Jacinda Ardern is in a rut. New Zealand’s prime minister could still win next year’s election, but his chances seem to be diminishing by the day.
Most polls show a lead for the center-right opposition bloc National and ACT, two parties that have not had the numbers to govern without the help of a centrist party since 2008.
Ardern’s government seems to be racing from bad title to bad title, unable to regain control of the narrative in the face of a very skeptical media. Some bad news is unavoidable – being in government this long means you are, in theory, responsible for all the problems facing the nation – but others represent huge unforced errors, such as the fury over an attempt to entrench some of the controversial water reforms.
This brutal period was capped by a major by-election defeat in Hamilton West. National took a 16 percentage point victory in a seat it lost by 21 points just two years ago. You can easily read too much into the by-election – turnout was abysmal – but that was no sign that the polls showing Labor heading for defeat were wrong.
As New Zealand heads into summer vacation, Ardern is trying to clear the decks and focus on the economy in 2023. She is planning a reshuffle for the start of the new year and has told all of her ministers to think about what they might be able to “downsize” their political agendas, to focus instead on the economic issues facing the Kiwis.
It is true that the government has just passed a lot of things. Winning a majority gave Labor the chance to do virtually anything they wanted in his second term, and they stumbled trying to seize that opportunity, even as Covid-19 continued to suck up a huge amount of airspace and departmental time.
It also makes sense to focus on the economy, although Ardern’s hands are somewhat tied. The Reserve Bank quickly raised interest rates to deliberately induce a recession, but don’t think that will necessarily reduce inflation in the run-up to the election. The government will brag about the high level of employment and general labor force participation, but most people don’t think they have jobs because of the macroeconomic mindset of the government, they believe they earned them all by themselves.
The reshuffle of his ministers was likely still going to happen but has been somewhat forced on Ardern, as six of his MPs have now announced their intention to step down at the next election, including three ministers.
None of these MPs is a rising star. But the overall picture of six MPs suddenly deciding they don’t want to run for another term is painful for Labor – especially as one of them has inexplicably chosen to imply that he doesn’t did not want to run because he did not think Labor would win government again.
Still, these outings give Ardern a chance to show if there really is some kind of new approach in sight, rather than just a rhetorical reset, like his “delivery year” in 2019. They give him several spaces to fill. in the office. And they give Labor a chance to reconfigure itself somewhat – four of the retiring MPs have very secure Labor seats, so secure that selection is essentially a lifetime job if one wants it to be.
Ardern has been tight-lipped about which policies might merit “reduction”. Many believe that the rather costly decision to merge our two state broadcasters into an ABC or BBC-like powerhouse could fall because it is quite difficult to describe this very disruptive decision as essential.
The government’s vast unemployment insurance scheme is also seen as a target – although this one seems more likely to survive, as it is the baby of Ardern’s closest political ally Grant Robertson. and will be of greater public importance if a recession is in full swing. . That said, there are plenty of ways to scale back the aspirational program without getting rid of it altogether.
Nothing is unrecoverable. Ardern has yet another budget and faces an opposition leader prone to an unforced error or two. Australian Labor’s victory in Victoria shows that the bad feeling left over from the pandemic is not the electoral poison some in the opposition thought it would be, and that focusing on very fundamental issues like energy and the crossings can get you far ahead – alongside a little healthy sledding from the other guys.
This kind of politics has never been Ardern’s strength. She’s far better at projecting incredibly competent crisis management and empathy that “this policy will help middle-class voters like you far more than tax cuts for the wealthy.” This will not only require fewer policies, but the ones it has left to be bold enough to define the terms of the conversation, with a much less risk-averse communications strategy than it currently has.
Because if she wants to get out of the rut, she’ll have to be in the driver’s seat again.