A cold concrete floor, cold McDonald’s takeaways and a deep sense of injustice over a police crackdown more than 20 years ago – these are among the formative events in Chris Hipkins’ political life.
It was September 1997 and, as a Victoria University student, the man who is now the minister of health, education and state services, took part in a protest against a Bolger Government bill that the demonstrators believed would corporatise tertiary education.
About 300 people marched to Parliament’s grounds, but the speaker, Doug Kidd, issued a trespass notice.
The police claimed the protest was becoming violent, but Mr Hipkins said it wasn’t.
“We were peaceful and we sat down, but the police arrested us and took us to the station,” Mr Hipkins recalled for the Hutt News in 2009, the year after he was elected as Labour MP for Rimutaka.
“I was one of the first to be arrested and one of the last to be released.”
Dozens of protesters were arrested and many, including Mr Hipkins, had to appear in court, but the prosecutions were later stayed permanently by the High Court.
In 2000, Mr Hipkins, by then president of Victoria’s student association, announced the aggrieved protesters were suing the police and the speaker over alleged wrongful arrests, assaults and breaches of human rights.
“Many students were denied their rights to make a phone call…Students also had to sit on cold concrete floors with no food until cold McDonald’s arrived at around 10.30pm,” Mr Hipkins said in a media release.
The case was settled out of court in 2009 after the Supreme Court found the protesters’ civil liberties had been breached. The police commissioner and speaker Lockwood Smith apologised, and $200,000 compensation was divided among the 41 complainants.
As an opposition MP in 2015, Mr Hipkins told the Dominion Post the protest and its legal consequences had been a defining moment for him.
With a degree in politics and criminology, Mr Hipkins worked as a policy adviser at the Industry Training Federation and as a training manager in the oil and gas industry in Taranaki.
In Parliament, he worked for two education ministers – Trevor Mallard and Steve Maharey – and later in the office of prime minister Helen Clark.
As a newbie backbencher in 2009, he listed, for the Scoop website, leaders whom he admired. There were of course Labour’s first two prime ministers, Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser, and then came an uncharacteristic stumble as he admired, no, he didn’t admire, the word was “you have to appreciate”, people like National prime minister Rob Muldoon, who was “clearly a formidable operator”.
But Mr Hipkins quickly found his feet again when asked his aim in entering politics: it was to make a difference in social services, especially education.
His longevity in health is unclear. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has committed to a “reassessment” for health if Labour is in government after the September election.
Appointed health minister on 2 July, the day his predecessor David Clark announced his resignation, Mr Hipkins, already busy with education
and his other roles, has been thrust into managing New Zealand’s most disruptive epidemic in a century.
He also holds a key post in the Government’s response to the Health and Disability System Review, likely to unleash the biggest changes in health for a generation.
It is therefore no surprise that, with electioneering under way too, he has proven hard to find for some in the health sector.
He was welcomed to the Auckland DHB on 29 July by chair Pat Snedden, who noted it was his first visit as health minister to a DHB.
NZMA chair Kate Baddock says Mr Hipkins’ office cancelled a meeting that had been scheduled by his predecessor with the NZMA.
General Practice New Zealand chair Jeff Lowe says his organisation’s request for a meeting was being considered. Other health groups had been given a “straight no” to requests for a meeting before the election.
However, Tertiary Education Union national president Michael Gilchrist says he has found Mr Hipkins to be accessible as education minister.
Mr Gilchrist has seen “a clear resolve” in Mr Hipkins over the merging of polytechnics into a single institute. But he also considers the minister to be inclusive, respectful, collaborative, thoughtful and open to a range of input.
“I’m a fan,” says Mr Gilchrist.