Analysis: By now you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know Chris Hipkins loves a Coke Zero and a sausage roll.
His challenge this weekend speaking to party faithful at the Labour congress, for the first time as leader, is to go a little deeper.
The Prime Minister and Labour leader is single and doesn’t involve his two young children in politics, so he can’t fall back on fluffy family photo-shoots to showcase his softer side.
His children won’t be at congress in Wellington at the weekend, nor will Jacinda Ardern, the former leader who called time on the job giving Hipkins the opportunity to take a run at getting Labour its third term in power.
Hipkins has dedicated a lot of time in his four short months to differentiating himself from Ardern, with his many policy bonfires and interviews acknowledging where they disagreed on things.
Although former leaders who were popular with the party can have their uses – Helen Clark sitting front row when Ardern launched the 2017 election campaign is a good example – Hipkins is still in reset and no-distractions mode and that means all eyes need to be on him.
It also means the ‘Chris Hipkins Government’ catchphrase won’t be going anywhere anytime soon – it was prolific in last week’s Budget and is sneaking into other areas too, like random press releases about other minister’s travel plans.
It’s a tool for reminding people the Government and Labour Party are under new management and it doesn’t hurt to overuse it a little while Hipkins’ personal polling is decent.
Hipkins comes from a working-class family in the Hutt and his mother’s passion for teaching helped shape his own interest in the area, driving him to become education minister in 2017.
It’s not at all surprising the centrepiece announcement at last week’s Budget was an extension of free early childhood education and the new policy in his speech on Sunday will also be education-focused.
While it will be Hipkins’ easiest audience on Sunday – a room packed with paid-up members – it’s also a speech to convince voting New Zealanders that it’s a different party and government under his watch.
In an ideal world, congress wouldn’t be this close to the Budget, as it makes it difficult to make anything but small policy announcements, otherwise critics would just question why it wasn’t put in the Budget if it were so crucial and effective.
It also means Hipkins, his Finance Minister Grant Robertson and just about every other senior minister and a large chunk of the backbench MPs have been out on the road for the past week selling the Budget.
They’ll hardly be heading into the weekend feeling fired up and energetic – most would be wishing they could have a two-day breather after seven days out on the road.
While Hipkins will spend a decent chunk of time reminding everyone there’s a new captain steering the ship, he’ll also be keen to draw attention to the contrasts between Labour and National.
The polls are tight, and everyone accepts the election will be a drag race right up to the finish line, so Hipkins will use this weekend to outline what he thinks will be at risk if Labour doesn’t get a third term.
Given the election is still five months away he’ll be keeping his powder dry on any significant policy announcements but expect him to talk about what he sees as the issues facing New Zealanders and what needs to be done to secure a better future.
His deputy, Carmel Sepuloni, who will have spent Saturday introducing herself to the party before welcoming Hipkins to the stage for the keynote speech on Sunday, will also make a small policy announcement broadly related to her social development portfolio.
Hipkins has comfortable polling around trust and how in touch he is with issues affecting New Zealanders, and will be looking to play to that strength on Sunday.
Robertson, Labour’s deputy leader Kelvin Davis and the party president Jill Day will also speak to members on Saturday along with Sepuloni.
There will also be an election-year special panel where new candidates George Hampton (North Shore), Mark Hutchinson (Napier), Toni Boynton (Waiariki) and Estefania Muller-Palares (youth) will introduce themselves and talk about their backgrounds and why they’re team Labour.
While it will be Hipkins’ easiest audience on Sunday – a room packed with paid-up members – it’s also a speech to convince voting New Zealanders that it’s a different party, and government, under his watch.
Expect to hear him talk about the good old days growing up in the Hutt where he would disappear for hours in the hills with friends, and nobody needed worry.
It was a carefree and free-range existence that Hipkins wants to convince people can still exist for future generations, including his own children.