Ardern seems set to drive change
Last week, there was something reassuringly old school in the way the nation clustered communally around its radios and televisions to learn at the same moment – the powerful and the powerless alike – just who our next political leaders would be. We should enjoy such moments of harmony while we can, because from now on the media will doubtless be hunting for signs of discord in this ‘‘partnership’’ – as PM-elect Jacinda Ardern has called the new coalition government.
In fact, the focus on bad news began seconds after New Zealand First leader Winston Peters announced his choice. The dollar has dropped, a journalist called out – but, Peters countered, it had dropped earlier in the day, and recovered. To pre-empt this sort of criticism, Peters had begun his preamble with the observation that the New Zealand economy started to soften some time ago, with a potential slowdown in sight.
‘‘There were great risks in whatever decision we made,’’ Peters said, ‘‘and despite our having had no influence on these risks, some will attempt to heap the blame on us. That those ‘blame’ caricatures are both spurious and misplaced, won’t stop attempts to mis-describe the cause of events.’’
Despite the media’s energetic search for signs of discord, PMelect Jacinda Ardern can expect to enjoy a reasonable honeymoon period, perhaps lasting right through summer until Parliament reconvenes in February, and normal political battle is re-joined in earnest. Already, Ardern has shown an ability to handle the media confidently, by imparting enough information to meet the question while not allowing herself to be led down dangerous side roads. That’s a necessary and innate skill: good politicians bet on their ability to think on their feet, while poor ones equivocate and run for cover.
The fascinating prospect with Ardern is that she has a mandate for change – and an apparent readiness to go on the front foot and try to take the country with her, as she alters the country’s basic policy settings. Helen Clark, for all her formidable skills, was a cautious leader who rarely used the PM’s rostrum as a bully pulpit. Clark was more inclined to foresee risk, and would try to pre- empt the possible lines of attack from the media and her political opponents. Clark conserved power; Ardern seems more inclined to use it, and she’ll be picked to pieces if she doesn’t. Basically, the new government cannot afford to be gunshy of the media. Timidity just isn’t an option.
Of course, a leader can only do so much in a three-way arrangement. Both Winston Peters and James Shaw will need to be alert to the potential scrub fires on their watch and extinguish them, especially after the Greens gain a new co-leader. The Greens have a confidence and supply deal with three ministerial posts outside Cabinet. Supposedly, this enables the Greens to criticise the government on issues outside their ministerial areas of responsibility – yet inevitably, the media will be likely to treat such criticism as evidence of disharmony in the ranks.
We are living in interesting times. Having voted for change, the public will need to show some willingness to embrace it when they see it.