirational sloganeering. When asked about his predecessor’s promise that Labour would lead a “transformational government”, he gently dismissed the suggestion he might make a similar commitment.

“I’m not really interested in those kinds of catchphrases. Basically, we will deliver a very solid government that is focused on the bread and butter issues that matter to New Zealanders and that are relevant to the times we are in now,” he said, in basically the most boring possible answer to a question.

That unexciting laser focus on “bread and butter issues” popped up elsewhere in Hipkins’ remarks.

“Our focus will be on the right now and the bread and butter issues that people care about,” he said in the first few minutes of his speech. Those issues are wages and inflation, health and education, housing affordability and crime.

They’re undeniably important, and are also core to people’s worries heading into a recession. The most recent Ipsos Issues Monitor, from October, found the top five issues for New Zealanders were inflation, housing, hospitals, crime and the economy.

At the same time, they aren’t at all flashy. Other than crime, they mostly fall under the radar of the culture wars. People have strong opinions about these issues, but they aren’t personal.

Ardern inspired fierce devotion and affection from her supporters, but also vitriolic distaste from a growing cohort of critics. Hipkins has decided that, on a personal level, he’d rather give up the affection if it also strips away the hate.

In an era of increasingly divisive and polarising politics, Hipkins is striving to make politics boring again. It’s a shrewd political move to show erstwhile Labour voters that the party is taking the big things seriously – and it may also take a lot of the heat out of the political environment.

Ardern inspired fierce devotion and affection from her supporters, but also vitriolic distaste from a growing cohort of critics. Hipkins has decided that, on a personal level, he’d rather give up the affection if it also strips away the hate.

On a policy level, he hopes to do the same thing. Sure, we can have reasonable disagreements about the right level for the minimum wage or health system funding, but these disagreements are unlikely to divide families and communities in the way of some policies of the recent past.

Whether Hipkins will be successful in this bid or not is another question. He may well take the target off his back – it helps that he’s not subject to the misogyny faced by Ardern that he forcefully condemned from the podium.

More broadly, the forces which have inflamed passions about non-“bread and butter” issues remain incredibly effective at blowing up seemingly technical or innocuous policies. Consider that Three Waters reform, once an idea discussed only by the nerdiest of policy wonks, is now a household term in a misguided debate about Māori co-governance.

The lesson for Hipkins is that making politics boring won’t be as easy as he might think.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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