Considering Chris Hipkins’ reputation as a policy wonk, this week’s ‘bonfire of policies’ is quite remarkable.
Commentators have interpreted the Prime Minister’s clean-up as a dumping of unpopular policies ahead of the election.
But that is only part of the story. In Hipkins' policy reset, one can see that he has a deeper interest in policy than most other politicians.
Let’s take the most innocuous announcement as an example: the end of the biofuels mandate.
Most voters would have never heard of these mandates. Consequently, they would not have cared if they had gone ahead. There was little to gain for the PM by scrapping them, at least not politically.
Still, scrapping them made good sense. Transport emissions are part of the Emissions Trading Scheme. This means an additional biofuels mandate could not have reduced overall emissions. But it would have increased fuel prices.
Policy wonks always knew this. Even government ministers privately admitted it. And no doubt Chris Hipkins would have been aware of it, too.
By getting rid of an obscure and ineffective policy, the Prime Minister sent an important signal: his new Government is getting serious about good policy development.
The decision not to introduce Social Unemployment Insurance is similar. Technically, this policy is only on hold for now. As the Prime Minister correctly stated, economic circumstances are not ideal for introducing a new tax on labour.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson introduced the Social Unemployment Insurance scheme with much fanfare in last year’s budget. Pushing the pause button instead of killing it outright may have been an attempt to enable him to save face.
As recently as December last year, Robertson and Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni expressed their strong commitment to the initiative.
Hipkins had other ideas. He not only paused the scheme, but also stated that it would not be reintroduced in its present form. Reading his statement carefully, he is not convinced by the policy.
Besides, the Prime Minister acknowledged that a major change to New Zealand’s welfare system needs public backing. “We have to recognise there isn’t the public support for this scheme,” Hipkins said.
Indeed, as opinion polls showed, the public was unwilling to accept the scheme. A scheme, incidentally, whose alleged merits have been debunked by Initiative research (see below).
Even though policy wonks do not always come up with good policies, the new Prime Minister’s interest in serious policy work is a welcome change. This can only benefit future policy debates. It may stimulate other parties’ policy development as well.
Let’s hope this is not just wishful thinking. Well, we shall see what happens to Three Waters and the resource management bills.