Covid-19 was a constant presence in the NZ election of 2020: it delayed polling day, curtailed the staging and dominated the debate. The new VUP collection Politics in a Pandemic, based on speeches delivered to the post-election conference in December 2020, collects impressions of the campaign, the vote and their impact.
Here, in the first of a series of extracts from the book, Jacinda Ardern describes her second successful campaign as Labour leader and the unique circumstances in which it occurred.
The past three years have been marked by terrible moments, events and challenges I certainly didn’t anticipate New Zealand would have to face. Our country has been through a lot. After the March 15 attacks and the Whakaari tragedy – two events that would have been tough enough by themselves – it seemed almost unbelievable that the nation was once again required to pull together due to a global pandemic. The “team of five million” did pull through and did so in a way that speaks volumes about New Zealanders and our values. But Covid-19 presented a lot of challenges, some immediate and urgent, some more insidious and long-term, and some that we’re still learning the full impact of.
I think it’s fair to say that 2020 threw a lot of spanners our way, even before we factored in trying to run a successful election campaign in the middle of a pandemic. Surprisingly, despite Covid, there was a lot about the campaign that operated pretty much as expected. There were the early starts, and long nights, the hoardings on every street corner, and the teams of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers ready to do their bit for the cause, just like every election before. However, outside of these constants, Covid’s impact on the 2020 campaign was huge. There were the instantly noticeable changes, like the elbow bumps instead of hugs and handshakes, alongside the invisible but still very much present changes: in particular, for me, the lingering anxiety that every phone call would be the one that brought news of a new outbreak. Then there were perhaps the biggest impacts of all, including the change of the election date.
Even before New Zealand went into lockdown I faced questions from the media about postponing the election and if the virus would derail our democratic process. We worked closely with the Electoral Commission to prepare for all eventualities. For a long time it seemed that the election would go ahead as planned despite the pandemic. This all changed on our first official day of campaigning. We had just passed 100 days with no new community-transmitted cases of Covid, and the focus for most people, it seemed, had decidedly shifted to getting our economy moving and safely reopening the borders.
That first day in Whanganui was a busy one, but for the most part it was a perfectly normal day on the campaign trail. After a tour of the Sarjeant Gallery Redevelopment I stopped in to meet a number of small business owners to talk about how their recovery was going. We visited a local face mask manufacturing company, and then took part in the media obligations that come with any campaign. We had just finished the last scheduled event of the day – an afternoon tea with local Labour Party members – when I had a call from Wellington. That was when the fairly usual day changed into something else.
That call confirmed the situation we’d been planning for but had hoped wouldn’t happen. Our 100 days free of no new cases was officially over. It was a long night in the Beehive as we set in motion our resurgence plan and did everything necessary to keep Auckland and New Zealand safe. Again, one of the first questions put to me was if it would now lead to the postponement of the election, and this time the question was a bit more urgent than it had been in March. Now there were only 39 days until polls were supposed to close.
I had the choice in front of me. I sought advice from the Electoral Commission and spoke with leaders of every party in parliament along with checking in with both Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions. It was a difficult decision. I absolutely understood the magnitude of pushing back the election, but I also understood the magnitude of continuing on with an election at a time when there might have been questions raised about whether or not it was fair and safe. New Zealanders deserve to have both certainty and a balanced decision.
And so, after much consideration, I made the call to postpone the election for four weeks. The election was now to be October 17. And it would take place on that date no matter what happened, because I’d also decided that we could not change the election date again. After all, the most certain time in a pandemic is oddly in the midst of an outbreak. It was not a decision I made lightly. I had utmost faith in our systems and processes. I was sure that the “team of five million” would once again beat the virus. And the early signs indicated that the new outbreak was under control. But even with that reassurance no one knew what the next few months would bring. It was something I thought about and planned for every single day until October 17.
Despite the extra month we now had there wasn’t a lot of time for Labour to reconsider or reprioritise our election strategy. Our attention and focus was almost solely on containing the Auckland resurgence and keeping all of New Zealand safe. That meant that in September, when Labour officially started campaigning again, our plan pretty much followed the same blueprint we had prepared earlier in the year. There’s a lot to that plan, too much to go through in any great detail here, so I just want to touch upon two elements.
