May 29, 2023

Hipkins’ political antenna strong on Cyclone Gabrielle

Hipkins' political antenna strong on Cyclone Gabrielle

The Prime Minister and Opposition leader took different factors and advice into account when deciding whether to be in Auckland when Cyclone Gabrielle hit. Chris Hipkins made the smarter political move, writes political editor Jo Moir

Opinion: Advice to abandon non-urgent travel to Auckland at the weekend was issued on Saturday morning at which point two different political decisions were made.

National alerted media that Christopher Luxon’s planned State of the Nation speech on Sunday morning in Auckland had been postponed because of cyclone-related travel warnings.

A second complicating factor was the venue it planned to use was no longer available as it had been assigned a Civil Defence shelter.


* Mandatory evacuations in Eastern Bay of Plenty

* Crises grab Chrises’ attention

While the severe weather hadn’t hit at this point it was clear by Saturday morning that it was coming thick and fast at some point on Sunday and would last until Tuesday.

On Saturday afternoon Hipkins made his way to Auckland for the Ed Sheeran concert that night (Luxon went on Friday night) and to stay on for planned visits on Sunday afternoon followed by an APEC business meeting that evening, which he had made a previous commitment to.

There were already warnings flights would be disrupted and by Sunday airlines made the call to cancel flights until midday on Tuesday, meaning Hipkins’ Monday flight would no longer take off.

This had been foreshadowed by Air New Zealand and Auckland airport on Friday when it first asked customers to reconsider non-urgent travel from Sunday.

Because of the Ed Sheeran concert, flights were few and far between so even if Hipkins had tried to change his return flight to Sunday, chances are he wouldn’t have been able to.

Hipkins’ flight was booked to return to the capital after his regular Monday morning media round where he’d planned to do interviews in-studio at TVNZ, Newshub, RNZ and Newstalk ZB (something former leader Jacinda Ardern moved away from over recent years).

On Saturday the Prime Minister was aware of the risk of not getting out of Auckland in time to make the first sitting day of Parliament but chose to go ahead to fulfil commitments made and with the knowledge Cabinet could be held remotely online.

On Sunday evening Luxon caught his scheduled flight out of Auckland back to Wellington to prepare for the first sitting week back at Parliament.

He was unaware Hipkins didn’t have a flight back and would end up staying in Auckland until flights resume on Tuesday, meaning the schedule for Parliament had to be changed.

Hipkins is no slouch on the political strategy front. He would have weighed up the pros and cons of going to Auckland versus sitting tight in Wellington and decided if Cyclone Gabrielle was going to strike in the country’s biggest city, then that’s where he needed to be.

On Monday afternoon the Business Committee, which has representatives from each political party, met with the Speaker to discuss what to do about Tuesday and Wednesday’s sitting programme.

Tuesday’s planned Prime Minister’s Statement, which is Hipkins’ speech setting out the Government’s work programme for the year ahead that all party leaders respond to, has been moved to Wednesday.

The first Question Time where Hipkins and Luxon will go head-to-head has shifted to Thursday.

On Tuesday MPs who make it through the cyclone to Parliament will instead speak about the situation in Turkey and Syria followed by a ministerial statement on the floods and cyclone.

Luxon will be there on Tuesday – even if the MP for Botany wanted to return to Auckland, flight disruptions won’t allow it.

While the Opposition leader must already know he’s missed an opportunity not being in the city where the focus currently is, he made a choice based on the expectations he be in Parliament when it is sitting.

His political antenna should have gone off, however, and as Aucklanders hunker down for the second severe weather event in two weeks Luxon should have been there with them.

Hipkins is no slouch on the political strategy front. He would have weighed up the pros and cons of going to Auckland versus sitting tight in Wellington and decided if Cyclone Gabrielle was going to strike in the country’s biggest city, then that’s where he needed to be.

It may have caused a few rescheduling issues in Parliament but the public doesn’t care about that.

On Monday afternoon Hipkins told media he was “quite comfortable with being in Auckland and being able to visit the emergency teams on the ground and speak to some of those affected by the extreme weather”.

Despite being the MP for Mt Albert, Ardern moved to Wellington during the Covid-19 pandemic to be closer to officials and ministers making snap decisions, including the repeated lockdowns Auckland endured.

While arguably necessary, it created an impression from some in Auckland that there was little to no understanding of what they were going through.

Hipkins is doing everything it takes to show the last leadership got it wrong on occasion and he’s now physically there to listen.

Unlike Luxon, he will be feeling comfortable indeed about his travel decisions at the weekend when Parliament resumes on Tuesday.

Would you like to receive notifications on latest updates? No Yes