Whatever happens on Saturday, the 2017 election will be remembered because of Jacinda Ardern. She made it a contest. Only seven weeks ago the Labour Party was looking like it would not only be defeated, it was on the cusp of becoming just another small party. Ardern saved it from that fate.

She also changed the fate of other parties. When John Key decided to move on, Bill English took over as Prime Minister. This was a significant risk. John Key had been the most popular Prime Minister New Zealand had ever seen. Bill English led National to an historic defeat in 2002. As Minister of Finance he had established himself as stable and steady with none of the Key x-factor.

But it did not seem to matter. With the Labour Party in bad shape, National was thought by every commentator to be odds on to win the election. Who else could voters support?

The arrival of Ardern meant National had to lift its game. She forced the best out of English. National had to start thinking about how to fix the many problems it paid lip service to while pursuing the holy grail of a budget surplus.


Meanwhile, Ardern took the oxygen from all other parties. New Zealand First had aspired to record high support. The Greens had looked capable of breaking through their usual 10 per cent ceiling. Other small parties thought they had a shot at picking up votes that might have gone to Labour. The rise of Labour dashed these hopes.

More than all of this, Ardern has shifted the centre of New Zealand politics. In the middle of the last century it was the welfare state. In the late 20th and early 21st century the centre was the market. The centre now belongs to active, interventionist government operating within a global market economy.

Ardern has yet to fully articulate her version of this new centre. Being handed the leadership of a party seven weeks out from an election made that impossible. Having to work with policies that have been packaged and repackaged by four other leaders over the past nine years was far from ideal. But her message from the outset was that people want to see something done about the issues they face and her government would act.

In saying this, she matched the mood for change that was latent in the country.

There is no question that National can lay claim to being a competent government. But it is equally the case that they have shown few signs of understanding, never mind responding to, the massive changes not only New Zealand but all nations are facing. To be blunt, National has always been about being stable and steady. They administer. It is their nature and what we expect of them.

If they get to form a government, the legacy of having to look active during the campaign might be that they will try to behave differently. But it will not come naturally and it may not be what the country needs or, for at least a considerable number, what is wanted.

What is wanted and needed is change. The kind that drags New Zealand into the 21st century where it can think about the type of economy, society, environment, culture and politics it wants. Ardern has framed this shift in focus in generational terms. It is more than that. The interests of all New Zealanders are tied up in realising that the status quo is the last place we should be.

It is true, however, that Ardern and the people who surround her are young in political terms. They take for granted that we live in the 21st century not the 20th. This attitude makes them more willing to think differently about the future.

The same cannot be said for National. Their caucus also contains young people. Yet National comes across as old. Their point of reference is the past and they struggle to feel good in the clothes of the future.

What will happen on Saturday is still anyone's guess. The two main parties are neck and neck. The polls tell one story, then another. Vote-shifting events like the rupture of a fuel line come out of left-field. We may find the election does not deliver a clear-cut result.

One thing, however, is already clear. The 2017 election saw a star born. Win or lose, the star's pulling power is likely to be felt for some time yet.