New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins followed up an announcement of new cost of living measures on Wednesday with a visit to a North Shore Marae

The clouds parted and a tableau of brilliant blue rushed in to fill the void as the fledgling Prime Minister made his rounds of Auckland community hubs today.

There has been no time for training wheels for the nation’s new leader, in a week full with natural disasters, cabinet reshuffles and announcements of cost-saving measures for Kiwis.

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Visiting Awataha Marae on Auckland’s North Shore this afternoon, Hipkins was quick on his feet marching from conversation to photo opportunity.

As Minister for Covid Response during the thick of the pandemic, Hipkins is no stranger to the camera flash. The country’s top job, however, brings with it a whole new level of attention.

Some of that comes in the form of selfie requests from starstruck Kiwis, but some of it comes in the retinue of journalists ready to show up wherever he does with tricky questions in their arsenal.

New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins speaks with Awataha Marae CEO Anthony Wilson and chair Maria Amoamo. Photo: Matthew Scott

Hipkins and team used the flashing cameras to their advantage, taking the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and pack boxes of food supplies for a brief moment.

But while Hipkins and Labour’s Northcote MP Shanan Halbert were adroit at being captured piling loaves of bread and packets of flour into waiting cardboard boxes, they then went on to break a cardinal rule of media wrangling – both tucking into sausages in hot dog buns in front of the pack of snapping photographers.

While Hipkins just stopped in for a flying visit, Halbert has been on the ground helping out at the marae since at least yesterday.

Awataha Marae CEO Anthony Wilson said the marae had been giving out meals for whānau left in a tough spot by the weekend’s floods since Sunday afternoon.

They started with cooked meals, but the logistics of keeping up with demand with just volunteer labour saw them switch today to boxes of food essentials, which people in the area can pick up if they are in need.

Wilson said the marae gave out 500 meals on Tuesday and expected to have distributed around 1000 boxes of food and essentials by the end of Wednesday.

Awataha chair Maria Amoamo said the response from the community had been amazing.

“It’s been humbling,” she said. “Honestly all of these tables were chocka yesterday.”

Some food donations lying in wait at Awataha Marae. Photo: Matthew Scott

The marae leaders said members of disparate communities had converged on the site to pitch in, with Muslim, Pasifika and Chinese locals all donating time, money and language skills to help get the donations out to people hit hard by the rapidly rising waters.

Hipkins spoke highly of the community response he had seen on his visits to different emergency centres, including Moana-nui-a-kiwa Hub in Mangere on Wednesday morning.

“When I think over the last 15 to 20 years, the various events that we have had, whether it was March 15 or various flooding events of earthquake events, Kiwis are getting quite good at this,” he said.

Friday’s freak floods came just two days after the new Prime Minister had been signed in, forcing him to quickly put everything on hold and catch an RNZAF Hercules to Auckland.

The floods have hit Aucklanders at a time when many are already struggling with cost of living hikes and the endless pull of inflation.

It makes the timing of Hipkins’ announcement of extensions to fuel excise tax and half-price public transport politically expedient – whether the policies were written in permanent marker before the rains fell or not, they can now be framed in part as a balm for the pains of Auckland’s soggy and tired million plus residents.

Perhaps predictably, his plans to address the cost of living problem weren’t met with applause from political rivals.

National Party finance spokesperson Nicola Willis said the fuel excise extension showed Hipkins was bereft of new ideas.

“National knows it’s not just the price of filling a tank that’s hurting Kiwis: it’s the grocery bill, rent and mortgage repayments too. Where is Mr Hipkins’ plan to address those massive costs?” She said. “The truth is he doesn’t have one and is just re-heating Jacinda Ardern’s policies.”

Hipkins, however, said the fuel subsidy and public transport costs were just the quickest levers he could get a handle on in a hurry, and signalled bigger changes may come in next month’s Budget.

“It’s a meaningful step in an ongoing series of measures…” he said. “We know how to do it and we can do it quickly.”

Meanwhile, Green Party climate change spokesperson and co-leader James Shaw was concerned the ongoing fuel subsidies were in effect providing support to the fossil fuel industry – an ironic state of affairs as Auckland dries off from the kind of weather that is likely to become more frequent in future without significant climate action and movement away from fossil fuels.

“Auckland has just experienced first-hand the devastating impacts of climate change. It just doesn’t make sense to be extending subsidies for fossil fuels,” he said. “The consequences of climate change are here, and the impacts are going to get worse and worse, unless we act. The priority should be action that reduces emissions as quickly, and as fairly as possible.”

Shaw added that the fuel tax cut was poorly targeted, with top earners benefiting the most from cutting fuel prices.

Volunteers and visitors at Awataha Marae. Photo: Matthew Scott

Hipkins fielded both complaints from the press on Wednesday, and had an answer ready.

“The Government has an extensive climate change programme underway,” he said. “We are absolutely focused on reducing emissions. The public transport reductions for example that we’ve put in place today are a positive step in terms of getting more people to use public transport… We’ve got extensive work around the electrification of the vehicle fleet… But we’ve also got to acknowledge that right here and right now increasing fuel costs is putting a significant amount of pressure on families who have no choice but to continue to fill up their car.”

When it came to the targeting of the tax cut, he said anything the Government did to reduce the cost of living is going to have an impact on different households.

“It’s a fixed cost that they simply cannot avoid,” he said.

Whether those answers will suffice will depend on how inextricably any given voter views climate action and social inequality.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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