The Minister of Health, David Clark, tells a good story about a school in Ngaruawahia, which he visited not so long ago. "All the kids were skinny," he said. Skinny in a good way. He asked the principal why.
The answer was: water. The school had banned sugary drinks, worked hard to get whānau support, done bag inspections every day to enforce the policy and got buy-in from the local dairies. The deal was, they wouldn't sell to the kids before or after school.
The policy worked in its own right, but it was also the flagship policy for something much bigger: the school had actively embraced a role as a public health leader in the community.
There's a lot to unpack in that story. First, significant gains in health don't always cost a lot of money. Also, gains in public health among children have far-reaching implications for whole-of-life healthcare.
And yet, although the Ngaruawahia experience backs up what we already suspect – getting high-sugar drinks out of kids' diets really makes a difference – neither this Government nor the previous one has been prepared to ban such drinks.
So if they're not going to ban them, what should they do? The answer has to be a major public health campaign, promoted through all relevant agencies, to help people cut down on sugar. Is that planned? And that leads to the next point. Schools are already the heart of many communities. They have the potential to be so much more – to become major community hubs, offering not just education but healthcare, social services, recreational facilities, you name it.
Do we want that? If we do, we need to rethink the role – and the funding – of schools. And that will require significant structural change to society.
And there it is: the big problem for a Government set on transformational change. There are dozens of initiatives like water in schools: cheap, effective and relatively easy to introduce. But if you want to do it systemically, across the country, across the dozens of health and social problems those initiatives address, you need institutional change and social change. That's so much harder.
Transformation costs more, it requires big-brain joined-up thinking and it takes time.
Most governments would give the school principal at Ngaruawahia a pat on the back and leave it at that. This Government says it wants to do more.
WHO'D WANT to be prime minister in a centre-left government?
Your problem is not the Opposition. They attack you on every issue great and small, but that's politics and you deal with it. They're right in front of you, where you can see the whites of their eyes.
Your problem is your politically "like-minded" friends, standing shoulder to shoulder with you and complaining about every single thing you do, because it isn't good enough.
You problem is those "non-partisan" reporters and commentators standing on the sidelines who use the Opposition's attack lines as fact, without noticing that's what they're doing. They don't all do it, but more than a few do.
Your problem is standing right behind you, a stone-faced horde of civil servants who know better, have more experience in government and whose only task is to show you who's boss. And it isn't you.
Also to be contended with: a Cabinet with almost no prior cabinet experience. And a caucus with too many party hacks who've been in opposition too long and a lot of newbies doing everything for the first time.
But how bad is it? Critics say the Government is failing, policies are stuttering, ministers are incompetent, the transformation we were promised is nowhere to be seen and no wonder, because Winston Peters is running the country.
Maybe there's a little bit of truth in all those things. And there's certainly nothing wrong with the Government always being held to account. That's how it works. But after 18 months in office, how many critics have noticed Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues are not failing. They're as popular as ever, perhaps more so, and they've made their core task clear. They have a Big Project – to build the basis of a long-term reforming government – and they haven't budged much off course in getting it done.
They've also raised a big question: what reforms do they want that long-term government to achieve?
OH NO! the sceptics shouted. They skewered the capital gains tax!
The failure of that CGT proposal exposed a great weakness of the Ardern Government: they're surprisingly poor at promoting their ideas. But it also displayed them at their most skilful. Yes, you read that right.
Fairer taxation is, or should be, a core value for Labour. But it doesn't follow that a poorly conceived and widely opposed CGT should be part of it.
The CGT was bad policy: exemptions and loopholes would have made it only marginally effective. It was bad politics, because it gave National leader Simon Bridges a very big stick to beat the Government with.
Dropping the CGT, however, was good politics. Bridges was reduced to ranting about slushies. The decision helped both of Labour's coalition partners, which is important. NZ First can say, with partial accuracy, that it stopped the tax. The Greens can say, with complete accuracy, that they're the only party in Parliament committed to it.
It was also realistic, because the battle over public opinion was won by its opponents. With the audaciously promoted message that the CGT was unfair. Labour ministers did almost nothing to counter this and most of their progressive supporters were missing in action too.
