THE VIEW FROM SHORT­LAND ST

Jacinda Ardern’s three-party gov­ern­ment is on track for re-election.

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — MATTHEW HOOTON

Jacinda Ardern’s three-party gov­ern­ment is on track for re-election.

All MMP elec­tions are ex­tremely close. Even those re­mem­bered as one-sided could eas­ily have gone the other way.

In 2011, had just 10,000 Na­tional vot­ers switched to Labour, the Māori Party would have had the bal­ance of power be­tween Na­tional-Act-United Fu­ture and Labour-NZ First-Green. John Key might have been a sin­gle-term foot­note. Even in 2002, Bill English was just 2-3% away from be­ing able to lead a Na­tional-NZ First-Ac­tUnited Fu­ture gov­ern­ment, con­sign­ing He­len Clark to a sin­gle term. Sure enough, at the end of 2019, the polls had the next election too close to call, with per­haps a tiny ad­van­tage to Na­tional.

En­ter­ing 2020, Jacinda Ardern is cer­tainly pop­u­lar, but less so than Clark and Key when they first sought re-election. On its corner­stone is­sues of hous­ing, health and child poverty, Ardern’s Gov­ern­ment can point to no sub­stan­tial progress. Ki­wiBuild be­came a joke. The Wellbeing Bud­get turned out to be a mere slo­gan with no con­nec­tion to the Trea­sury’s Liv­ing Stan­dards Frame­work. The year of de­liv­ery didn’t suf­fer from “speed wob­bles”, as Ardern claims, but never got into gear. The multi-party Zero Car­bon Act was the one ma­jor achieve­ment, but al­lows Na­tional and NZ First to claim they have the same cli­mate change pol­icy as Labour and the Greens. On ethics, Ardern’s Gov­ern­ment has up­held the rule that each ad­min­is­tra­tion is worse than the one be­fore — it treats the Of­fi­cial In­for­ma­tion Act with con­tempt; it has abused par­lia­men­tary ur­gency, in­clud­ing to amend the Elec­toral Act in a fake at­tempt to ban for­eign do­na­tions; there have been at least as many eth­i­cal scan­dals as in pre­vi­ous first-term gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing the al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual as­sault by one of the Prime Min­is­ter’s own staff, and the murky world of the NZ First Foun­da­tion.

It is as if, like the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, the gov­ern­ing party’s base has sep­a­rated out its love for the leader from the re­al­ity of the sham­bles over which she or he pre­sides. Such a com­par­i­son ul­ti­mately fails off course: Ardern is au­then­ti­cally kind and car­ing, and her strong lead­er­ship af­ter the Christchur­ch ter­ror­ist at­tack and White Is­land emerges from gen­uine com­pas­sion. But, like Trump, it is Ardern’s celebrity that gives her a clear path to re-election, made easier by the of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion hav­ing yet to ac­cept it lost 2017 fair and square and be­liev­ing it need do noth­ing but pan­der to its base be­fore a restora­tion of the right­ful or­der.

Labour’s re-election pitch will not be en­tirely about its leader. Cer­tainly, like

Key in 2011 and Clark in 2002, Ardern will be po­si­tioned as per­son­i­fy­ing ev­ery­thing that is good about New Zealand. We will see her hug­ging school kids in Grey Lynn and Mor­rinsville; jok­ing with tradies on con­struc­tion sites in West Auck­land; com­fort­ing the sick in their hospi­tal beds; nod­ding wisely as sci­en­tists ex­plain new low-meth­ane pas­ture; speak­ing truth to power on the world stage; is­su­ing in­struc­tions to her min­is­ters with fur­rowed brow; vis­it­ing tem­ples, churches, mosques and syn­a­gogues; and cheer­ing on the Olympic team, the Sil­ver Ferns and Team New Zealand. In con­trast, Si­mon Bridges will be por­trayed as un-New Zealand and an­gry.

This, on its own, might even be enough. But Ardern and Fi­nance Min­is­ter Grant Robert­son have also out­played Na­tional by be­ing first to latch into the cur­rent mood that it is time for things to start hap­pen­ing again.

Af­ter the Think Big fund­ing de­ba­cle and the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s eco­nomic re­forms, New Zealan­ders de­manded a break. MMP, Clark and then Key gave us 20 years of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity, which de­liv­ered rea­son­able re­sults: un­em­ploy­ment and in­fla­tion are both close to non-ex­is­tent; growth has been ad­e­quate, if not spec­tac­u­lar; wages have risen faster than prices; pub­lic debt is low and the coun­try has had room to re­spond well to shocks like the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis and the Christchur­ch earth­quakes; home­own­ers and hold­ers of other as­sets have en­joyed a long-last­ing boom; and in­equal­ity has at least not widened this cen­tury.

But, at ev­ery level of so­ci­ety, there is a sense some­thing is miss­ing, whether it is poverty ac­tivists want­ing more done to help the un­der­class, the mid­dle class want­ing a bit more for hos­pi­tals and schools along with se­ri­ous ac­tion against gangs; the busi­ness com­mu­nity de­mand­ing some­thing fi­nally be done about the Re­source Man­age­ment Act and out­dated Build­ing Code; and ev­ery­one ex­cept per­haps the Op­po­si­tion un­der­stand­ing that the coun­try’s in­fra­struc­ture is in­ad­e­quate af­ter 40 years of in­suf­fi­cient in­vest­ment and faster-than-ex­pected pop­u­la­tion growth, un­der gov­ern­ments red and blue.

