MPs return to Parliament this week with just eight months until the election, and for some a new team at the helm. Political editor Jo Moir looks at the focus for National and Labour as the two Chrises go head-to-head in the House for the first time

Opinion: In recent years, particularly during Covid, Aucklanders have felt as though Wellington and its politicians had no idea what they were going through.

For the most part that has been a fair criticism and National and Labour have responded by creating a portfolio and appointing an MP to specifically address concerns in the country’s largest city.

Simeon Brown, National’s number 9, and Minister for Auckland Michael Wood, number 7 on the Cabinet rankings, are the men tasked with relaying Aucklanders’ concerns back to their leaders.

* Hipkins picks his team, turns focus to policy purge
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* The political debate National and Labour can’t agree on

Number one on Auckland’s list of troubles is the ongoing and recurring flood damage as the city has one of its worst summers on record smashed by heavy rainfalls and a cyclone.

Wood and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins have been on the ground regularly, including this weekend, hearing from business leaders and owners, school principals, emergency management, and those who call the city home, what it is they need to get back on their feet.

There is an embedded bitterness and anger towards the Government, and Hipkins is mindful of needing to win back at least some of the Auckland vote.

Hipkins responded to Auckland’s pain with a $5 million funding package on Wednesday, most of which is for flood recovery payments, as well as mental wellbeing support and small business advice to help with resilience.

National Leader Christopher Luxon has been seen and heard in the thick of the flooding too and has an advantage over Hipkins, as he lives in the City of Sails and is an elected representative of Botany.

Hipkins is a Wellingtonian, a self-professed Hutt boy, and holds the seat of Remutaka. Expect to see him spend a lot of time in Auckland this year attempting to convince the huge voter base there that he understands what they’ve been through with lockdowns and continue to go through with natural disasters.

The Jacinda Ardern stardom doesn’t exist with either of the Chrises, and much of this year will be about the public getting to know who they are and what they stand for.

On Tuesday MPs are scheduled to be back in the House at 2pm for the first sitting block since December. Question Time will be replaced with the Prime Minister’s statement, to which each party will have an opportunity to respond.

Hipkins’ speech won’t be entirely written in advance as he’ll need to pivot depending on the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle and how various parts of the country are faring.

It’s also increasingly likely Hipkins won’t be in the House at all given he is in Auckland and flights aren’t expected to take off easily.

He went to Auckland on Saturday to attend the Ed Sheeran concert and on Sunday evening he spoke at the APEC business meeting there. Luxon flew to Wellington from Auckland on Sunday night.

With no available flight on Monday the call’s been made to hold Cabinet online and Hipkins will instead do his post-Cabinet press conference in Auckland.

Hipkins’ speech to the House is expected to give an overall framing of the Government’s work programme for the year ahead, setting out the priorities, but might also include some new policy or directions he’s planning to push to the fore in the coming months.

Any changes to Three Waters won’t be part of it though as Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty spends the next month working out how to make changes that satisfy both the sector and Māori.

National still has Three Waters as an easy area to pick Labour apart on while it works out how it will deal with the co-governance element of the legislation.

Expect to see Luxon spend a lot of time talking about the transformational change Labour promised, only to now be unwinding policy it deems inconsequential, despite years of explaining its importance.

National is now convinced much of the voting public sees Labour as having not delivered, and that the narrative is bedded in and accepted to a degree.

Luxon will also be keen to point to the controversial policies Hipkins has said are off the agenda, but because they’ve only been deferred National will claim they haven’t disappeared at all.

But much like National can claim Labour has ulterior motives, that can work in reverse too.

Don’t be surprised if Hipkins starts pointing to more conservative policy positions and suggesting Luxon will steer the country in that direction if given half a chance.

Both men are on a similar footing when it comes to name and face recognition.

The Jacinda Ardern stardom doesn’t exist with either of the Chrises, and much of this year will be about the public getting to know who they are and what they stand for.

Luxon had intended to lay some of that out on Sunday in his State of the Nation speech in Auckland but the cyclone warnings meant he had to postpone it until a later date.

Hipkins doesn’t plan to do a similar speech, instead he will just continue to roll out announcements and changes under his government, further stamping his own mark on things.

Expect to see an education announcement about truancy later this week providing the damage caused by the cyclone doesn’t push it out until later in the month.

Education is close to Hipkins – he’s been minister the past five years and fought to keep it when asked to do other roles by Ardern.

But the planned announcement isn’t new, it’s a reversal that Hipkins first spoke to Newsroom about in May last year.

With persistent absenteeism on the rise Hipkins decided he wanted to reverse an old truancy policy that would mean truancy officers were centred back in schools, rather than being contracted out.

The change came after a 2012 survey on attendance, and was designed to provide students with more wraparound services, but in May Hipkins told Newsroom, “the brutal reality is it just hasn’t worked”.

Money that previously went to schools to pay for attendance officers was transferred away to external providers.

The contracts were up for renewal at the end of last year and Hipkins will be looking to bring the truancy officers back into schools to try to improve the relationship they have with students, their families, and teachers.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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