Politics

Is the PM a transformer? Or just a manager?

Todd Muller's resignation now puts Jacinda Ardern in the awkward position of having to say what she really, really wants to do with her second term. Bernard Hickey analyses her choices.

Jacinda Ardern is reputed to have played a few Spice Girls tracks as a DJ at the Morrinsville College after-ball party in 1997, back when 'Wannabe' was their biggest hit. Plenty of voters will now be hoping the Prime Minister is confident enough to spin and sing it again with feeling before the election on September 19 -- specially this verse:

"So tell me what you want, what you really, really want...I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want...So tell me what you want, what you really, really want...I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha) I wanna, (ha)...I wanna really, really, really wanna zigazig ah..."

So what does the Prime Minister really, really want? In particular, does she want to zigazig-zag and take this chance to change direction? 

When she was campaigning to be Prime Minister in August and early September 2017, she was reasonably clear about being transformational. She wanted a capital gains tax, an Auckland Light Rail Line, 100,000 Kiwibuild houses, real climate change action to respond to her generation's 'nuclear free moment', and welfare reform. Her message of hope and change was embraced, along with that relentlessly positive outlook.

But saying what you really, really want and being positive about it is much easier as Opposition leader than as an incumbent Prime Minister with uncertain re-election chances. In early August of 2017 she had no real expectations of actually making it into office, and could plausibly deny worrying about what Winston Peters thought of her policies and whether she could actually make them happen.

Her role was widely seen as turning an awful Labour election result into just a bad one. Then Jacindamania struck.

By mid-September 2017, that plausible deniability was gone and her Capital Gains Tax had stumbled and withered into a Tax Working Group idea that she barely mentioned in the year after assuming power with Winston Peters and the Greens. Ever since then, Ardern has been much more cautious about promising things she wouldn't be able to get past New Zealand First in the Cabinet room, or get past the bureaucrats in Treasury, NZTA and Housing and Urban Development.

The Capital Gains Tax evaporated into something she said she would never deliver in her political lifetime. Auckland Light Rail dribbled away into a shower of Cabinet papers and inter and intra governmental infighting. Kiwibuild just plain evaporated. All the while, up until a couple of months ago, the Prime Minister knew she faced a nearly impossible battle to do what either Labour or the Labour and the Greens really wanted to do.

It's worth remembering that National's opinion poll support has been comfortably above 40 percent and often a good 10 points clear of Labour for most of Ardern's first term, even under Simon Bridges. She and her long-time-political partner Grant Robertson spent the first 18 months in Government convincing the business community they were responsible and carefully tending a reputation as a low-debt Government that would not rock the boat too much.

Now there is nowhere to hide. If you're likely to win, the public would like to know what you're going to do with that victory and unprecedented power in nearly a quarter of a century of always-in-coalition government.

She faced either outright loss to a National-led collection that could (in theory) include New Zealand First, or even worse from Labour's point of view, a National-ACT Government unleashed to do its worst and complete the unfinished economic deregulation and gutting of Government started in the 1990s. 

No wonder she was cautious about proposing significant changes. She knew New Zealand's essentially conservative political landscape made aggressive reform of welfare, housing, tax, transport and environmental policies virtually impossible in a landscape that gave immense power to a 5-10 percent bloc of voters at the centre of the country, often in the suburbs and provinces, and mostly with grey hair.

Ardern has kept her second-term policy reform powder as dry as possible, knowing that a low-target strategy the surest way to re-election in this MMP landscape. 

But now that plausible deniability is gone. Todd Muller's spectacular resignation and the prospect of a National voting sagging into the low 30 percent range means there is a very real prospect of a Labour alone or Labour-Green Government from September 20.

Now there is nowhere to hide. If you're likely to win, the public would like to know what you're going to do with that victory and unprecedented power in nearly a quarter of a century of always-in-coalition government.

So what do you really, really want Prime Minister?

Is it welfare reform? Climate change reform? Housing reform?

Or do you see yourself as conservative as the centre of that electorate, hoping to retain power for a third term to keep the National hordes away from the ninth floor and satisfied with simply managing the status quo and being the best person in charge in a crisis.?

Or do you want to zigazig-zag?

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