This week a political journalist bowled up to the Finance Minister and accidentally called him the prime minister, then the deputy prime minister, before finally landing on Grant Robertson.
It was a somewhat understandable level of confusion, given only five months ago Robertson was the deputy prime minister and the presumptive heir to Jacinda Ardern’s throne if or when she called time.
Now his focus is squarely on his sixth Budget this Thursday, and the recovery from Cyclone Gabrielle after Prime Minister Chris Hipkins added that job to his finance role in February.
Robertson has the job of trimming the fat and making the numbers work, but ultimately it’s all within the guidelines set by the new leadership.
There is no inner circle or kitchen cabinet under Hipkins’ regime. While he and Robertson are close (they’re both nerdy political die-hards with a similar sense of humour) Hipkins is a lone operator who trusts his own gut above all – that’s how he’s always operated throughout his ministerial career, even during his time in charge of the Covid-19 response, which often saw him take a different view to Ardern.
Between 2017 and January this year the leadership was a trio of Ardern, Robertson, and then-chief of staff Raj Nahna. Ardern and Nahna have left the building and switched their phones off while Robertson remains – but Thursday’s Budget could be his last, depending on how the election goes in October.
Yet again his decisions won’t be shaped by what he’d like to leave as his legacy or that of the sixth Labour government, but instead by the restraints that come with gloomy economic times and a large cyclone recovery bill. It’s an all-too-familiar state of affairs, with four of Robertson’s six budgets having been shaped by crises beyond his control.
In the 15 years Robertson has been an MP, and the many years he worked in the building before that, the three-week occupation of Parliament early last year stands out as the lowest point of his career at a personal level.
It was yet another difficult situation for the Government of the day to manage, with a wide array of security issues for MPs to grapple with. Robertson found himself having to rely on diplomatic protection security more often while out and about the country, and on at least two occasions he had serious death threats while at events.
Much has been made of the forces that might have tipped Ardern to decide to call time and the unwanted threats and rhetoric she was battered with day after day, but her trusted deputy hasn’t escaped that either.
In January, Robertson called time on his Wellington Central seat, which he has comfortably held since 2008, announcing he wouldn’t contest it at the October election.
It frees him up for the campaign and avoids triggering a by-election if Labour is in opposition post-October. It has also already sent the signal to the electorate that he’s ready to do something else, whether or not the party wins another term in power.
A consummate team player like Robertson wouldn’t want to create the impression he’s deserting a sinking ship.
When Newsroom asked him about his plans, he said he intended to stand at the election and be finance minister next term if voters allow.
But, if Robertson clears the Budget from his decks and decides he doesn’t have enough fuel in the tank for an exhausting and bitterly fought campaign, could anyone really blame him?