Ardern’s caution could retrieve election loss
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.