Ardern feels the love as Labour revels in power

Jacinda Ardern was rapturously received in Dunedin, as the Labour Party revelled in its first year in Government. Sam Sachdeva reports on the mood from the party conference and the push to manage expectations.

A crowd of onlookers stood patiently on the street outside the Dunedin Town Hall after the Labour Party congress, waiting for the target of their affection to appear.

Clarke Gayford received a cheer as he strode out to the ministerial minivan, and Neve prolonged cooing as she was lifted out of her stroller and into a baby seat.

Then in a flash, Jacinda Ardern appeared, waved briefly to the crowd, and just as quickly disappeared inside the vehicle.

“Totally worth it,” one woman said.

The sentiment was likely shared among party members at a conference where the overwhelming mood was one of delight at a first year in government, and unity behind their popular leader.

MPs and party officials positively bounded onto the stage to speak, and for all the warnings against complacency, most seemed content to revel in the moment.

About 1200 people crammed into the venue to hear Ardern speak on Sunday afternoon, with hundreds more left cooling their heels on the street outside in a line that snaked around the building.

The queue for Jacinda Ardern's speech snaked around the Dunedin Town Hall. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Clarke Gayford took on the role of MC - “proving nepotism is alive and well,” he said - and warmed up the crowd with praise for the “joyful, jubilant and positively infectious” mood after nine long years in the political wilderness.

“Who knew that Nigel Haworth had a smile on him? How remarkable,” Gayford quipped of the party president.

Then, after a musical interlude, it was time for the star of the show - or as Gayford described Ardern, someone way behind on cleaning the dishes.

She was rapturously received throughout, but in truth she has given better speeches.

A laundry list of people to thank and achievements to tick off - the families package, Mana in Mahi, KiwiBuild, the Provincial Growth Fund - doesn’t lend itself to high rhetoric, even if it is understandable for a party conference.

The Prime Minister did her best, with a speech themed around the letters she received from members of the public.

One enthusiastic child had asked her whether she could pass a law to “change the boring grey toasters into bright colours”, while a mother had praised the Government’s families package, saying the extra money had allowed her to buy her children school socks without holes, and blankets and sheets to keep them warm at night.

Jacinda Ardern's policy announcement of greater support for children with learning needs has some wrinkles to be ironed out, but provides a boost to a long-neglected area. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But it was the meat of the speech, a $271 million package to put 600 new “learning support coordinators” into schools from early 2020,  which was received with glee.

Cries of “thank you”, almost certainly from stressed teachers, rang out intermittently as Ardern spoke about the plans to provide greater support to children with complex learning needs, their parents, and the teachers struggling to balance the extra attention with their normal work.

“If a child needs support and is not getting it, that’s not fair, and I’m not prepared to tolerate it,” she said.

There are some wrinkles yet to be worked out: primarily, how the coordinators will be shared across rural schools or those with small rolls, as well as how they will be trained and recruited when the Government is already ramping up its search for teachers overseas.

But the prospect of lighter workloads for teachers, and a single point of contact for parents, through fully-funded roles, was more than enough to win over the crowd, and probably the education sector in what has been an oft-neglected area.

Ardern and her ministers were at pains to point out that the 600 staff were simply the first tranche, with more to come down the line once they could be budgeted for.

Managing the expectations of jubilant party members, particularly when it comes to spending, was a constant throughout the conference.

Some Labour members would like the party to keep stumping up cash for new initiatives, but the PM and her Finance Minister were quick to promote the value of running surpluses. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Ardern picked up where Finance Minister Grant Robertson left off in his Saturday speech, saying that although the Budget Responsibility Rules hadn’t been the subject of too many letters, it was “vital” that the Government keep its books in the black.

“A surplus is a safety net. Nobody knows what’s around the corner…[and] right now, the volatile international situation means having that cushion is more important than ever.”

That may be a tough sell, particularly given reports that the membership was quick to pile up the wishlist through policy remits, but it’s understandable given the historical success of attacks on Labour’s supposed profligacy.

That tension between running a tight ship and living up to carefree promises from opposition won’t go away, and Ardern may find her in-tray filling up as the various working groups report back with their recommendations.

But that was easy enough to cast aside for the time being.

Simon Bridges’ grip on the National leadership may have been loosened in recent weeks, but Ardern’s on Labour is tighter than ever - and the long wait in opposition will almost seem worth it now for the party’s supporters.

For more see:

Govt to boost learning support for children

Labour’s 2020 vision takes shape

Wellbeing Budget to prioritise mental health

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