In the moment Chris Hipkins realised he was about to become Prime Minister the plane door shut, he turned his phone off, and stared out the window the entire flight from Napier to Wellington feeling equal parts fear and excitement.
The Prime Minister spoke to Newsroom on the morning his old boss, Jacinda Ardern, returned to Parliament for her final farewell from the Labour Party caucus ahead of her valedictory speech to MPs on Wednesday night.
The interview takes place at the ninth floor’s board room table – it’s the same table Ardern, her deputy Grant Robertson, and Hipkins spent countless hours thrashing out whether to pull the trigger on lockdowns and when to loosen restrictions throughout the pandemic.
Hipkins has just finished his Tuesday morning weekly media round and candidly answers questions about the moments leading up to him becoming Prime Minister in between bites of his takeaway eggs benedict.
Hipkins says becoming Prime Minister was a dream come true.
“It’s an amazing job, I mean everyone who steps into politics actually wants to be Prime Minister – they all just lie about it,” he tells Newsroom.
When Ardern and Robertson approached Hipkins ahead of Christmas to say the prime ministership was going to be up for grabs, the MP for Remutaka started to think about what sort of a leader he wanted to be.
Deep down inside though he assumed Robertson, who at that point wasn’t interested in stepping up to be leader, would change his mind by the time he headed back to work in January.
If that happened, Hipkins had no intention of running against Robertson, even though he wanted the job.
“Of course I wanted to do it, but ultimately I think Grant deserved the opportunity to decide whether he wanted to do it, I think he had earned that opportunity and he decided he didn’t.”
Robertson made that decision just ahead of the Labour Party’s caucus retreat in Napier in mid-January and he phoned Hipkins to tell him he was out.
While Hipkins had spent some of the Christmas break contemplating the job and how he might do it, he also didn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“I guess over the summer holidays I had still been under the assumption that the phone call I’d get from Grant would go the other way. That he would go away and say, I’ve had my summer holidays and I’m ready and into it.
“That’s not the way that phone conversation unfolded. It was a nice conversation and I hung up the phone and it was one of those crikey moments. I was at the beach at the time, and it took a bit of processing.”
Once Ardern had resigned and the caucus retreat was over Hipkins headed to Napier Airport wondering whether any of his colleagues might put their hand up.
As he boarded his flight back to Wellington, he got a text message indicating he would be the only nomination for Labour leader.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because the plane door closed, and I had to turn my phone off.
“So that plane journey back where I had nothing to do but stare out the window and think about it, I had that kind of moment where I thought, okay this is actually going to happen.”
Hipkins tells Newsroom he had already somewhat carved out his own leadership style with challenging portfolios like Covid-19.
“It’s not a criticism of Jacinda, it’s just a criticism of anyone who has done the top job over a prolonged period of time – it becomes harder to admit your mistakes, whereas I’ve always tried in my time as a minister, and in the brief period I’ve been Prime Minister, to just be human.”
– Chris Hipkins
He’s also had a front row seat to the decisions being made by Ardern.
“I’ve been able to watch over the last five years and go, okay if that was me what would I do differently and how would I do that differently.
“I think for me one of the things I’ve always tried to be in my ministerial life is authentic. I am who I am, I’m not going to change that just because I’ve got a different job.”
While Hipkins acknowledges he doesn’t always get it perfect, he says at least he’s being “real”.
The Opposition has drawn a lot of comparisons between the new and the old leader, saying nothing has changed, but Hipkins says he has plenty of differences to Ardern and had plenty of disagreements with her over the past five years as well.
“We certainly had disagreements. If you look at the Covid-19 response there was always a healthy tension I think between the Prime Minister and the Minster for Covid Response, as you would expect.”
“There were tensions there and it’s probably fair to say the overall conclusion was that Jacinda was a bit more conservative in those things than I was – there were some areas where I wanted to move a bit faster in terms of removing restrictions and she was more cautious.”
In saying all that, Hipkins says the pair agreed on the fundamentals and their differences meant they got the balance about right.
