Jacinda Ardern remains Labour's greatest asset. But if your best asset is heading towards certain insolvency, aren't you best to dump it and invest in something else?
Ardern's visit to the US was a triumph. So, too, will be today's to Australia, especially if a compromise is negotiated with Anthony Albanese over the 501s.
The Prime Minister will then host Samoa's Fiamē Naomi Mata'afa in New Zealand, before strutting her new cold-war warrior credentials at the Nato Summit in Madrid. Kiwi officials hope her global brand will help liberal European leaders sell their voters a more pro-American foreign policy and higher defence spending.
In return, Ardern needs to report back home that our free-trade agreement with the EU is nearing completion. This is all great stuff for New Zealand.
The problem is that Labour strategists want to move on from the old St Jacinda brand to a more sleeves-rolled-up version, concerned primarily about your grocery bills, mortgage payments and the cost of kids' shoes.
They judge, rightly, that after two years of lockdowns and the associated economic and personal pain — and with prices, rents and mortgage payments now rising faster than wages — voters want a more prosaic Prime Minister.
But Ardern can't quite play the new role. She is too obviously more in her element talking geopolitics, hate speech or climate change in Washington, Sydney or Madrid than inflation, interest rates and housing costs in Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch.
As a student leader, junior diplomat and influential staffer in Helen Clark's office, Grant Robertson seemed destined to make history as New Zealand's first openly gay Prime Minister. Since then, New Zealand has progressed so that milestone would now attract only fleeting interest.
At least as surprising as that social evolution, the notoriously Machiavellian Robertson has reinvented himself as an utterly loyal deputy to Ardern and a down-to-earth, no-nonsense Finance Minister.
In that sense, Robertson has followed Bill English, also picked early as a future Prime Minister.
Like English, Robertson's career then included brutal humiliations. English could at least content himself that his defeats were at the hands of Helen Clark and Don Brash.
Robertson had to endure being beaten by David Cunliffe and then Andrew Little for the Labour leadership.
To their credit, both Robertson and English picked themselves up to become highly successful wingmen to leaders better suited to lead their parties to power under the circumstances that prevailed.
As Finance Minister, English was undoubtedly more careful with the taxpayer's wallet than Robertson. Yet both accepted massive borrowing after the Christchurch earthquakes and Covid outbreak rather than raise tax or cut spending. While on a slower repayment schedule than English and now with a less ambitious target, Robertson at least talks about paying his debt down before the next shock.
Of greatest relevance to Labour's current plight, English was the perfect safe-pair-of-hands and old-pair-of-socks candidate when median voters started tiring of John Key's more cloud-bouncing style.
Key's 2016 resignation followed focus groups beginning to describe him as arrogant, the failing he would cite when asked Proust's question of the trait he most deplored in others. Whether that hurt the right side of Key's brain, the left side knew that negative focus-group feedback presages falling polls. He judged National would have a better chance in 2017 under a new leader.
So it transpired. With National seeking its first fourth term since 1969, English won 44 per cent of the party vote, miles ahead of Clark's 34 per cent in 2008 or Jenny Shipley's 31 per cent in 1999. A fall of only 3 per cent over National's 2014 result, it is extremely unlikely that Key would have done as well.
Labour's difficulties are much worse than when Key calculated it was in National's best interests for him to hand over the top job. Since its failure to buy the vaccine on time led to last year's four-month lockdown, Labour has been on a steep slide. In the most recent polls it now averages just 35 per cent, well down from the mid-40s or higher it routinely scored before August's avoidable lockdown.
The Budget didn't help. The 1News-Kantar poll, taken since then, has Labour down two more points to 35.
According to Roy Morgan, the Australian pollsters whose 2020 work most closely picked Ardern's 50 per cent triumph and National's 26 per cent disaster, Labour is at just 31.5 per cent and still heading south.
That was the second poll in a month showing National-Act able to govern alone. The others suggest either a hung Parliament requiring new elections, or Labour-Green relying on Te Pāti Māori.
If interest rates and grocery bills keep rising faster than wages, there will soon be a poll with Labour in the 20s, putting Ardern in Judith Collins, Little, Cunliffe or English 1.0 territory.
Ardern's globetrotting risks bringing that fateful day forward.
In the circumstances that now prevail, Labour's recovery and the jobs of at least 25 MPs depend on successfully shifting to the more everyday Kiwi brand to which Ardern has this year proven unsuited.
For his part, Robertson has transformed himself into almost a caricature of a family accountant operating above the Te Atatū shops.
He's the ordinary bloke who helped us keep things reasonably steady during the pandemic, and now wants us to pay off our credit cards and overdraft, but not worry so much about the mortgage. He watches the rugby with us at the local pub, where the beer's still sold in plastic jugs.
He's married to a bus driver and they're proud grandparents. Like English, he's much more likely to buy the family Hawaiian pizza than something exotic from the flash new pizzeria.
He has to wear suits to work but they don't fit properly because, like most of us, he's eaten too many pies. You could imagine him at the Prime Minister's desk, with his jacket and tie off and — yes — with his sleeves literally rolled up.
As Prime Minister, Robertson could declare his predecessor the greatest since Michael Joseph Savage and arrange for her to receive every honour a grateful nation could bestow.
He would claim not even to aspire to such greatness but to just do the job, to help you stay afloat during the recession and be safe from Christopher Luxon's dastardly plans.
If Ardern's re-election becomes unviable, this is undoubtedly Labour's best bet for a third term. Much better to get it done tidily before Christmas than panic in election year.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.