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Is there some hope in Hipkins’ policy pyre?

Given the economic challenges we face – and the fact Finance Minister Grant Robertson has spent the vast bulk of what he likes to describe as the government’s “rainy day fund” before the rain actually arrived in earnest – the second round of policy purging announced by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins makes broad sense.

The new focus on “bread and butter issues” – which seems to have swiftly become Hipkins’ go-to idiom in much the same way that “Kiwi mums and dads” was John Key’s – is at least an acknowledgement that there’s only ever going to be so much cash in the kitty and choices, therefore, must be made.

This should be welcomed given the odd fantasy that appeared to take hold during the pandemic that money can be conjured out of thin air with no particular consequences [for those who came in late, the current cost of living crisis is one of them].

And the idea it was necessary to ditch some programmes in order to allow an increased focus on more immediate issues is also sound. Arguably the fatal flaw of the Jacinda Ardern administration was its attempt to address a number of major, intractable problems all at once, with the result that her prime ministership is likely to be remembered more for rhetoric than achieving anything enduring.

Whether the policies Hipkins has chosen to sacrifice on his pyre prove to be politically adroit remains to be seen – mileage will vary depending on where one sits on the ideological – not to mention age – spectrum.

For example, abandoning the previous PM’s pledge to introduce legislation to lower the voting age to 16 for general elections is unlikely to lose votes, given those most affected obviously won’t be able to cast a ballot in the upcoming election. At the same time, Hipkins’ undertaking to “shift focus to lowering the age for voting in local body elections” doesn’t appear to have any immediate downsides, given the lamentably low turnout when choosing our councils. Perhaps youngsters getting a say will motivate older citizens to exercise their civic duty in greater numbers. Plus, ‘the youth’ being more involved in how their immediate environment operates should give the old boys and girls networks that tend to be entrenched in local government a much-needed gee-up.

Exciting the most interest in Wairarapa, however, will be the way Waka Kotahi NZTA’s ‘Road to Zero’ speed limit programme has been slammed into reverse.

Unfortunately, this policy change may be too late regarding the widely unwelcome Wairarapa speed reductions on SH2. Given the reason for “significantly narrowing the speed reduction programme to focus on the most dangerous one per cent of state highways” appears to be largely driven by a desire to cut costs, it’s probably unrealistic to expect the transport agency to undo work it’s already done.

Then again, Hipkins did note that narrowing NZTA’s programme was also about “ensuring Waka Kotahi are consulting meaningfully with affected communities”.

Could the wailing from Wairarapa have alerted the Beehive to the potential political cost of continuing to pursue this policy in the ‘bureaucracy knows best’ manner its exhibited to date?

Watch this space.

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