The parliamentary term has run barely half its course, yet some of the Ardern Government's detractors are already speculating that it is doomed.
Not so fast, naysayers.
A year and a half can be an aeon in politics.
It is reckless to write off a Government amidst a bout of mid-term turbulence and a slump in its popularity.
In 2004, Helen Clark's Labour-led Government endured a gnarly second term as Māori anger over the foreshore and seabed issue escalated. Then with the Don Brash-led National Party on the charge over "race-based political correctness", welfare dependency and law and order tensions, Labour fell up to 10 points behind in the polls. For five months, in fact, National maintained a lead.
Yet Clark was able to rally her troops, reclaim the narrative and, aided by Brash's fumbling ineptitude, surge back to win the next election, thus securing a third term.
These are unequivocally difficult days for Jacinda Ardern's Government. The pandemic and its consequences have been tiring for everyone, especially ministers charged with making the big and critical decisions on protecting lives and livelihoods.
It certainly has been tiring for the populace. Sir Geoffrey Palmer noted in a newspaper column last week that after two years of having their freedoms restricted — restrictions greater than any outside wartime — "people are sick of it". Business failures, chronic labour shortages and cost-of-living increases are adding to a feeling of malaise.
Unsurprisingly, the polls have tightened and National can be expected to pull ahead of Labour in the near future — even though Wednesday's police operation to disperse the deranged mob who defiled the parliamentary precinct in the name of anti-mandate protest action might yet play favourably for the Government.
A dip in popularity as a consequence of general pandemic-related disquiet, coupled with a range of economic headaches, need not be a terminal condition for the Government.
This is because March could be our worst month for Covid-19. Omicron cases are expected to hit a peak in the next three or four weeks. Beyond the autumn there is the prospect of better times ahead.
Of course, the possibility remains that a new variant, causing severe disease, emerges and displaces Omicron, which would necessitate more restrictions in the future. That is the big unknowable.
But in announcing this week that self-isolation requirements are being lifted, and that the end is nigh for the divisive MIQ system, the PM will have lifted the mood of many affected by border bottlenecks. Ardern has herself acknowledged that the anguish of MIQ has been real for families and their loved ones.
Presupposing that the pandemic begins to abate in the second half of 2022, the Government will go into the election year basking in the distinction of a job well done: one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, and public health measures that have worked, as evidenced by the lowest death rate from Covid-19 in the OECD.
Overall, the Government's response to the pandemic has reflected the country's inherent anxiety about the virus.
The latest Ipsos Issues Monitor, drawing on fieldwork conducted in mid-February, found that about 75per cent of respondents believed the restrictions were about right, or could have been tighter.
And nearly half (47per cent) of those surveyed by Ipsos wanted the border kept closed, with nobody allowed in or out of the country until Covid-19 was contained.
So the Government's cautious approach has been well aligned with public sentiment. That will not be forgotten by voters come election time.
There has clearly been an economic price to pay for Covid-19, as closures and labour shortages have illustrated, though macro indicators are heading in the right direction.
Tax revenue — fuelled by strong GST returns — is above forecast and debt levels remain well below economies with which we compare ourselves, so much so that the markets barely flutter.
The deficit remains lower than expected, despite Grant Robertson dishing out $23 billion in wage subsidies and resurgence payments to businesses over the past two years. The country is still expected to return to surplus in 2023/24, three years earlier than forecast in the May 2021 Budget.
But it is clear that economists and the populace are in two different places. In the focus groups people tend to use the likes of their hairdresser or local café as an indicator of economic health, and so the narrative that has emerged is one of flatness and failures.
They commonly lose sight of the bigger picture — namely the resilience of the New Zealand economy as reflected by the Crown's financial accounts and a buoyant export sector. This mindset can be expected to change as border restrictions are lifted and international tourists begin to arrive.
Inflation, pushed along by rising oil prices and supply chain constraints beyond New Zealand's control, had been expected to begin easing from the third quarter of 2022, but with Russia waging war in Ukraine, those hopes might've been dashed for now.
If cost-of-living pressures are weakening as election year begins, and consumer behaviour changes quickly, the Government stands to have the benefit of tailwinds in the run-up to the election.
Imagine for a moment that 2023 sees inflation cooling, farmgate milk prices still at giddy heights, overseas tourists beginning to return, Kiwi exporters cashing in on the UK Free Trade Agreement, FTA talks in Brussels striking paydirt and house prices stabilising.
Under that scenario it would be an intrepid punter who bets against the Government's re-election.
- Mike Munro is a former chief of staff for Jacinda Ardern and was chief press secretary for Helen Clark.