How does National compete against a game-changing young Prime Minister?

by Bevan Rapson / 13 February, 2018

Jacinda Ardern takes to the stage at Laneway. Photo / Getty Images

The Jacinda Ardern phenomenon has effectively pushed the fast-forward button on New Zealand politics.

You can hardly blame the National MPs who kicked off the late-January rumours of likely changes to their leadership.

Many of them have very little else to keep them occupied.

Plenty was made after National’s election defeat of how strong an Opposition the party would be, due to sheer strength of numbers. And looking at the Parliamentary seating map, the sea of blue is undeniably impressive. Even on the losing side of the post-election tug-o-war for New Zealand First’s support, National’s 56-strong caucus could be convincingly talked up as a powerful force for the new government to reckon with.

But the numbers game was actually lost back in October, when New Zealand First made its decision to form a government with Labour, supported by the Greens. A government gets to make the running, as this one showed in its busy first 100 days, while its rivals must battle for air-time.

Opposition is mostly a thankless grind, with only a party’s leading lights able to make themselves heard now and then above the clanking and whirring of the victors’ programme. Little wonder that among the National throng thoughts have turned towards future scenarios, or that the positioning, jockeying and odds-laying has commenced.

But those who would thrust to the fore will have to convince their colleagues they have at least part of the formula to return National to power in short order. And that is easier said than done. It should have dawned by now on the caucus’s wiser heads that National’s predicament is worse than the bare parliamentary numbers would suggest.

The Jacinda Ardern phenomenon has effectively pushed the fast-forward button on New Zealand politics. After riding so high until so recently, National has been left looking outflanked and just a little outdated.

Gallingly, the damage hasn’t been inflicted by a Helen Clark-style power-seeking missile but by the soft bomb of a leader who as recently as last June was telling Next magazine she didn’t want to be Prime Minister.

Rather than cleverly plot her way into the top job, seeing off rivals along the way – the kind of process National MPs might more easily understand – Ardern seemed to take office via a series of happy accidents, or an alignment of the stars, with her unexpected elevation releasing a pent-up longing for generational change.

Then, just as her opponents settled into their politics-as-usual stance to commence hostilities at the start of this year, she surprised everyone with the announcement of her pregnancy, a revelation that appears to have only supercharged the charm advantages she’s already employed with such success.

The first big political poll of the new year, from Newshub Reid Research at the end of January, had Labour on 42%, its highest level since 2007; 70% of respondents believed Ardern was performing well; asked specifically about her pregnancy, about a third thought it would positively affect her performance as leader, 40% expected no impact and only around 20% thought it would have a negative effect.

National’s strategists will look in vain for the Crosby Textor crib sheet on strategies for defeating a popular mother-to-be. Nor is very much likely to be gained from studying the precedent of Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth to a daughter in office in the very different world of 1990 Pakistan. Like the Prime Minister, they’re in new territory. Forgive them if they are not quite as thrilled.

On the face of it, Ardern is only doing what vast numbers of women in New Zealand have done over the past half century and before: combined motherhood with holding down a job. But in keeping with the good fortune she enjoyed in 2017, this happy personal event has the potential to deliver political advantages.

Remember how John Key would use soft media (commercial radio and the like) to talk past the Parliamentary press pack? Ardern, who like Key puts great store on positivity, has already proven herself adept at making use of similar outlets – women’s magazines, in particular. The arrival of a baby can be expected to produce a giant cloud of warm media fuzzies, with the power to muffle any number of Opposition gotchas.

And National’s problems go beyond needing to rejuvenate its leadership to match the generational change Ardern represents. By making every post a short-term winner over the Key years, it neglected to develop any sustainable long-term coalition partners. Act, which it has kept on life support, is a busted flush; even New Zealand First hardly seems guaranteed a post-Peters existence.

Will something Trumpian pop up on the rightist fringe in reaction against the Ardern government? Potentially, though encouraging that kind of partner would be rather at odds with any modernisation led by the likes of Simon Bridges or Amy Adams.

Maybe the few hundred who turned up to protest the removal of reference to Jesus from the parliamentary prayer could be encouraged to form a new Christian Party – although given the dismal performance of Christian Heritage around the turn of the century, hoping for another version of that vehicle involves quite a leap of faith.

National’s congratulations to Ardern on her pregnancy were warm, even if some furrowed brows and face-palming might have been understandable behind closed doors. That public response was in keeping with the spirit of cross-party compassion usually maintained by MPs in regard to family matters.

The hours, travel demands and unpredictability of parliamentary life can put an enormous strain on MPs’ families, although the relatively generous salaries and allowances might offer some consolation.

Partisan hostilities were also put to one side at the death of former Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton in early January, with generous tributes offered from both sides of the traditional divide.

The indefatigable Anderton, who lived and breathed politics, deserved no less. The establishment of KiwiBank alone was a remarkable achievement, especially on the part of someone whose career had taken so many previous twists. His advocacy on behalf of society’s underdogs was tireless.

General thoughts about politicians and their families were stirred in recalling how the usually unstoppable Anderton had to abandon the fray in 1994, temporarily stepping down from the Alliance leadership, after his daughter’s death the previous year.

In a wider sense, political parties share some of the characteristics of families, with undercurrents roiling beneath the sunny image presented to the world. And Anderton was at the heart of one of the great “family” splits of modern New Zealand politics, when he quit a Labour Party in thrall to Rogernomics to found the NewLabour Party and then the Alliance. Eventually, time – and Anderton’s fortitude – helped healed the breach sufficiently for him to play a leading role in the Clark government, under his own Progressive banner.

It was good to hear Labour figures sing his praises so fulsomely, but impossible to forget the virulent attacks launched against him when he dared to break the tribal bonds three decades ago. Although their party had at the time effectively been hijacked from within, Anderton – their former president – was for several years public enemy number one. Put that down to Labour’s roots in the trade union movement, where unity is prized above all else.

National is a different beast, but can also sometimes resemble a not-so-happy family, even if the dirty laundry is usually kept better hidden.

Plenty of families resolve to make a fresh start as the grind of another year begins. In a National caucus facing a very different kind of opponent, and after a summer holiday to mull things over, suddenly everyone will have their own ideas about “what needs to change around here”. 

This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of North & South.

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