When Ardern was more conservative and put the country into lockdown, she ended up being right about those decisions, he said.
You’ve got to act early with lockdowns otherwise “the pain is much greater” and when Hipkins didn’t think the threshold had been met for a lockdown, Ardern ended up proving him wrong.
“If we made a lockdown decision, the amount of time I would spend staring at the ceiling thinking, what are the consequences of this, how are people doing, how can we get out of this, have we done everything we need to do?” – Chris Hipkins
But there were other times when the wrong decisions were made.
“It’s not a criticism of Jacinda, it’s just a criticism of anyone who has done the top job over a prolonged period of time – it becomes harder to admit your mistakes, whereas I’ve always tried in my time as a minister, and in the brief period I’ve been Prime Minister, to just be human.
“And that means you don’t get everything perfect, and there’s no point being defensive about it – you just have to own it.”
In recent years the political environment has been more polarised, he tells Newsroom, but some progress is being made “restoring some balance to that”.
As Prime Minister there are lots of weighty decisions to be made but many of the tough calls he made as Covid-19 Response Minister were much harder than anything he’s had to do in the past two months.
“The weight of those decisions was phenomenal. As a government you make decisions that impact on people’s lives, but that was at the most immediate and significant end in terms of consequences.”
Hipkins says he didn’t sleep much at all during the various Covid lockdowns and nobody in Cabinet wanted to have to make some of the decisions they did.
“I’m not sure we ever wanted that power in the first place, it was a necessity but also came with an enormous amount of stress.
“If we made a lockdown decision, the amount of time I would spend staring at the ceiling thinking, what are the consequences of this, how are people doing, how can we get out of this, have we done everything we need to do?”
Hipkins says Covid is part of the reason he hates the rule-in/rule-out game.
“If you said to me four years ago can you guarantee you’ll never stop New Zealanders abroad coming home I would have said, yeah of course, and then look what happened during the pandemic.
“A whole new set of realities confronted us and we had to make some terrible trade-offs.
“You can have the best-laid plans in the world and sometimes events change them,” he told Newsroom.
Hipkins in a crisis
Within weeks of being sworn in, Hipkins found himself in the middle of Auckland’s devastating flooding followed by Cyclone Gabrielle, which prompted a national state of emergency, killed 11 people and caused never-before-seen destruction and damage to the East Coast.
Hipkins told Newsroom he knew he had to get his response right but that he needed to be himself and not try to do what Ardern would have done.
“I went into those events saying I’m not going to try and be Jacinda because we’re different people.
“There’s no point trying to be someone you’re not, so I was also resolved I would just do it my way and make my own judgments around what was appropriate in any given circumstance.”
On balance Hipkins says he thinks he got it right, though he admits it wasn’t perfect in some moments.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do as Prime Minister is deliberately try and get myself in front of groups of people who don’t agree with me.” – Chris Hipkins
Most of the time in the top job he says you “have to” trust your gut rather than relying on the advice of others.
That means having a good gauge on what the average New Zealander thinks and is feeling on any given issue, and that’s exactly why prime ministers spend more time than any other ministers out of the Beehive, Hipkins says.
“You’re the government’s key touchstone around the country, you’ve got to go out there and hear from people directly.
“It’s an overstatement to say I’ve spent more nights in Auckland than my own home, but I have tried to be out and about as much as I can,” he says.
That also means spending time with people other than those who already vote for you and believe in the work you’re progressing.
“One of the things I’ve tried to do as Prime Minister is deliberately try and get myself in front of groups of people who don’t agree with me.”
Asked who he meant exactly, Hipkins was quick to identify the Auckland business community.
“I’ve tried to really open up with them and have opportunities for good dialogue, and I think that’s working.
“The levels of trust I’m getting there I think are higher than they were nine weeks ago.”
So, can he win the votes of the Auckland business community on his campaign for a third term?
Unlikely, he says.
“Bear in mind these are people who for a variety of personal circumstances are more likely to lean the other way on the political spectrum, but the Government should endeavour to have a good working relationship with the business community.”