Politics

Ardern asks NZ to move her towards a second term

Labour's scaled-down party conference was still an opportunity for Jacinda Ardern to show how loved she is by her fans - and make the case for why her Government should keep on moving to a second term

Looking around the packed room at Te Papa in Wellington, it was hard to find any evidence of a global pandemic still raging away.

Hundreds of Labour Party faithful packed in tightly next to one another for Jacinda Ardern’s conference speech, waving placards vigorously and roaring with approval at each new speaker, potential viral particles be damned.

Covid-19 had indeed made its impact felt, however: the Prime Minister’s set-piece was the only physical event of the party conference, with the rest of the two-day affair conducted via Zoom and other online platforms.

And while the crowd was healthy enough, it could have been even larger. The party made a conscious decision to offer tickets only to fully-paid members, rather than the wider supporter base (that perhaps explained the greyer complexion of the hall compared to Ardern’s normal crowds).

But the love, bordering on idolatry, for Ardern was still on display, including from local iwi member Peter Jackson (of Taranaki and Te Atiawa) as he opened the event. 

“Over the last three years, through the Christchurch shooting and through the pandemic this year, we've witnessed a masterclass in leadership and communication,” Jackson said.

“We have a very, very special leader: your leader, our premier, our prime minister, and New Zealand’s saviour.”

The last description raised a few eyebrows, even if party members roared with approval, and Ardern herself was predictably quick to brush off any claims to divinity when speaking to media afterwards.

 “Our national character has been repeatedly put to the test and yet, somehow we have come back with an almost stronger sense of ourselves, and of what matters most to us.”

“For me, it will always be about what we have to offer as a team - none of this response could be done by one person, nor has it.”

That theme of team success, both as a Government and a nation, was a key pillar of Ardern’s speech - and a clear attempt to rebuff National leader Todd Muller’s claims about the “empty chairs” behind the Prime Minister and a handful of high-performing ministers.

“I can’t think of a time in our recent history when we have been collectively challenged by such a cruel combination of events – a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption, a global pandemic and now its ensuing financial crisis,” Ardern told the crowd.

“Our national character has been repeatedly put to the test and yet, somehow we have come back with an almost stronger sense of ourselves, and of what matters most to us.”

New Zealand’s success in combating Covid-19 had relied on teamwork, she said, even though some had to give up more than others.

“So while we in New Zealand experience huge freedoms, the rest of the world is still battling to keep the virus under control.”

Hence the theme underpinning Ardern’s speech, and Labour’s campaign slogan: ‘Let’s keep moving’.

It feels a little less ambitious than her ‘Let’s do this’ rallying call of 2017, more about incremental improvement than transformational change.

Labour's 2020 slogan is perhaps a good fit for our coronavirus-hit times. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

But the basic message, of forging ahead in the face of adversity, is one that will resonate with many Kiwis at present.

It also hints at Labour’s wider electoral strategy to keep National in the mid-30s and head off any Muller-led resurgence: you shouldn’t change horses midstream, the proverb goes, so why put the country’s precious gains at risk by changing governments?

Much has been made of Muller’s apparent aversion to using Ardern’s name in public speeches, but it was noteworthy that the National leader was not mentioned once by the Prime Minister.

But where National has good reason to avoid turning the election into a popularity contest between Ardern and the relatively anonymous Muller, Labour’s choice to avoid a head-to-head attack seems more about preserving that anonymity.

Ardern has already ruled out digging dirt through opposition research to redefine Muller’s public persona - but it may be just as effective to leave him an amorphous blob, the devil you don’t know to any swing voters mulling their options.

National has pivoted to attack Labour on its traditionally perceived weakness of economic management, speculating about all the new taxes a Labour-Green government would put in place.

But with recent public polls suggesting the red team now holds an advantage on the matter of the economy, Ardern was confident enough to put the issue at the centre of her speech.

Talk of new policy seemed to be a little overblown; the closest we got was an extension to the small business loan scheme and the announcement of 23 projects funded through Budget 2020’s $1.1 billion investment for nature-based jobs.

A 'five-point plan' for economic recovery

Instead, the linchpin of Ardern’s address was a “five-point plan” for the country’s economic recovery, focused on staples like investment in trades and training, government initiatives to accelerate job creation, and support for small businesses and entrepreneurs.

She hinted at more to come in the energy and waste sectors, perhaps to placate Labour’s younger supporters who have been at times underwhelmed by its environmental progress, and talked up our engagement with the rest of the world through trade and travel ‘bubbles’.

With the latter point came an intriguing mention of a Cabinet framework to guide any quarantine-free travel with Australia or the Pacific, although Ardern again gave little away on what that framework comprised and when travel may resume.

The speech drew predictable criticism from Muller, who called the Prime Minister’s promises “just more KiwiBuild”, and ACT leader David Seymour, who claimed Labour’s plan “amounts to mending a broken bone with a band-aid”.

But with a handsome lead in the polls, it’s easy to see why Ardern and her team may opt for a small-C conservative approach.

“Today my ask of you is simple,” she told the Labour faithful, and New Zealand as a whole. “Don’t put on the brakes when now more than ever is the time that we need to speed up.”

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