Jacinda Ardern’s successor is making a major strategic retreat

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Jacinda Ardern’s ministers began this term to build a lasting legacy. They wielded the party’s first full majority since 1987, so they seemed to have the means to do so, without pesky coalition partners standing in the way of major legislative nation-building.

These projects addressed long-term issues Labor had with the way New Zealand works, rather than urgent crises. These include our strange mishmash of public media entities, with a fully commercialized TV network (which can get away with not always turning a profit) and a completely non-commercial radio station, our unfair pay system for the recently unemployed, and hate speech laws that some groups protected but others did not.

Today, these ministers serve under Chris Hipkins in place of Jacinda Ardern, who resigned last month. And their solutions to all those problems have been thrown into the long grass, either discarded altogether or taken off the table for reconsideration that will take them past the next election.

The massive media merger to create an ABC or BBC style monolith? Gone forever. The new unemployment insurance that would pay those who lost their jobs due to economic conditions the same as those who lost their jobs due to a car accident? Postponed indefinitely. Hate speech reforms? Referred to the Law Commission at least until after the election.

Related: The New Zealand Labor Party sees a boost in polls after Ardern’s resignation

Hipkins indicated that this may be just the beginning, with a major rethinking of government water infrastructure reform.

This strategic retreat is serious and an indication of how much the government has lost control of the narrative in recent years. This policy may have been unpopular in some circles, but it was well developed and pushed by some of Labour’s leading MPs. A lot of political capital and actual capital has already been spent on them, and now they are either a thing of the past or doomed to the hard basket.

Hipkins decided to tie the withdrawal of this policy to the announcement of a policy that will impact many people much faster than any of the ditched reforms: a 7% increase in the minimum wage to keep it in line with inflation . This was the sort of “bread and butter” cost-of-living policy he’d rather talk about in the media than complicated arrangements about who runs the stormwater pipes.

“What the media is talking about” is the main driver for much of this retreat. Contrary to popular belief, governments can generally be walking and chewing gum at the same time, with some ministers pursuing a ‘nice to have’ policy while others focus on immediate economic issues. The Secretary of Broadcasting, Willie Jackson, who is no longer spending time on the media merger, suddenly won’t give him enough time to fix inflation. The officials working on hate speech reform will not put down the tools and start building state houses.

But if the only things you ever talk about on TV are things of little relevance to most Kiwis, they’ll assume that’s what you’re doing all day.

Related: Abuse, death threats and riots: New Zealand faces toxic political discourse

Hipkins has already managed to get Labor back into serious competition for the election this year by making a lot of noise about these “bread and butter” issues. If he succeeds in getting public discourse to focus on Labour’s traditional comfort zone of wages and services for the rest of the year, he could reap serious rewards.

This won’t be easy. The opposition can now happily point out how much money has been wasted on plans that are no longer moving forward at any speed, and while the amount itself is small on the scale of a government budget, it will seem a lot to the public.

There are also potential coalition partners to worry about. It is extremely unlikely that Labor will be able to govern alone again, and their potential coalition partners the Greens and the Māori Party will be happy to shout about their own policy priorities right into the empty space that Labor has now left.

The way to solve this would be if Labor had its own big policy idea, something that could dominate the election while still being widely popular.

Achieving both is difficult – popular ideas are generally not controversial, so don’t generate as many news stories.

Hipkins might need something spicier than all that bread and butter.

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