Minister David Parker has created quite a headache for Chris Hipkins by asking to be relieved of the revenue portfolio – an ill-timed bout of personal principle that carries a whiff of
petulance and selfishness.
Hipkins was already dealing with enough trouble with the MPs cramming the Cabinet exit door – and the last thing he needed was an arm wrestle with the ones remaining as well.
That is especially the case when it comes to something Labour is now increasingly hoping will help put its election chances back on course: its coming tax policy.
Yet there was Parker apparently packing a sad because Hipkins had killed off his hopes and dreams of a wealth tax.
There should be a time for a minister to stand on principle or opt to step out of a portfolio. However, 11 weeks before a general election is not that time – especially when your party is, quite frankly, looking very ragged.
The initial attempt to paint the move as Parker’s great desire to focus on his transport portfolio was never going to work. It immediately raised suspicion Parker was mounting a little insurrection, his Revenue Revolt if you like.
In the end, Parker simply accepted that and said that, given his views, it was “untenable” for him to continue in the portfolio.
“So I suggested to Chris [Hipkins] that it was in the best interests of him and the party that someone else take that role.”
Actually, it would have been in the best interests of both for Parker to have gritted his teeth through to the election.
His stand was always going to be seen as a bit of a vote of no confidence in whatever Labour’s new tax policy is – and disunity at a time when discipline and a single song sheet is very important.
National are now having a field day – campaign chairman Chris Bishop depicted it as a “Cabinet of chaos,” limping along on 18 ministers with one of them distancing themselves from a big plank of policy.
“A senior minister has asked to be relieved of a major portfolio because he fundamentally disagrees with Labour’s core tax policies – but yet he remains in Cabinet.”
Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson have both tried to make light of it, but they must be seething – even if Robertson also had a fondness for the plan to use a wealth tax as a way to fund a tax-free threshold for workers. Hipkins will also be hoping it does not turn out to be a catalyst for a wider crumbling within the caucus over tax policy.
Parker will not think this is a fair reflection of his decision. Taxes such as a capital gains tax and wealth tax are a matter of long-held principle for Parker.
He has had to shelve that numerous times in the past – both as party policy when in Opposition and then in reality in 2019 when Jacinda Ardern ruled out a capital gains tax.
This time round he appears to have decided that he has swallowed enough dead rats for the sake of politics over principle, and this was one dead rat too far.
It’s hard to expect a minister in such a situation to be an enthusiastic salesman for something they don’t believe in. Parker clearly decided he wouldn’t be able to fake it.
Parker is not normally prone to tantrums. It must have been a bitter blow to be told to work on a wealth tax to pay for an income-free threshold for those on lower incomes, and to have it so tantalisingly close only for Hipkins to whip it away just before the Budget was set.
Parker himself may well be eyeing the exit door himself in the nearish future, and so decided he had nothing to lose by doing what felt right to him rather than the wider caucus.
But Hipkins’ job is to do what he thinks is needed for the benefit of all those who do have something to lose: the rest of caucus.
That same caucus gave him licence to do what he thought was needed to give the rest of them the best chance of getting back into office.
For the sake of them, if not himself, Parker could surely have saved Hipkins that extra headache, held his tongue and gritted it out until October 14.
Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the NZ Herald in 2003 and joined the Press Gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.