Ardern readies for campaign trail after testing 2019

After a testing 2019, Jacinda Ardern heads into the Christmas break with the election looming large on the horizon. Ardern spoke to Newsroom about electoral strategy, whether her Government has delivered on expectations, and how to handle fears of a growing cultural divide.

In our political calendar, December is often marked by a last-minute frenzy of activity as ministers and public servants clear their desks before turning on their out-of-office messages and hitting the beach.

So it is proving this year, with a flurry of announcements on long-anticipated or delayed issues - although the Opposition attributes that less to a desire to catch up on Christmas shopping and more an attempt to paper over what has been a trying year for Jacinda Ardern’s party, her Government, and for the country as a whole.

Allegations of sexual assault against a Labour staffer, and accusations about the party’s botched handling of the claims, led to the resignation of long-serving president Nigel Haworth and an inquiry that is still ongoing.

The Government’s “year of delivery” has ended with a few policy packages returned to sender, including the stalled and rebooted KiwiBuild programme, while most tragically the March 15 terror attack forever changed the country.

Asked for the song that best defines her year, Ardern opts for ‘Whakaaria Mai’ by Hollie Smith and Teeks, a Māori rendition of the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’ that was performed at the March 15 memorial.

The Prime Minister has previously described 2014 as one of her toughest years, and 2019 would seem to rival it - although she says the two can’t be compared.

“Elements of [this] year that were incredibly hard weren’t about politics at all - it was about New Zealand.”

“I think people might forget that actually, it [the capital gains tax decision] was just the reality. We didn't have the numbers. We couldn't do it and I was also coming at that decision as someone who had campaigned multiple times on the same thing, and at what point do you just say, well, we had a go?"

Policy problems like KiwiBuild “pale in comparison” to the events of March 15, Ardern says, although she concedes the initial failure of the flagship housing programme is one of the shortcomings that has weighed on her mind.

“Is it regrets, or just things you look back on and think, could we have done that differently or earlier or sooner?...

“I just reflect on around how we could have perhaps just got it in a better place, but we did what needed to be done, and we still we're not giving up, that's the most important thing for me: we cannot afford to lack ambition on housing, because it is such an important part of people's daily lives, their shelter.”

There is no such hindsight in play when it comes to her April decision to take a capital gains tax off the table, not just in this term of government but in any administration under her leadership.

“That's not something that I look back on with anything other than certainty that that was what needed to be done,” Ardern says now.

“I think people might forget that actually, it was just the reality. We didn't have the numbers. We couldn't do it and I was also coming at that decision as someone who had campaigned multiple times on the same thing, and at what point do you just say, well, we had a go?

“This was probably the closest chance we had to get there. We brought in others to try and make the case and we still couldn't get over the line.”

'Bring people with you'

Those sorts of hedges and compromises have disappointed some of Labour’s more strident supporters, and led them to question whether Ardern is truly delivering on her aspiration for “transformational government”. But the Prime Minister is insistent her approach will reap rewards.

“The only way you make significant change that lasts is if you bring people with you, and so that means that sometimes you take a bit more time to do it, you take time to build consensus, but then it means it sticks.

“When I think about all the things that have made a really big difference to New Zealand, that's been the way often that those changes have been made.”

She names climate change, child poverty and mental health as areas where the coalition has made more change than any other government - not in spite of, but because of, moving slowly.

“All of those things, we've actually managed to bring people with us too, and so that means when I go down the track, it has a chance of continuing on and that’s real transformation.”

Some farmers have accused the Government of undermining rural communities, but Jacinda Ardern says fears of a growing rural/urban divide are overblown. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Plenty of Ardern’s detractors disagree, both about the nature of her Government’s changes and whether they have truly been brought along.

Vitriolic signs about the Government abounded at a farmers’ march on Parliament last month, while even a more sympathetic crowd at the Dairy Environment Leaders’ Forum this week expressed concern about whether enough consideration was being given to the effect of policy changes on rural communities.

With consistent talk of a rural/urban divide, and polarising topics like firearms, abortion, euthanasia and cannabis on the agenda heading into next year’s election, it seems we could be heading towards an American-style culture war - although Ardern doesn’t believe that’s the case.

“I still believe we are a place where we can have genuine debate, where we don't become so entrenched that we don't talk to each other when we have different views…

“We've got to feel like everyone can have their view, you know, yeah, be respectful about it, but people still need to feel like they can express it.”

Addressing the United Nations in New York this year, Ardern spoke about the dangers of tribalism, but she doesn’t believe it is taking root closer to home.

“I think we have to be aware of it and conscious of it, and that's why I push back on it because I don't think it's real.

“Actually, what do we all in New Zealand want? We want to look after our land, we want to look after our waterways, we want them to be in better shape for the next generation - you will be hard-pressed to find anyone that disagrees with that sentiment.”

'Never live poll to poll'

That was a message she shared with delegates at Labour’s recent party conference in Whanganui, as the party tries to gee up its supporters and attract new faces for the campaign trail in 2020.

Despite its internal travails, Ardern says the party is in good heart and energised for election year.

After a post-March 15 boost, Labour has steadily declined in recent months - albeit still above its 2017 result - while the most recent 1 News Colmar Brunton poll put National in the box seat to form a government, due largely to New Zealand First dropping below the five percent threshold.

Ardern is predictably blase about the numbers, saying she has “never lived poll to poll”: “I just don't think that's a good place for politicians to be, you know, people need us together not to obsess about polls.”

That may be true, but it would seem tempting to shore up Labour’s coalition partners by making a deal in an electorate seat like Northland, won by Winston Peters in a 2015 by-election thanks to tacit backing from Labour and the Greens but lost back to National in 2017.

Ardern is unenthused about any formal arrangement where Labour would not stand a candidate: “I like the simplicity of us giving our Labour voters the choice of Labour candidates...we are a party that really places a lot of emphasis on on that representation at a local level, that's where the heart of the party is.”

Winston Peters' victory in the 2015 Northland by-election was due in part to Labour offering tacit support - but Ardern is giving little away about a similar approach in 2020. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

What about a subtle “nod and a wink” approach, where a party stands a candidate but signals that perhaps another party’s nominee might be a better option? (As Labour did in the Northland by-election, and National does in Epsom.)

“Then that’s all in the voter’s court..you're either running or you know, you're there or you’re not.”

Not the strongest endorsement, but nor does it seem entirely off the table.

Of course, simply staying friendly enough for such an accommodation should not be underestimated, with signs that both New Zealand First and the Greens are starting to search for a bit of separation.

Ardern professes to be relaxed about some intra-governmental argy-bargy (it could be argued she’s already quite familiar with giving ground to her “junior” partners).

“That’s no different to what we have to do every day and I, at the moment I came in, said that I took a measure of success has been parties being able to maintain their own identities.

“It serves no-one if people feel that in an MMP environment that they end up worse off at the end of it if they've gone into a coalition, and so I actually take some pride that we've had quite a bit of stability around the numbers.”

A bit more stability, of policy rather than polling, may be key if the Government is to keep the baubles of office post-2020.

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and/or included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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