Few people attend business functions because of the speeches. No matter the speaker, these events are usually networking opportunities.
So it used to be with BusinessNZ’s annual ‘Back to Business’ function. In mid-February every year, the lobbying group would invite business and political leaders for drinks and canapes. And the Prime Minister would say a few inconsequential words, too.
That is how it would have been again this year if the Prime Minister had not changed. But with Chris Hipkins having only been in office for a month, the main event was him.
Thus, some two or three hundred guests eagerly anticipated Hipkins’ remarks. They were in for a surprise.
In previous years, those set speeches had become predictable, platitude-driven and self-congratulatory. Not so with Hipkins.
In a speech without notes, the Prime Minister first paid tribute to the victims of recent disasters. He expressed his gratitude towards the community and business leaders who have worked tirelessly to tackle the devastating floods, even helping their competitors. So far, so expected.
But with refreshing honesty, Hipkins then openly acknowledged the government’s past mistake of trying to do too much at once. He conceded that the pace of change was often too fast, not just for businesses, but for politicians as well. He also admitted that there had been a lack of communication between the government and the business community.
Drawing on his previous experience as Education Minister, Hipkins also shared the tough conversations he has had with business leaders about our education system. Business leaders had been telling him how concerned they are about New Zealand’s schools. Hipkins underlined how important it was to work with business leaders in making reforms happen. And many business leaders are parents, too.
The BusinessNZ crowd had not heard such words from a Prime Minister in years.
Given Hipkins' role in the previous administration, some might dismiss his speech as mere rhetoric.
The business community, however, saw it a sign of a new beginning. Hipkins' willingness to stay and mingle with the audience then reinforced the message that Hipkins had a different approach to business than his predecessor.
Even though BusinessNZ events are rarely cheerleading events for Labour, the new Prime Minister was well received.
No doubt there will be many issues on which the business community disagrees with the Government. But politics is all about perceptions, and Hipkins' new tone will reach people that had stopped listening to Ardern.
If Hipkins maintains this approach, and if he follows through on his promise of genuine consultation with business, it can only improve policymaking.
Incidentally, it will make this year’s election a much tighter affair than many would have expected.