In the nick of time af­ter their failed “year of de­liv­ery”, Ardern and Robert­son ac­cepted in De­cem­ber that Auck­land in par­tic­u­lar faces an in­fra­struc­ture cri­sis of a sim­i­lar mag­ni­tude to that of Christchur­ch in 2011, and a sim­i­lar re­sponse is re­quired. With net pub­lic debt be­low 20% of GDP, 10-year in­ter­est rates at 1.3%, strong sur­pluses fore­cast but an un­cer­tain growth out­look, Ardern and Robert­son have recog­nised that it’s not just the pol­i­tics that sup­ports bolder in­vest­ment, but the eco­nom­ics as well.

Ardern’s $400 mil­lion for schools was a cute way of de­liv­er­ing a small stim­u­lus for ev­ery com­mu­nity in the first half of 2019, while mak­ing sure the schools look spick and span by election day. More im­por­tantly, Robert­son’s $12 bil­lion pre-Christ­mas in­fra­struc­ture an­nounce­ment — mostly for road­ing and rail — pro­vides a bu­reau­cratic plat­form for Labour to launch much larger projects through to election day.

At the same time, Ardern’s his­toric an­nounce­ment that Auck­land’s car and con­tainer port must close is not just good pol­i­tics in a city of boat­ies, recre­ational fish­ers, kayaks and Op­ti­mists, but will dis­ci­pline NZ First all the way through to the Bud­get in late May, the same time de­ci­sions will be taken about where and when port op­er­a­tions will go. If NZ First wants its port at Mars­den Point, it will need to back Labour’s cher­ished so­cial-pol­icy ob­jec­tives in the Bud­get — and vice versa. As­sum­ing the fi­nal de­ci­sion is to ex­pand the al­ready-ex­ist­ing Northport, Ardern will, in prac­tice, be gift­ing the North­land elec­torate to NZ First with­out any sug­ges­tion of an Ep­som-type deal, while most prob­a­bly also push­ing her coali­tion part­ner above 5%. The Greens ap­pear com­fort­ably above 5% so that a sec­ond-term Ardern gov­ern­ment should con­tinue to have op­tions on its left and right.

Scan­dals will, of course, emerge in the in­terim. If the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion refers NZ First’s fundrais­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to the po­lice or Se­ri­ous Fraud Of­fice, Ardern will need to de­cide whether Win­ston Peters should step down, as hap­pened in 2008 when NZ First was last re­ferred to the SFO, or con­tinue to be given the ben­e­fit of the doubt. Other sur­prise scan­dals will in­evitably pop up that will chal­lenge the Prime Min­is­ter.

These is­sues, or the port de­bate, may yet lead to Ardern hav­ing to go to the peo­ple early, but, af­ter White Is­land and a hope­fully suc­cess­ful 2020 Wai­tangi Day, she can be con­fi­dent of win­ning an election any time af­ter about March.

Na­tional strate­gists dis­agree with all of the above, of course. They hope the mul­ti­party con­sen­sus on the Zero Car­bon Act has re­moved the ra­tio­nale for peo­ple to vote Green rather than Labour, Na­tional or even NZ First. They ex­pect the NZ First fund­ing scan­dal to fa­tally desta­bilise the coali­tion and drive Peters’ party be­low 5%. All they would need to do then is go even with Labour on party votes and get into gov­ern­ment with Act, now ex­pected to bring in at least a sec­ond MP, and per­haps even the Māori Party if it re­gains Tāmaki Makau­rau.

This sce­nario is plau­si­ble, but also heroic, and it as­sumes Bridges will hold his own in a one-on-one sprint to the fin­ish against Ardern. That’s un­likely.

Bridges isn’t as un­pop­u­lar as his fiercest crit­ics in­sist — his 10% pre­ferred prime min­is­ter rat­ing is per­fectly re­spectable, and bet­ter than three-term prime min­is­ters Clark or Jim Bol­ger of­ten man­aged as Leader of the Op­po­si­tion. It is the ex­tent to which peo­ple don’t like him that wor­ries Na­tional. His un­favoura­bil­ity score is worse than even Peters’. This could be over­come ex­cept that Na­tional’s mes­sage re­mains pedes­trian.

At the end of 2018, Bridges promised Na­tional would be­come a se­ri­ous pol­icy unit. Dis­cus­sion doc­u­ments were meant to flow through 2019, and at least seven did even­tu­ate. But, with the ex­cep­tion of Nikki Kaye’s paper on ed­u­ca­tion, most lacked new ideas. The welfare and crime pa­pers promised to pick up English’s so­cial-in­vest­ment ap­proach. There was a big fo­cus on com­bat­ing gangs. Broadly, the eco­nomic paper didn’t prom­ise much more than re­heat­ing Steven Joyce’s Busi­ness Growth Agenda, mod­est tax cuts tar­geted at the poor and ef­forts to lower the cost of liv­ing through var­i­ous re­views. The bold­est bit was start­ing to raise the age of el­i­gi­bil­ity for su­per­an­nu­a­tion in 2037, six elec­tions away.

Na­tional is cau­tious be­cause it thinks 2020 is al­most in the bag. It is still bit­ter about be­ing turned down by Peters in 2017, even though its MPs now say they are pleased not to have formed a gov­ern­ment with him. They think vot­ers will come to their senses this year and elect a fourth term of the Key-English-Joyce regime.

Pol­i­tics doesn’t usu­ally go back­wards like that.

ABOVE— The Prime Min­is­ter pro­vided strong lead­er­ship af­ter the White Is­land erup­tion.

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