Labour’s re-election strategy is now blindingly clear. Chippy Hipkins is going the full sausage roll.
Hipkins’ fondness for the humble pastry snack has already become entrenched in New Zealand political mythology. On his trip to Britain he was presented with sausage rolls not once but twice – first by King Charles and again at No 10 by Rishi Sunak. It would be no surprise if his benefactors had been tipped off in advance that this would be an appropriate gesture.
The media loved it, of course. “Chris Hipkins charms London with sausage-roll diplomacy”, read a headline in the Left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald.
This plays to Hipkins’ carefully cultivated image as an unpretentious working-class boy from the Hutt. We can expect the sausage roll to become a defining emblem of his prime ministership as he seeks to erase the ideological taint left by his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern.
Labour’s survival at the next election hinges on the party retaining at least some of the middle-New Zealand voters who crossed over from National in 2020 and delivered Ardern the first clear majority of the MMP era.
To achieve this, Hipkins must convince those swinging voters that this is a different government from the one Ardern led – one that’s concerned with bread-and-butter issues rather than the polarising identity politics that have caused Labour’s support to collapse.
The sausage roll, with its reassuring connotations of the less confrontational New Zealand that predated Ardern, meshes neatly with this objective. Hipkins needs to convince middle voters that he’s no threat, and the sausage roll is the perfect political prop. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a sausage roll? It’s tailor-made as a comforting symbol of national unity at a time when people fret that the county is being torn apart by the ugly ideological forces unleashed during Ardern’s term.
But Hipkins’ “Boy from the Hutt” shtick extends further than sausage rolls. He told Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass that he gets his most useful “informal” advice while shopping at Pak’nSave. Forget all those highly paid apparatchiks cluttering the Beehive; if Hipkins is to be believed, it’s the Pak’nSave checkout ladies who keep him in touch with what’s going on in the real world.
Note that he shops at the correct supermarket chain – the egalitarian, no-frills one. None of your fancy-pants New World snobbery where they pack your shopping bags for you.
Oh, and Hipkins wants us to know he can be found with other Mums and Dads on the sidelines at Saturday morning sport, where he’s brought down to earth by the realisation that there’s more to life than politics. It’s his way of assuring us that he’s one of us – or if not, that he’s at least in touch with the public mood.
Even in his anachronistic use of language, Hipkins seems keen to evoke the tone of a less fractious era. “It’s a blimmin’ good day for Kiwis living in Australia,” he quaintly said of Canberra’s decision to create a pathway to citizenship for New Zealanders – conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s in Australia’s interests, and potentially very damaging to New Zealand, to smooth the way for skilled and highly educated Kiwis looking to jump the Ditch.
The folksy vernacular, the sausage rolls and the paeans to Pak’nSave and Saturday morning sport should all be seen as part of Labour’s big rebranding project – a distancing of the party from ideological crusades that alienate the vast majority of New Zealanders.
Another critical component in this transformation is up-and-comer Kieran McAnulty, whom New Zealand Herald political writer Audrey Young recently described as perhaps Labour’s most important politician after Hipkins and Grant Robertson .
If Hipkins is marketed as the boy from the working-class suburbs of the Hutt, McAnulty is presented as the boy from the rural heartland. You don’t get much more country than Eketahuna, where – as he was eager to stress to Young in her complimentary profile of him - his family roots are. McAnulty is Labour’s point of connection with the vital provincial electorates that abandoned National in 2020. The party needs to lock them in come October and you can be sure it will work the former TAB odds calculator like a drover’s dog.
There’s nothing unsubtle about McAnulty’s pitch. He may have sold his ancient Mazda ute, a political prop that charmed the media as successfully as Hipkins’ love of sausage rolls, but he still positions himself as an uncomplicated Kiwi bloke whom ordinary voters can relate to and trust to do the right thing. Except that he's not that idealised person, any more than Hipkins is. They're both politicians to the tips of their toes.
No doubt it was because of his affable, blokey quality that Labour chose McAnulty to sell Version #2 of the diabolical Three Waters proposal. Labour strategists would have reasoned that if anyone could make the rehashed package seem harmless, despite its racist co-governance provisions remaining essentially intact, it would be him.
He played his assigned role to the hilt, even to the extent of opening the press conference with the words: “The guts of it is …” As Young remarked, it was as if he’d just walked off the set of a Fred Dagg skit. Labour would have counted on voters feeling reassured that Three Waters had been stripped of its obnoxious bits. After all, how could a straight-shooting, daggy Kiwi bloke like McAnulty hide ulterior ideological motives?
And it may have worked. Even Young, who gives the impression of having fallen under McAnulty’s spell, said he seemed to have taken the heat out of the issue.
There’s one other crucial element in Hipkins’ attempts to persuade the public that Labour has shed the toxic ideological skew that it adopted under Ardern. While the party’s top people work hard at promoting an aura of benign Kiwi authenticity, Labour is simultaneously keeping its scary monsters out of sight.
Actually, make that scary monster, singular. Nanaia Mahuta has done more than any other single figure to promote unease and distrust about Labour’s agenda. Hipkins realised she had become a liability and moved quickly to demote her from eighth to 16th in the cabinet rankings while also stripping her of responsibility for Three Waters and co-governance.
The 13-strong Maori caucus, however, remains a powerful force within the government – in fact stronger than ever, with a record eight Maori members in the cabinet. It would be wildly fanciful to assume that Treaty activism, the single most virulent source of potential political conflict in New Zealand’s future, has been conveniently neutered within the government following the change in the party’s leadership. More likely the extremists and agitators have been instructed to lie low so as not to imperil Labour’s bid for a third term.
Two questions arise, then. The first (and there are no prizes for guessing the correct answer) is whether the Treaty activists within the government will revert to form if Labour, with the support of the Maori Party and the Greens, secures a third term. The second is how long Hipkins and McAnulty can persist with the already strained Kiwi bloke routine before the voters cry for mercy.