Now the CGT has gone, though, other tax fairness policies can come to the fore. I'm looking at you, Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
The challenge to Ardern, Robertson and co is not especially about policies. It's about them all learning how to sell. Even Ardern, as good as she is at projecting confidence and generating popularity, has not been able – or not tried very hard – to win popular support for transformational programmes.
Government-initiated inquiries have proposed all manner of reforms. In education, with school governance. In transport, with the new emphasis on safety and public transport, and with Auckland's regional fuel tax. In prisons, with a new focus on mental health, life skills and help with addiction. In welfare, with the case now made for ground-up reform. In climate change, with the need to act decisively on "the issue of our generation".
Labour ministers have largely kept out of all these debates, or been ineffective when they have joined in. Carmel Sepuloni disappointed so many with her weak response to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's report three weeks ago, but she was not out of step with the way other colleagues have handled comparable reports in their own areas.
Super-cautious, when half the country was hoping for supercalifragi-etc.
Why do they do this? It's hard to believe they don't want transformational change. They all argued for it often enough in Opposition.
It feels far more like they simply do not know how to promote a good big idea to an even mildly sceptical audience.
From a progressive perspective, this is a hell of a problem. But there is another way to look at it.
WHAT'S TRANSFORMATION, anyway? Radical structural change, to the economy and to society?
There's another definition: transformation is the changes you make that won't be undone by the hotheads in whatever government comes along next. Transformation as structural change, or as lasting change.
Actually, it's both, isn't it? Look around the world and there's AOC, the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who's determined to set fire to a politically reactionary status quo with her radical populism. Jacinda Ardern is not AOC.
Not by temperament, not by political outlook and not by status. Ardern is not a first-term firebrand looking to make her mark. She's the Prime Minister.
And she's a disciple of Helen Clark, a cautious liberal centrist humanist.
Ardern, like Clark, clearly subscribes to the view that provided you keep facing the right way, it's okay to take little steps. In fact, it's better to do it that way, because you're more likely to stay popular for longer, and that will allow you, over time, to travel further.
Just like Clark, Ardern is determined not to see her Government collapse in a blaze of pointless glory. She wants to achieve lastingly. There's a cost to it — you will anger your progressive supporters — and Ardern seems willing to pay it.
It's called incrementalism. Helen Clark won three terms in office, an achievement not matched by any other Labour leader. But did she do enough with those three terms? It depends who you ask.
So Ardern presides over a Government that has offered teachers "the best deal they've had in a decade", and probably a lot longer than that. It's not enough? Probably true. But she is not suddenly going to transform the status of teachers in the economy.
Nor is she going to raise benefit levels by up to 47 per cent, as recommended by that welfare advisory group. Or cause outrage among some of the "elite" schools with school governance reform, even though it's desperately needed by many poorer schools. She's not that leader.
But she has also shown us the meaning of governing with kindness, and how powerful that turned out to be. So many commentators used to say it was an empty concept, but we know better now. Next step: to show us how kindness is going to work day by day in the building of a society that is more fair and just, and rich in opportunity for all.
Again, looking at you, Grant Robertson, with the world's first Wellbeing Budget to come this week.
They will do it with a clever revision of the Budget Responsibility Rules (BRR). Sections of the left are still obsessed about the BRR. The Government cannot be progressive, they argue, while remaining shackled to neo-liberal tenets of economic propriety. The BRR stops it spending money where it's most needed.
There's some truth in that. But Labour and the Greens staked their fiscal credibility on the BRR and that always meant dropping it was not going to happen, at least not this term.
Instead, the revision Robertson has announced, for next term, puts fiscal targets into a range rather than leaving them as precise points. They will have more spending flexibility while they retain their commitment to "prudence". Small steps get you a long way, sometimes.
DESPITE WHAT you might have read or heard almost everywhere, Ardern has turned out to be very good at running a coalition government.
It's a job that gets harder every election, because the recipe for success remains so elusive and the fate of the Māori Party haunts them all.
NZ First and the Greens both know what the reward is for being a constructive partner, winning only some of the gains you promised and being ritually humiliated along the way. It's oblivion.
Labour knows it too. The art of coalition politics involves being the singular hero of your constituency while also doing your bit to maintain a stable collective government.
