Jacinda Ardern's best path to re-election might be to claim she hasn't been given a fair go to deliver what she promised in 2017.
This week's Taxpayers' Union-Curia poll confirms a return to politics as usual, with the gap between Labour-Green and National-ACT down to just 3 per cent. Across all five public polls conducted this year, the average gap is 5 per cent, down from 2021's 13 per cent.
More alarming for Labour-Green is voters now being evenly split over whether the country is heading in the right or wrong direction. It's a massive change from a year ago when over 70 per cent thought things were going well.
In 2021, pollsters often failed to find a single issue about which National was trusted more than Labour. Now, National is ahead on three key issues: the economy; jobs; and law and order.
These polls were also completed before Omicron numbers surged and the anti-mandate protest around Parliament became a Women of Greenham Common-style occupation.
Since then, voters have seen last Thursday's police operation to clear the rabble inexplicably suspended the same day. When police showed up with long batons the next morning, someone quickly told them to put them away.
The police union now bets Parliament's grounds will remain illegally occupied until at least the onset of winter. Having set up industrial-scale kitchens, the occupiers say they have supplies to feed themselves for months.
Nevertheless, as Ardern said when initially shrugging off the protest, "this too will pass". Even if Covid-19 is still circulating by election day, and the remnants of a camp remain at Parliament, the issue which has dominated politics since early 2020 will be well behind us.
The 2023 election will be fought on the usual ground, including the three issues about which National is already ahead — plus leadership and health where Labour remains ascendant, and poverty, housing and education.
The general economic environment over the next 18 months will not favour incumbents. The Budget Economic and Fiscal Update on May 19 is unlikely to be as rosy as the Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update two months ago.
Right now, Ardern can tell a good story on unemployment, partly because the border has been shut to foreign and many New Zealand workers for two years. Ardern is determined to maintain that, by "rebalancing" immigration policy, which means keeping it ultra-low. Nevertheless, unemployment will inevitably rise from December's 3.2 per cent.
High inflation will persist longer than expected thanks to Labour-Green efforts to mitigate its effects on the poor, including raising benefits and the minimum wage — plus Adrian Orr's apparent belief that inflation is now something to largely just "look through".
Grant Robertson's "one-off" $10 billion Budget spend-up between now and the election, mainly on climate change and health, will further stimulate demand. Labour MPs worried about their seats must hope the positive vibe from his new projects will outweigh voters' misery from the higher prices they'll cause.
Ardern's formal prime minister's statement to Parliament two weeks ago was dominated by Covid, which has served her so well. But the second half outlined an ambitious 2022 reform programme, much drawing on themes from 2017.
"The Government's economic plan," she said "is to build a high-wage, low-carbon economy, that provides economic security in good times and bad. It is focused on increasing the value of our exports, developing new markets, and investing in skills, new technology, modern infrastructure, and research and innovation to drive productivity, reduce emissions and increase wages."
On top of finally opening the border and resuming tourism this year, Ardern promises to personally lead trade missions to Australia, Asia, the US and Europe, and complete the free-trade agreements with the UK and EU.
The balance of her economic programme is deeply linked to climate change.
Perhaps aware that the Government's Emissions Reduction Plan, due by May 31, will not show a clear pathway to the Climate Change Commission's budgets using existing technology, Ardern promises to put "innovation and clean technology at the heart of our economic transition". Government grants will help develop new technologies and "support businesses to become early adopters of technology and global leaders ready to seize the markets of tomorrow".
The Government will push a new "national integrated farm planning framework", light rail in Auckland and the New Zealand Battery Project, code for the Lake Onslow proposal the Beehive backs. Nearly $60b will be spent on infrastructure over the next five years, Ardern claims.
The health reforms will be completed this year, the resource management legislation introduced and the four new water entities established. Fair pay agreements will be introduced. All teachers from early childhood centres to secondary school will go on a unified pay scale.
Inevitably, Ardern promises more houses and plans to reduce poverty and inequality. The scale of ambition is breathtaking, just as it was in 2017. Wisely, though, Ardern has learned from KiwiBuild not to quantify her objectives.
The problem is that there is very little reason to think Ardern's Government will prove more competent at achieving a "year of delivery" in 2022 than when she asked for it in 2019. Not just senior officials but the rest of the Beehive are increasingly sceptical of the scale of ambitions churned out by Ardern's PR machine compared with the competence and political will to make them happen, especially in the face of public opposition.
Yet Ardern can remain confident. She still has her global brand to project back to her base. There are no serious TV current affairs programmes in New Zealand to hold governments to account before voters.
It won't matter, for example, if the gaps in Ardern's Emissions Reduction Plan are papered over with promises of as-yet-unimagined new technologies. And a hunk of Ardern's personal support is rusted on, in the form of people who sincerely believe she did not just save lives in the abstract, but their life personally.
For such voters, Ardern can simply return to her 2017 rhetoric, explaining her first term was constrained by Winston Peters' handbrake and her second by Covid. Give me a third term, she'll say, and she'll finally deliver whatever the "this" was, when she promised "let's do this" in the exciting first days of her leadership.
Christopher Luxon and David Seymour can't compete on that ground. They'll need to offer something more substantial than voters have become used to since 2008 if they are to defeat her.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.