The first real test of any political leader is how well they perform in a crisis. For New Zealand’s Prime Minister Chris Hipkins this test came very quickly.
At the time of writing, New Zealand is recovering from Cyclone Gabrielle, the worst weather event the country has suffered in living memory.
Cyclone Gabrielle is the second major weather event New Zealand has suffered in the last month. At the end of January, just days after Chris Hipkins becoming Prime Minister, Auckland, the country’s biggest city faced major flooding. This was not only the first major test of Hipkins as Prime Minister but also of the recently elected Auckland mayor Wayne Brown.
It would be unfair to claim that Mayor Brown has no previous political experience. 15 years ago he served one term as mayor of the Far North District, and prior to this had been a member of the Auckland District Health Board. But primarily, Brown’s experience was in the private sector as an engineer and property developer.
Brown’s election as mayor in October 2022 ended 12 years of Labour dominance of the Auckland mayoralty. The election of a right-of-centre mayor in New Zealand’s largest city was seen as an indication of what might happen nationally in the 2023 General Election.
After the Auckland flood, Wayne Brown’s election will now be viewed as a cautionary tale. What can happen when someone who is inexperienced and unsuited to political office is elected to important political leadership roles. The blowback of this on the New Zealand right should not be understated, it is bad news for them.
Brown, albeit reluctantly, admits he “dropped the ball“. Much like Liz Truss, who blamed her disastrous few weeks as UK Prime Minister on poor communication, Mayor Brown claimed his communications were ‘slow’.
The key criticism of Brown was that he was slow to declare a state of emergency in Auckland. During the crisis said to one journalist that “it was not his job to rush out with blankets.” In a text, to friends, Brown complained that he could not play tennis during the weekend of the floods as he “had to deal with media drongos over the flooding.”
Probably the most cringe-worthy moment was the joint media conference the Mayor did with the Prime Minister and two other Government Ministers. Brown was defensive and sounded out of his depth, whilst Chris Hipkins sounded like a Prime Minister.
I first met Chris Hipkins back in 1998 at a fundraiser for the Rimutaka (now Remutaka) Labour Party at the now-closed Plates Restaurant. He had been head boy at Petone College and led the campaign opposing the closure of his old school the by then Tory Government. Slightly older than me, Chris was VUWSA President a few years before me. Living in London at the time, he kept in contact and gave useful advice whilst I was President – including once when he reminded me that it was Saturday night in New Zealand, so I should go out and have fun instead of worrying about the Students’ Association budget.
After Student politics, Chris spent a brief spell in the private sector before working in parliament as an advisor to Helen Clark’s Government. In 2008 he became an MP and quickly was promoted to Labour’s opposition front bench. After Labour came to power in 2017, Chris has served in various senior Ministerial roles.
One of the big criticisms of ‘career politicians’ is that they do not have enough experience outside of parliament. It is true that within a parliamentary democracy, it is important to have diversity and people from different backgrounds. The same is true within the cabinet. However, the Prime Minister is in a political leadership role, the most senior politician in the country. Experience in politics is crucial, and it is something that Chris Hipkins has.
The implications of all this for the NZ Leader of the Opposition, Christopher Luxon, are not great. Luxon, a first-term MP elected to parliament in October 2020 wishes to be New Zealand’s Prime Minister in October. His experience prior to 2020 is in the private sector, most notably as CEO of Air New Zealand.
Having worked in and with the private sector through my company Piko, I accept that there are transferable skills from private sector leadership roles through to political leadership. But there are differences. In government, there is a need to manage ambiguity, much more so than when managing a company. There are far more competing priorities, all of which can have a profound impact on people’s lives. And when things get really tough, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders rely on the state for support. Therefore it falls to Government in a time of crisis to make the tough calls.
Diversity in politics is important. Yet on the right, the call isn’t for diversity. Instead what is often called for is people with “business experience”. CEO of big companies, high net-worth individuals who have done well on the money markets and other c-suite executives. Transferable skills from this sector can well help in political leadership roles, but these alone are not enough, other skills and experiences are needed to be a success.
By contrast, working as a parliamentary staffer, or in the public service, is viewed as being at risk of government groupthink. Worse, that promotion may be through nepotism rather than ability. There is always a risk of these things but has also worked with the public service and in parliament, it would be easy to overstate this risk. What you do get in these roles is close exposure to how the machinery of government works. My work in the British parliament over the last three years has taught me this. Parliamentary staff role offer valuable experience for anyone in a senior political role.
The Auckland floods and the current cyclone have highlighted the importance of political experience. Chris Hipkins, having served as a Minister during The Christchurch Mosque Terror Attack, COVID-19 and the cost of living increase is no stranger to a political crisis. He and his team instinctively know how to respond, when to open the emergency Beehive Bunker and how to communicate clearly to a worried public during these difficult times.
The events in the last few weeks have highlighted that in politics, actual political experience really counts.