Your enemy is not the Opposition. Your enemy is the coalition partner who will betray you. Not the minor betrayals: all of you will sabotage at least some of the others' cherished policies, if only to keep your own profile elevated.
The betrayal that matters is the one aimed at bringing down the Government. To hell with governing, a coalition party may think, the glories of martyrdom will bring us votes.
Everyone fears NZ First will try to do this; some left-wing commentators have been publicly advising the Greens to do it too.
To the Greens' credit they do not seem tempted. To Ardern and Labour's credit they have managed their side of the relationships — to date — to preclude it happening.
None of them get that credit, though. Instead, we keep being told Winston Peters is the real prime minister.
No coalition party gets everything it wants. John Key's Government spent nine years trying for comprehensive reform of the RMA, a reform at the very heart of its economic strategy, and he could never do it because his coalition partners wouldn't let him.
But you never heard anyone suggesting Peter Dunne or Marama Fox was the real prime minister.
If the Ardern Government makes progress on a Labour-led incrementalist agenda, and if both NZ First and the Greens can credibly claim that agenda is informed by their own policies, that's not an Ardern weakness. It's a considerable achievement.
MEANWHILE, THERE'S so much absurdity. A leading right-wing commentator declared recently the Government was failing "on all substantial matters". He listed "KiwiBuild, child poverty, mental health and teacher strikes".
As a list of "all substantial matters", that's pretty laughable. What about fiscal management, economic development, trade, climate change, biodiversity, transport, domestic violence, other crime, corrections, welfare reform, other education and health issues, race relations, our place in the world and the building of kindness into the bedrock of our society? There's a lot on.
More to the point, it's not true the Government is failing in any of the areas listed. Even KiwiBuild.
It is true housing minister Phil Twyford was foolish to promise so much progress so quickly, and it's obvious KiwiBuild hasn't gone smoothly. But what did anyone expect?
The construction industry has a major capacity crisis, with vested interests reluctant to change — when Twyford became minister only 10 per cent of construction companies even had enough social responsibility to take on apprentices.
Banks, with their profits at record levels, have been selfish and unhelpful.
And officialdom has not been geared to cope. The controversies around KiwiBuild point to internal dysfunction, not at Cabinet level but within government agencies. Consents for innovative housing solutions are obstructed at local level. Regulations covering prefab construction have been very slow to emerge. These things are scandals.
And even though the problems are enormous, there are success stories. Several developers are creating affordable housing options in many parts of Auckland.
Slow progress does not mean failure. Take mental health. The Government did not move decisively when He Ara Oranga, the Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction, reported in December last year. But it has signalled this will be one of two areas to receive the bulk of new spending in the Budget.
The other new spending priority will, apparently, be poverty reduction. Again, there will be no quick fix: the causes of poverty are set deep in the structure of the economy and, despite the stardust, Ardern doesn't have a magic wand.
Targets have now been set to address child poverty. But to do it effectively, we need to change how we approach jobs and income, benefits, housing, health services, educational opportunities, crime and punishment, community services, substance abuse, domestic violence, drugs, banks, loan sharks and other lending agencies, and much more.
Including, especially, the relationship between tangata whenua and everyone else. Also including, especially, the relationship between rich and poor, those who have wealth and power in our society and those who do not.
Who's up for that? Long-lasting, locked-in transformation will take years. Holding a viable coalition together — and putting up with the frustrations it brings — is critical to the task.
But still, is the Government too cautious? Is the long-term goal bold enough? Cue the Wellbeing Budget.
Creating such a Budget, with a joint focus on economic, social, cultural and environmental measures, will be transformative in itself, if it's done well. It has the potential to profoundly change the way we measure value, what we call success and how we focus resources.
And as with water in schools, not everything will need lots of money thrown at it.
If they're smart, Ardern, Robertson and colleagues will use that Budget to manifest their Big Project. They will show us how they intend to transform the country for the better, over time, and they will commit to selling the message.
They will make us believe in their reforms and they will instil confidence — among supporters and at least some of the sceptics — that going slow but steady, taking the country and their coalition partners with them, is the best way to build up those reforms and lock them in.
Will they really do that? Every day, it looks impossible. But it isn't.