Analysis: In front of a crowd of around 80 supporters in a small room on Wellington’s waterfront on Sunday, Chris Hipkins tried something new.
While Labour’s campaign has featured negative imagery about the dangers posed by a National/Act government since the party’s conference in May raised the spectre of cuts to superannuation, Hipkins dedicated more than half of his half-hour address to a blistering attack on the opposition.
“You do not take our country forward by winding things back and that is all the parties on the other side are offering,” he said.
“You don’t deal with the climate crisis by sitting on your hands and by winding back every step we have taken to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, which is what they’re promising to do. You do not make housing more affordable by bringing back foreign millionaires into the housing market. You don’t help with the cost of living by cutting jobs and cutting critical public services.”
National and Act’s proposed cuts to public sector spending were a big feature of the speech, pitched to an audience in Wellington, where 28,000 people work in the public service. This would implicitly (National is targeting a 6.5 percent reduction in public sector spend) and explicitly (National’s Chris Bishop was asked whether people at Kāinga Ora would lose their jobs and replied “hope so” earlier this month) lead to job losses.
“With cuts at the level that are proposed by National and Act, it’s clear that national and regional public services will be decimated. It would be a government that couldn’t even do the basics of doing its job,” Hipkins said Sunday.
“Let’s take an example. We, after years of the country talking about it, have repealed and replaced the Resource Management Act. The National Party have said they’re going to repeal the repeal, they’re then going to amend the repealed legislation and then they’re going to repeal it again. And somehow they’re going to do that whilst laying off all of the people who did the work in the first place.”
The 6.5 percent cuts, which are intended to target only “back office” staff, will have more wide-reaching effects, Hipkins argued. Even slashing all of the Department of Conservation’s policy, advice and communications staff and stopping all advertising and comms spends would still leave National $40 million short – and that’s just in one agency. Looking at the Inland Revenue Department, Hipkins said cutting the policy team four times over still wouldn’t reach a 6.5 percent reduction.
“I can’t believe that Christopher Luxon and the National Party are proudly campaigning on policies that will increase unemployment.”
Even when Hipkins discussed Labour’s accomplishments and new policies, it was in contrast to National’s past actions or future pledges.
On state housing, “We are delivering more than any New Zealand government since the 1950s. We’ve got another 4500 under construction right now and we are now slowing down – in fact we need to keep speeding up. But our record is in stark contrast to National’s. They decreased the number of public homes by 1500 compared to when they started when they were in last time.”
Speaking to reporters after the speech, Hipkins said it was consistent with his promise in August to “highlight the contrasts” between Labour’s achievements and policies and National’s. Campaigning isn’t done in a vacuum, you need something to compare your own policies to.
The speech on Sunday marked the halfway point of the official campaign period – three weeks in and three weeks to go until election day, although early voting starts in just a week. Hipkins acknowledged the polls weren’t going the way Labour wanted them to when it kicked off its campaign and suggested the party would “look for ways to do things more creatively” over the coming weeks.
A new, more aggressive tone is likely to be one of the things Hipkins tries out. Despite his protests, the negativity in the speech stood out as compared to previous campaign stops. It’s certainly a far cry from the mostly cordial and polite disagreement the Prime Minister displayed during his debate with Luxon on Tuesday.
In order to turn the campaign around, the Labour team is looking for a key viral moment in the upcoming big media set-pieces like the three remaining debates. The everyday campaigning is useful, but it isn’t expected to make or break the party’s electoral hopes.
Arguably, Labour has missed one such opportunity to flip a critical election narrative – that the Government has mismanaged the economy. The news on Thursday that the economy grew 0.9 percent in the three months to June, making it one of the fastest growing developed economies once more, could have been whipped into a big victory for Labour.
Instead, fearing the appearance of gaslighting a public still feeling the bite of inflation, Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson took the news more soberly. They were proud of what had been achieved but there was still more to do.
Here it seems possible Labour has misread the public mood. The 1News-Verian poll released ahead of the GDP figures showed 40 percent expected the economy to improve in the next year, versus 27 percent who disagreed. A significant number were unsure. Those are minds to be made up and votes to be won, if Labour sees fit to pursue them.
Perhaps, if the novel, negative strategy doesn’t pan out, Hipkins will fall back to hyping the economy. But by then, it may be too little, too late.