Bevan Rapson on Labour’s rising star – and National’s falling one.
As a proven Labour frontbencher makes way for a fresher face, a long-standing National minister ploughs on despite multiple blunders.
The Mt Albert by-election had all the makings of a non-event. In a safe Labour seat and triggered by David Shearer’s recruitment to lead a UN mission in South Sudan, it had none of the frisson generated when an MP departs in more dramatic circumstances or when a tight race is in prospect.
Nor was the mid-summer timing, as Aucklanders enjoyed sultry days at the beach or got to grips with the demands of a new year, conducive to a surge of interest in politics. National sucked further life from the contest by declining to participate, leaving Labour’s Jacinda Ardern and the Greens’ Julie Anne Genter to car-share their way through the tamest of campaigns.
Shearer’s appointment was apparently a feather in his cap, but taxpayers could be forgiven for feeling a little miffed at having to stump up a million dollars to elect a replacement so close to a general election, especially when the outcome was broadly predictable and the main contestants so palsywalsy. According to Genter, it was “a conversation” rather than a contest. So much for talk being cheap.
After Ardern had won comfortably, we might have expected the byelection to be a quickly forgotten political footnote. Yet in the days following her victory, momentum gathered to present her with a greater prize – deputy leadership, along with the prime positioning that job offers, should yet another new leader be required. Could the limpest of by-elections yet come to be regarded as the catalyst for generational change and a longawaited rise in Labour’s fortunes?
Ardern has always had her supporters. They value her relative youth and disinclination to engage in old-fashioned political rough and tumble. Her presentability is an asset recognised by the editors of women’s magazines, who like to think they know a star when they see one.
But her perceived passivity and failure to land “hits” on the government has counted against her in other circles. Her successive defeats to Nikki Kaye in Auckland Central and belittlement at the hands of Paula Bennett in Parliament haven’t helped shake the sceptics’ doubts.
The spotlight of Mt Albert, faint as it seemed at the time, turned out to be a timely reminder of what she might bring to the worn Labour brand.
Using just her first name on billboards might have been read as presumptuous. It turned out to be a masterstroke. That “Jacinda” suggested an unexpected confidence
– and a level of recognition in Auckland that most MPS could only fantasise about. Could even the deputy prime minister pull it off? Probably not, sweetie.
Winning an electorate proved Ardern could appeal to actual voters, not just those who rank the Labour list, and it gave her a solid home patch on which to base the rest of her career. Don’t forget, her two most recent predecessors in the seat, Helen Clark and Shearer, both led their party, even if their records don’t otherwise stand comparison.
Is it possible the high profile of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau played a part in enhancing Ardern’s acceptability to the doubters? He’s an international reminder that good looks and a friendly demeanour can be highly effective political assets.
Suddenly, the time seemed ripe for Labour to take full advantage of Ardern’s appeal, even though leader Andrew Little was initially unequivocal that no vacancy for deputy leader existed and media clamour for her promotion prompted incumbent Annette King to level a charge of “ageism”.
Both quickly came around, however, galling though it may have been to fall into line with advice being offered by armchair experts in the media. Labour’s moribund opinion-poll ratings meant arguments to stick with the status quo rang hollow.
Unfortunately, the casualty was King, one of the party’s steadiest performers. After bridling at the idea, she suddenly embraced it, announcing her resignation and endorsing Ardern as her successor.
It was entirely her own decision, King said, but it seemed an inglorious and unfair end to a three-decade career of dedication to the party. Her everywoman surefootedness has been one of Labour’s reliable strengths, whether in government or opposition. In recent times, she has helped hold it together in the face of bitter factionalism and rivalry.
Sometimes it seemed as if she was one of the few Labour MPS who knew how to “do” politics. Saying the right things at the right times without sounding like a pre-programmed robot is not as easy as it looks, if not quite as hard as Little and a couple of his predecessors have made it appear.
King’s final selflessness was entirely in keeping with her previous record of loyal service to Labour and its causes. If Ardern’s elevation is a winner for Labour – and that’s no certainty – King’s departure is a regrettable loss.
Keith Holyoake, one of our most successful prime ministers, was said to be fond of reminding members of the National caucus that an ounce of loyalty was worth a ton of cleverness.
But in politics, loyalty has to have its limits. Successful leaders – and followers – have to recognise when it’s time to pull the pin on a colleague’s hopes and dreams. Sometimes even a figure as respected as King falls victim to circumstance.
John Key, one time “smiling assassin” of the corporate world, turned out to be a master of moving on MPS he deemed insufficiently useful. They may have been perfectly loyal but something else – possibly an ounce or two of cleverness in some cases – was missing. Key’s own popularity removed the need for him to exhibit any particular loyalty in return.
It remains to be seen whether Bill English can be similarly hard-nosed, though one close mate and colleague may already be offering a test for the strength of their personal bond.
English and Nick Smith go way back. They came into parliament together as 20-somethings in 1990, forming half of the “brat pack” elected that year. They became matey enough to do the Coast to Coast endurance race together and have ridden out a career’s worth of political ups and downs in each other’s company. Smith, along with other brat packers, has even made it a tradition to head south to the English spread in Dipton during the Christmas break.
Back in Wellington, however, Smith has a recent ministerial record of serial cack-handedness, given extra prominence by his high-energy, high-visibility style. He has become the face of National’s ineffectiveness in housing, partly thanks to a 2015 bus tour of Auckland land supposedly earmarked for new housing, some of which turned out not to be the Government’s to use. As Minister for the Environment, Smith planned a Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary that foundered on Maori objections he probably ought to have foreseen.
And this year, a pledge to make 90 per cent of rivers swimmable by 2040 has been overshadowed by vehement debate about how those standards are measured. If Smith thinks his lofty dismissal of criticism as “junk science” has won the argument, he clearly hasn’t noticed the many cartoons and satirists having a field day at his expense. E.coli is comedy gold, apparently.
Facing a refreshed Labour leadership team, English might consider whether he can afford to stick with a minister who seems to attract more bad headlines than good. Will he be tempted to at least get Smith to take a back seat and let some of the cabinet’s younger faces enjoy more airtime?
Allowing further mishaps by his old friend would show great loyalty. It could also eventually leave them both paddleless up one of those unlovely, unswimmable creeks.
It remains to be seen whether Bill English can be as hard-nosed as John Key, though one close mate and colleague may already be offering a test for the strength of their personal bond.