Like John Key in 2016, Jacinda Ardern has done the right thing by her party in stepping down early as Prime Minister.
Key and Ardern so personified their parties’ brand propositions that it became difficult to imagine National or Labour without them.
Yet, whatever their other strengths and weaknesses, both were blessed with an extraordinary connection with public opinion, intuitively and also with the assistance of world-class market research operations.
Key knew that after eight years he was no longer the vote-winner he once was and even becoming a liability, and so handed over to Bill English.
Loss of appetite for Ardern has come earlier, after only five years, but there has never been a Prime Minister so constantly in our living rooms – first, as a result of her unique appeal as a young, attractive and genuinely warm and kind 37-year-old new leader; second, as a result of her leadership on and after March 15, 2019; and then of course through the two years of Covid.
Her leadership after the Christchurch terrorist attack was exemplary. It helped avoid both reprisal and copy-cat attacks, hopefully genuinely demonstrated to Muslim New Zealanders that “they are us” and encouraged the rest of us to rise to the occasion.
Her decision-making through Covid is open to more criticism but, at least for a time, her “Team of Five Million” felt real.
Almost everyone tuned in for the 1pm sermons from the podium of truth, at least in 2020.
The start of her demise was also associated with Covid – the failure to get the vaccine programme underway early enough. That, in turn, caused what would otherwise have been unnecessary, the three-month Auckland lockdown from August 2021.
The Prime Minister failed to visit Auckland once, while life carried on merrily in Wellington and elsewhere. Nor did her Government show the kindness at the centre of her brand with its treatment of Kiwis stranded abroad.
A seething anger emerged in Auckland which perhaps Labour failed to pick up fully, with the lockdown also preventing focus-groups-as-usual. Labour’s polling returned first to pre-Covid levels, and then to pre-Ardern numbers. More so even than Key by 2016, Ardern, once such a unifier, had become a highly divisive figure – with a third of the population still in love with her, a third showing signs of irrational anger, and the rest indifferent.
To younger voters, originally so central to her coalition, five years is also a very long time. For an 18-24 year old, she has been Prime Minister forever.
Ardern’s strength as a national leader cannot be denied, but nor can her extraordinary failure as a policy implementer.
On the day she became Labour leader, I told Newstalk ZB I had always regarded her as a flake and predicted she would fail. Luckily, I also acknowledged that day that the Labour caucus knew her better than me “and feels she’s the right person to fill the shoes of Savage and Fraser and Lange and Clark”.
And she did fill those shoes in Christchurch, through Covid, and in joining the pantheon of great New Zealand prime ministers with her 50 per cent election triumph in 2020 - unprecedented since union-buster Sid Holland’s 54 per cent in 1951, war leader Peter Fraser’s 51 per cent in 1946 and the 56 per cent won by the father of the welfare state, Michael Joseph Savage, in 1938.
As I wrote on election night: “She, now, can do anything she wants. She has an opportunity to deliver the transformation of New Zealand she has promised – and Helen Clark before her – and lock in Scandinavian-style social democracy for a generation or more.”
Yet, in terms of policy change or social and economic outcomes, she has failed utterly on every measure she set, making my initial assessment not too far wrong either.
Combined with the hardening of attitudes towards her personally, her Government’s derisory record was going to be the sole focus of National’s zero-target election campaign.
That has now been taken from National. Especially with Ardern’s Deputy Prime Minister and loyal lieutenant, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, ruling himself out to replace her, Labour now has an opportunity to look fresh and new, even more so than National after Key handed over to English.
The early favourite to replace her is her Minister of Everything, Chris Hipkins, perhaps with Carmel Sepuloni as his deputy after her success in keeping her difficult Social Development portfolio largely tidy over five years. Transport Minister Michael Wood might be another candidate for leader or deputy. Robertson is probably indispensable as Minister of Finance.
Hipkins is also more from the right of the Labour Party. No one who has met him would ever accuse him of being woke. To prove it, expect a Prime Minister Hipkins to carefully plan what the woke daily media will bellow are “mistakes”.
More substantively, he is orthodox on macroeconomic policy and has positioned himself as tough on law and order. Administratively, he is far more competent than Ardern but can also do a press conference to the required standard. Winston Peters would find it easier to support Hipkins after the election than he would have Ardern.
Hipkins is also not associated with policies Labour really needs to clear off the decks before the election. Those include aspects of Three Waters that are causing such angst in the provinces and, in Auckland, the unwanted and self-evidently unaffordable light-rail project which Labour has remained committed to only because it was Ardern’s first policy promise when she became leader. I name these two only because they are top of mind after what I have been doing over the last few months (see the disclosure at the bottom of this article). There will be other divisive policies the new leader will need to equally ruthlessly chop.
With Ardern out of the way, and Robertson not seeking the top job, a Hipkins-Sepuloni duo is at least as fresh and new as the Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis combo offered by National. Luxon’s lacklustre reshuffle yesterday will be completely overshadowed by Ardern’s news but consisted mostly of promoting the divisive Judith Collins and confirming another former leader, Todd Muller, in agriculture and climate change.
Ardern has allowed her party to make a real fight of it. National will need to revisit its strategy. Another Labour-NZ First Government, backed by the Greens, is probably the best bet right now.
- Matthew Hooton is a political and public affairs strategist. His clients include the Mayor of Auckland. These views, including those on Three Waters and light rail, are his own and may or may not reflect those of the Mayor.