The first was our strategy to go everywhere. Long before the campaign got under way we made a conscious decision to hit the road – really hit the road: we wouldn’t just travel to traditionally Labour-friendly electorates. This didn’t change when we restarted our campaign. I wanted to get right across New Zealand, to meet with people from all backgrounds and political persuasions, to hear how Covid had impacted their families and their businesses. I wanted to see first-hand how communities were coping and if the policies and support we put in place were working as we intended. It wasn’t just an election campaign. It was a large focus group. I hadn’t spent nearly as much time mixing among people in 2020 and I wanted to make up for that.
This choice led to some logistical challenges. We were nearly stranded by snow in Invercargill. There were a lot of meals eaten on the go as we criss-crossed the country in our campaign van. However, overall, I think that this decision was incredibly valuable. And apart from the ongoing battle of trying to overcome car sickness as I kept up with paperwork from the back seat it was the part of the campaign I enjoyed the most. It’s always heart-warming to hear from the Labour faithful and meet with the volunteers and members living there, giving their all to the party, day in and day out. It’s something that politicians of all stripes enjoy. But if you only talk to those on your side you run the risk of misjudging the true impact of what you’re doing and missing important insights. I didn’t want “candidate-itis” – also known as “drinking your own Kool-Aid” – to be an issue for us in this election. I wanted to make sure we heard everything from everyone, and that meant going everywhere.
Our amazing candidates were on the ground from the far north to the deep south, listening to people’s concerns, taking their feedback on board. This included both in Labour strongholds and in the electorates where, as the old joke goes, “even a post could win by a landslide if it was wearing a blue ribbon”. It’s hard to truly quantify the impact of that decision we made to really campaign hard everywhere. I’ll leave that to others. But it goes without saying how humbled we have been to welcome 23 new MPs to parliament.
The second element was our decision to campaign on the big issues, in spite of Covid. I was adamant that the big issues facing our country – the issues we campaigned on in 2017 and had spent three years making progress on – were still an important part of our platform. I wasn’t going to stop talking about them just because we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic. Yes, we were completely focused on Covid, and New Zealand’s recovery, but that didn’t mean that these long-term challenges had disappeared. Instead, I wanted to use the campaign as an opportunity to set out our plan for “double-duty” solutions, initiatives that would not only create jobs and support our economic recovery in the short term, but would also help us tackle the long-term challenges, like housing, climate change and child poverty.
I didn’t believe – and I still don’t believe – that we should have to choose between growing our economy and building a better future. We can and should do both. In fact, it’s more important now than ever. This was a key part of our election message, and I spent a lot of the campaign sounding like a broken record, repeating the planks of our five-point “rebuild and recovery” plan, and talking about this idea of “double-duty” solutions as I travelled about the country. But again, I think this early decision paid off. We are now in the privileged position of being able to get started on these solutions, and in doing so we’re laying the foundations, I hope, for a better future for us and our children and grandchildren.
After what felt like an almost endless campaign we made it to October 17 largely in one piece. And then came the familiar nervous hours as we waited to find out how, or if, that hard work would manifest. Election nights are always a nerve-racking time no matter what the polls say. I don’t think even in our most optimistic moments that anyone within the Labour camp would have predicted the result that came in on election night. It’s not a result any of us take for granted. As I said on election night, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander. That doesn’t mean our government can or will represent the views of every New Zealander, all of the time. But it does mean that we will focus on the things that matter most. That means that we will listen; do the things we said we would do; and focus on “building back better”. And I hope that you’ve seen that reflected in the programme we’ve already started rolling out.
After the last election, I referred to 2017 as “the most extraordinary year of my life”. I think the past three years – and in fact the past nine months – have shown that perhaps I spoke a little prematurely. This time around, I’m going to refrain from making any bold statements that might come back to haunt me in future years. Instead, I want to finish with a big “thank you” to everyone who played a role in 2020. This is the year of the “team of five million”, where we learned to value the simple things – human contact, gatherings, one another – but where we also proved the lengths we can and will go to in order to look after one another.
This is an edited extract from Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)
Read the party leaders’ reflections on the 2017 election, from Stardust and Substance, here