Ardern’s cau­tion could re­trieve elec­tion loss

Weekend Herald - - Viewpoints -

She hit it off with Mal­colm Turn­bull last week­end and to­day he will be en­joy­ing in­tro­duc­ing her to oth­ers at Apec. They’re prob­a­bly find­ing New Zealand’s new Prime Min­is­ter more in­ter­est­ing than Don­ald Trump. Is any­body still lis­ten­ing to him?

How pa­thetic has been his swing through Asian cap­i­tals this week, drum­ming up the North Korean threat, to try to hide the fact that a year af­ter his elec­tion Amer­ica First means Amer­ica alone. The world is mov­ing on. Paris is mak­ing progress, the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship was quite pos­si­bly signed overnight.

New Zealand’s youth­ful new Prime Min­is­ter is look­ing and sound­ing sen­si­ble and grounded. Jacinda Ardern didn’t lec­ture Aus­tralia on the moral­ity of Manus Is­land last week­end, she hasn’t gone to Apec like a ju­ve­nile anti-cap­i­tal­ist to make in­vestor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment pro­ce­dures a deal breaker.

At home, she has re­sisted Jacin­da­ma­nia. We have hardly seen her on tele­vi­sion. She hasn’t been talk­ing in­ces­santly with noth­ing to say. She hasn’t writ­ten puff pieces for the papers. She ap­pears to have had her head down, work­ing on the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of high-minded prom­ises, find­ing her feet.

If there is one nagging thought help­ing to keep her feet on the ground these days it is prob­a­bly this ques­tion. “How did we lose the elec­tion?”

Back in Au­gust, in those heady weeks af­ter she found her­self sud­denly lead­ing the Labour Party, they looked cer­tain to win. It was as though the coun­try had been wait­ing for a like­able al­ter­na­tive to Na­tional so it could re­tire a nine-year gov­ern­ment as it usu­ally does.

Nearly ev­ery com­men­ta­tor sniffed change was in the air. As Labour quickly bounced back in the polls to the mid-30 per cents, it seemed in­evitable it would over­take Na­tional.

And she made it very clear Labour needed to over­take Na­tional. As sup­port­ers cel­e­brated the mo­men­tum, she pub­licly cau­tioned that they were not yet, “where we need to be”. All of Labour’s MPs knew it. Back in 2013 when David Cun­liffe, Grant Robert­son and Shane Jones were cam­paign­ing for the party lead­er­ship, all made it their aim to lift Labour from the 30 per cents to where elec­tions are won, in the 40 per cents.

In Au­gust it was hap­pen­ing. Even Na­tional knew it. Na­tional threw fis­cal cau­tion to the wind and started promis­ing money for some­thing soft and cud­dly ev­ery day. By the end of the month it hap­pened. On Au­gust 31, the night of the first lead­ers’ de­bate, TVNZ’s Col­mar Brun­ton poll had Labour on 43 per cent, two points ahead of Na­tional.

A week later, on Septem­ber 7, Labour was still on 43 and Na­tional had fallen two points to 39 per cent. Then some­thing else hap­pened. Na­tional started to re­cover, to 40 per cent on Septem­ber 14 and 46 per cent on Septem­ber 21, two days be­fore elec­tion day. In the event, Na­tional got 44 per cent of the vote, Labour 37 per cent. What hap­pened?

It was in the sec­ond week of Septem­ber that Labour back­tracked on the new leader’s “cap­tain’s call” to en­act tax re­form, prob­a­bly on un­spec­i­fied cap­i­tal as­sets, be­fore the next elec­tion. A back­down looks weak as well as naive. And there was Steven Joyce’s “fis­cal hole”, fairly stan­dard elec­tion­eer­ing that prob­a­bly would have made lit­tle im­pact if Labour had not been so sen­si­tive on the sub­ject. Then there were the tele­vi­sion de­bates where re­lent­less pos­i­tiv­ity wore thin and Bill English had more sub­stance.

What­ever the rea­son, Labour was granted a re­prieve by Win­ston Pe­ters — for rea­sons that be­came less re­spectable this week — and ever since it has been as though Septem­ber never hap­pened. We’re told the elec­tion re­sult was a vote for change be­cause al­though Na­tional won most votes, a ma­jor­ity voted against it.

The prob­lem with that rea­son­ing is that a ma­jor­ity al­ways votes against the gov­ern­ing party. No party in New Zealand has won a ma­jor­ity of the vote since 1951. All we know for cer­tain is that 44.4 per cent of vot­ers wanted Na­tional to gov­ern, 36.9 wanted Labour, 7.2 per cent wanted NZ First and 6.3 per cent wanted the Greens. That is all we know, we don’t vote for coali­tions.

It is rea­son­able to as­sume all Green vot­ers wanted a Labour gov­ern­ment but it is a heroic as­sump­tion to say the same of NZ First’s. When you meet one, they seem in­dif­fer­ent, they like Win­ston when he is a mav­er­ick in Par­lia­ment, not a min­is­ter so much.

All new Labour gov­ern­ments talk change but Ardern, I sus­pect, is not fool­ing her­self. She is not mak­ing as much of her hon­ey­moon as she might be­cause she knows she still needs to lift Labour above Na­tional in the polls for her Gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity.

In the mod­est, mod­er­ate way she has started, she may soon get that lift and put Pe­ters’ post-elec­tion cha­rade be­hind us.

Ardern is not mak­ing as much of her hon­ey­moon as she might be­cause she knows she still has to lift Labour above Na­tional in the polls for her Gov­ern­ment’s cred­i­bil­ity.

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