“There goes Chippy’s quiet start to a new week,” tweeted blogger Cameron Slater with undisguised schadenfreude. Many in Labour would have grimaced in reluctant recognition of Slater’s bleakly truthful quip.
Among the Labour faithful, it must seem that their party just can’t catch an even break. The moment Labour struggles back to the surface, the fickle hand of fate once again plunges it into the depths. Its supporters could be forgiven for thinking the government is living under some sort of curse.
This latest debacle is, however, entirely selfinflicted. Kiri Allan should not have been allowed to return to Cabinet solely on the basis of her own personal assessment of her mental fitness.
In fairness to Allan, and in acknowledgement of the importance of her ministerial responsibilities, the Prime Minister should have required the Justice Minister to present him with a clinician’s endorsement. Bluntly stated, neither Hipkins nor Allan was qualified to judge her work-readiness. That assessment should have been left to a mental health professional.
Giving Allan the green light to return to Cabinet was, therefore, a serious error of judgment on the Prime Minister’s part. He was placing his government’s future in the hands of a woman who was clearly undergoing a serious personal crisis and who appeared to be relying upon little more than her own true grit to get through it.
Just a few days ago, it seemed to the Press Gallery that Allan was back and firing on all cylinders.
Standing alongside the Prime Minister, the Justice Minister delivered an impressive defence of Labour’s law-and-order policies, displaying a firm grasp of both the principles and the hard data underpinning them. It was the sort of performance that encouraged activists and journalists alike to speculate positively about Allan’s long-term political future.
That long-term future now lies in ruins, shattered by police accusations of careless use of a motor vehicle and of refusing to accompany a police officer to a police station. These accusations, and the circumstances from which they arose, all point to Allan’s emotional fragility on the night she steered her motor vehicle onto Wellington’s Evan’s Bay Parade.
According to the Prime Minister’s own public statements, Allan continued to display acute emotional distress when, the following morning, he removed her from his ministry. Exactly how much damage Allan’s behaviour, and Hipkins’ response to it, is likely to cause the Labour government is difficult to assess.
Allan struck a great many New Zealanders as an attractive, forthright, impulsive but uncompromising politician who, in spite of being born on the wrong side of the tracks, ended up being admitted to the Bar and elected to the House of Representatives.
Her colourful private life appeared only to endear her to that fraction of the population which is comfortable with sexual diversity. They also enjoyed her refreshing willingness to call a spade a bloody shovel.
These New Zealanders may yet prove inclined to see Allan as someone “more sinned against than sinning”, all too aware of those moments in their own lives when emotional hurt and the shattering of expectations caused them to behave in ways not too dissimilar from the minister.
Indeed, they may have done, and survived, worse than Allan – moving on with their lives only because they weren’t “important” enough to attract the basilisk glare of the news media.
Duty of care
The Prime Minister may not be so lucky. Many voters could end up condemning him for moving with unwarranted haste to return this darling of the Labour Party rank-and-file to her Cabinet seat. The duty of care Hipkins owed to his minister, they may argue, should have superseded all such political considerations.
By allowing her back too soon, Hipkins may be accused of damaging needlessly, and beyond repair, both Allan’s career and the Labour government’s chances of re-election.
Then again, there may be at least as many voters who take a hard line on a politician, no matter how distraught, who consumes alcohol, climbs into a motor vehicle and drives off into the night. With some justification, they will ask how much sympathy we would have for Allan if, instead of another car, she had struck an innocent human being?
The provision of chauffeur-driven ministerial cars is supposed to prevent these sorts of incidents. Cabinet ministers have no excuse for getting pissed and heading out alone into the dark. And, for sure, Justice Ministers have no excuse for arguing with the cops!
Having replaced Allan with Ginny Andersen, Hipkins must be offering up all manner of prayers to the political gods that whatever his government has done to displease them has now, with this third ministerial sacrifice, been expiated.
With barely 11 weeks between Labour’s present predicament and the people’s electoral verdict, there is still time for fate’s unwanted attentions to descend with force upon National and Act. ■
Chris Trotter is a political commentator with more than 30 years’ experience. He is the author of the Bowalley Rd blog ■