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Sam Sachdeva: Ardern’s chance to change the narrative

After a month of mishaps where her leadership and government have been called into question, Jacinda Ardern has a chance to reset the narrative at an event this weekend. Sam Sachdeva discusses what the Prime Minister and her team have in store, and whether it will be enough to turn things around.

While Jacinda Ardern’s year on the whole will likely end as one to remember for the right reasons, not least the birth of her first child, it’s easy to imagine her stewing over what has been a mensis horribilis.

Clare Curran’s sacking from Cabinet and eventual resignation (as well as the CTO saga which triggered it), Meka Whaitiri’s sidelining over a “staffing matter” still being investigated, the completion (if not release) of the “summer camp” report, and rumblings over New Zealand First’s outsized influence in the coalition Government have added up to a month or so to forget.

In that light, it’s easy to see the Prime Minister’s speech this weekend to a handpicked crowd as a Trumpian attempt to reset the narrative by returning to rally mode.

Is the event (marking the one-year anniversary of the election a little early, before Ardern heads to the United Nations) a panicked attempt to recapture some of that initial “stardust”?

Not so, says her office, insisting there will be substance on display as a result of months of work.

A foundational document for the coalition

Ardern will unveil what is intended to serve as an organisational framework for the Government as a whole, with a dozen or so high-level objectives outlining its social and economic goals.

It’s something akin to the last government’s Business Growth Agenda, albeit with a left-wing slant - a foundational document against which all policy and legislation should be tested, weeding out anything which is off topic or unnecessary.

Heading off scepticism about whether Labour’s partners will play ball, the framework has been signed off by various Cabinet committees and should therefore have buy-in from the entire coalition.

In theory, anything which binds the governing parties more closely together - the restless New Zealand First in particular - could help to reduce the current uncertainty over which policies actually have the support needed to get across the line.

Will it work? That’s a hard question to answer.

In theory, anything which binds the governing parties more closely together - the restless New Zealand First in particular - could help to reduce the current uncertainty over which policies actually have the support needed to get across the line.

The decision to hire “coordination officers” to manage communication and relationships between Labour and New Zealand First, as well as Labour and the Greens, would also seem acknowledgement of the fact that greater clarity is needed (the jobs were advertised in July; it’s unclear whether they have been filled).

Competence and communication

But it’s hard to feel any confidence that a high-level declaration of values will address the baser issues of political management and poor communication behind some of the recent stumbles.

As what Ardern has (somewhat euphemistically) dubbed a “pure MMP government”, the coalition parties have to act in good faith to get their legislation across the line.

But as Danyl Mclauchlan pointed out in an astute piece for The Spinoff, New Zealand First’s lack of a legislative agenda results in what can amount to asymmetric warfare.

Again and again - with Three Strikes repeal, the refugee quota, industrial relations reform, and the Crown/Maori relations portfolio - Winston Peters and his party have thrown their weight around, while Shane Jones’ snipes at Fonterra, Air New Zealand and other corporates haven’t exactly helped Ardern.

To pin all the Government’s problems on New Zealand First is far too simplistic, and some in the party feel Labour needs to get its own house in order when it comes to the competence and communication of its ministers and staff.

Even Peters’ anger at the Government being described as “Labour-led”, when his party and the Greens each got less than a fifth of Labour’s vote total at the election, seems churlish in the extreme.

Of course, to pin all the Government’s problems on New Zealand First is far too simplistic, and some in the party feel Labour needs to get its own house in order when it comes to the competence and communication of its ministers and staff.

At least the Greens have stayed out of trouble, their issues largely internal as party supporters get used to the sensation of swallowing dead rats.

Managing the media

Then there is Ardern’s relationship with the media, whose role in shaping perceptions of any government can’t be ignored.

The cancellation of planned media appearances with Newshub, TVNZ and Newstalk ZB, all put down to “diary issues”, will not help her; hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.

Contrast that with a number of recent interviews with international media that have resulted in gushing profiles (a recent piece from the New York Times being aptly skewered by Mclauchlan), and the cognitive dissonance between glowing overseas coverage and the more complex reality of domestic politics could start to hit home, as it did on occasion with John Key.

Ardern’s trip to the UN General Assembly presents a mild risk in that regard, although images of the Prime Minister with baby Neve on the world stage will likely be well received by most voters.

The UN is replete with the sort of lofty principles which Ardern will set for her Government on Sunday.

The coalition could continue to share the issues of infighting and ineffectiveness which dog the intergovernmental organisation in the eyes of its critics.

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