Jacinda Ardern is increasingly an enigma.
On one hand, she is undoubtedly a great leader. By focusing on the victims and erasing the killer's name, her leadership mitigated the risk of either retaliation or imitation following the Christchurch terrorist attack.
Similarly, her communication skills secured public compliance with the rules required to eradicate Covid-19.
And she has been rewarded.
As I wrote on election night, her majority under MMP puts her in a pantheon alongside only Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Sid Holland, Joseph Ward, King Dick Seddon and John Ballance. If she chose, she could do anything she wants — presumably to transform New Zealand into a Scandinavian-style social democracy.
Yet, on the other hand, we had confirmation again this week that she seems not to want to.
For all her rhetoric, Ardern seems to have gone along with the proposition — as UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke put it — that New Zealanders want the public services and income protections of Swedes while paying the taxes of Americans.
The Prime Minister did not quite explicitly blame voters this week for her permanently ruling out a capital gains tax (CGT) but she came close, saying "we've tried three times now to do things that specifically sit in that taxation category and there hasn't been wide support for that".
The one and only tax change promised for this term will, according to Treasury, reduce the key measure of inequality by only 0.002 points, from 0.493 to 0.491.
Given that Ardern uses such relative measures to calculate child poverty, that minuscule effect is set to be the only contribution over the next three years of her Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, who happens to be herself.
Similarly, this week's declaration of a climate emergency appears designed mainly to put National on the wrong side of the issue — in which it succeeded magnificently.
Ardern's "new" measures to make government departments buy only electric vehicles and rent green-standard offices will have an infinitesimal effect on New Zealand's carbon emissions and were already policy, albeit undelivered in her first term.
These issues — poverty, inequality, climate change and the housing crisis — are the things Ardern claims are most important to her, even motivating her to get into politics. What progress can be expected on issues further down the list?
It is as if Ardern — whose academic qualifications are famously limited to a Bachelor of Communication Studies from Waikato University — is the world's first postmodern Prime Minister, believing the discourse creates the reality, regardless of how many children might actually be hungry or how much greenhouse gas is being emitted into the atmosphere.
Ardern was a Labour MP for nine years before becoming Prime Minister, and its spokesperson on children for five and a half, but cannot be blamed for her party's complete failure to engage seriously on policy issues during its nine years in opposition.
But as Prime Minister, she is responsible for Labour now entering its fourth year in office still with no policy programme remotely matching the stated ambitions of its "conversations".
Despite all the working groups and control of the bureaucracy, the Government's first three years in power were squandered no less than its nine years in opposition. If Sir Michael Cullen and his Tax Working Group think they wasted their time, they can be consoled that they were not alone, with the Child Poverty Action Group reporting this week that none of the 42 key recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group have been fully implemented, and only four of the 126 more detailed recommendations.
Consequently, Ardern is without a substantial programme on these issues of central concern to any genuine social democrat.
The Prime Minister may be happy to hold office without ever getting around to exercising power to deliver reform, let alone the promised transformation. That, after all, was also John Key's approach to the job.
And Ardern need not worry about her National opponents getting sufficiently intellectually engaged with New Zealand's possible futures to upset the bipartisan complacency across our political class. Nor can we really blame the malaise on the politicians — Key and Ardern calculated correctly that gently presiding over the status quo while emoting politically is what the voters who decide elections want.
But major issues face New Zealand over the next year, which should be addressed seriously by someone.
Among them, the relationship with China is becoming dangerously frosty, and New Zealand may soon need to decide between it and our one ally, Australia, plus our Five Eyes partners.
That may not be unrelated to how New Zealand will pay for the massive investments in new electricity generation and distribution that will be necessary to render the Climate Change Commission's expected targets as more substantial than this week's climate emergency stunt.
Similar investment issues exist for transport, drinking water, stormwater and wastewater, especially if immigration resumes next year. Those issues and the massive undertaking of Resource Management Act reform demand some sort of review of what local government is for.
Centralisation may also be desirable in health, where operational failures during Covid-19 confirmed that while Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield communicated superbly, the existing District Health Board structure is unwieldy. A Labour Government would surely prefer to pursue some kind of unified National Health Service.
The Crown-Māori relationship will soon come under pressure in the context of water allocation, and require more skilful and inventive management than has been evident over Ihumātao.
These are enormous issues, and if there is to be no leadership on them from the Government or Opposition, civil society must step up.
Some do. The Otago Foreign Policy School does a good job analysing and pushing the boundaries on foreign policy.
The New Zealand Initiative provides intellectual leadership from its free-market perspective.
The Child Poverty Action Group has worked hard to put poverty so high on the agenda.
Generation Zero, Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Society have hugely shaped opinion and policy on climate change, among other issues.
Infrastructure NZ has emerged as an influential voice.
In contrast, it has been a while since Business NZ, the EMA or the CTU had much interesting to say on anything.
Business needs its voice to be heard. It needs new ways to step up to fill the void.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.