Analysis: The Cabinet of the Sixth Labour Government met on Monday for the final time. As the government has now transitioned into caretaker mode until Christopher Luxon can iron out a deal with Act and maybe New Zealand First, no big decisions were made.
Instead, the potentially decisive discussion for the Labour Party will come on Tuesday, when its caucus meets. With barely half as many as gathered as for the final pre-election caucus meeting just a few weeks ago, the big question is the future of the Labour leadership.
It’s not just a question for the caucus, who may well decide to make no decisions. Chris Hipkins himself has to figure out what he wants to do.
In the final leaders’ debate before the election, he wouldn’t commit to staying on as Labour leader in the event of a loss. The life of an opposition leader is a rough one, and doubly so for someone making the transition into the job from Prime Minister. On the other hand, there will be few who blame Hipkins, personally, for the party’s devastating loss on Saturday. It was always going to be a hard job, taking up the role of Prime Minister while his party was plummeting in the polls.
Insofar as there are knives out for Hipkins, then, it’s not personal but political. Certainly it seems unlikely that Hipkins is the right person to lead the party into 2026. But is a change of leadership right now desirable?
Caucus unity will be the Labour Opposition’s greatest challenge, as it is for all oppositions. Achieving that unity and then displaying it to the public is critical. A leadership spill (assuming Hipkins still wants to hang on for a bit) sets the narrative from the start of chaos and backstabbing, even if the party is united on their new candidate.
Far better to wait until a little later in the term to debut a new leader to the public, as National did with both Luxon and John Key.
Realistically, who would be up to the job? Given the party’s significant electorate losses, it gets enough list seats on the preliminary results to bring back the full Labour Cabinet – minus Nanaia Mahuta, who wasn’t on the list and lost Hauraki-Waikato to Te Pāti Māori’s Hana Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke.
The shortlist traditionally thought of as future Labour leaders has been whittled down, either due to ministerial scandals this year (Michael Wood, Kiri Allan) or by ruling themselves out (Grant Robertson, Kieran McAnulty).
Carmel Sepuloni, Hipkins’ deputy, is a plausible option. But the names on the list after her offer slim pickings.
In addition to the leader, the party will need to look at the shape and make-up of its caucus.
A handful of senior MPs may decide to leave, rather than deal with the ignominy of three years (at least) in Opposition. Hipkins, if he steps down or is rolled, is likely to be one. Robertson, having decided to give up his Wellington Central electorate, already has one foot out the door. Andrew Little and David Parker have also been around the block enough times to be mulling over their futures, while Damien O’Connor’s loss of the West Coast-Tasman seat severs one reason for the agriculture spokesperson to stick around.
On current results, plenty of MPs won’t have the choice. Alongside Mahuta, Labour has lost senior members Wood and Phil Twyford. A huge number of 2020 newcomers are gone, including promising MPs like Vanushi Walters and Naisi Chen.
Labour’s Māori caucus has been trimmed from 15 at the 2020 election to 10 based on Saturday’s numbers. The Pasifika caucus dwindles from 10 to five.
By holding on to almost every Labour minister, the caucus still has significant institutional knowledge and policy nous to use, assuming those long-timers stick around.
Jan Tinetti, Labour’s Education and Child Poverty Minister, said in Wellington on Monday that she was looking forward to holding the new government to account on those issues.
The caucus is a bit thin on justice, especially if Little (minister from 2017 to 2020) goes. Ginny Andersen held the police portfolio from the start of the year and only gained justice in July. It played second fiddle to police in the few months before the election.
In Ayesha Verrall, Labour still has a strong health spokesperson. Other than Luxon, Verrall is widely considered to be the “most improved” MP from the class of 2020, going from an uncertain associate minister of health to taking the reins of the Covid-19 response last year and then the entire health system in February. She has a deep understanding of the issues and has become a more robust debater in Parliament who will be an adequate opponent for National’s likely health minister Shane Reti.
On environmental issues, the party is heavily reliant on Parker, who may well choose to leave. Megan Woods has an interest in climate policy, paired with her energy portfolio, but the fact that a Green MP was Climate Change Minister for all six years of the Labour Government means they lack some depth here.
Likewise, on finance, Labour is well-served by Robertson but he seems highly unlikely to stick around. In his absence, Woods could potentially pick up the role but there’s no hugely obvious successor.