Jacinda Ardern prepares to speak at the Labour Party Annual Conference on November 6, 2021. (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern prepares to speak at the Labour Party Annual Conference on November 6, 2021. (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

OpinionNovember 8, 2021

The very unspectacular Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern prepares to speak at the Labour Party Annual Conference on November 6, 2021. (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern prepares to speak at the Labour Party Annual Conference on November 6, 2021. (Photo: Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

In her online-only conference speech, the Labour leader quite deliberately eschewed any razzle-dazzle. There is a lot more riding on today’s Beehive event, writes Toby Manhire.

A year after the 2017 election, Jacinda Ardern stood before 1,200 people packed into Dunedin’s town hall for the climax of the Labour conference. Warm-up act Clarke Gayford had them eating out of his hand. Ardern spoke for half an hour. She read letters from children and pledged funding for hundreds more teacher aides. They laughed, they clapped, they cheered to the “let’s keep doing this” mantra.

Three years on, and the contrast was striking. It was again a year after an election, a much bigger election win, which delivered something unprecedented under MMP: a single-party majority government. But for the Labour leader’s conference speech on Saturday afternoon the splendour of a town hall was swapped for generic meeting room. Ardern delivered her livestreamed speech sitting on a generic office chair at a generic office desk. Even the words 2021 Labour Party Conference on the wall behind her whispered politely, not wanting to make a scene. Running time: 17 minutes. It wasn’t quite sombre, but in keeping with the moment the mood was solemn, sober, utterly unspectacular. The only attempt at anything resembling a joke was on the subject of conference remits.

This was no time for Jacindamania; the delta strain, which travelled aboard a passenger from Sydney in early August before leaking into Auckland, had put paid to that. As Ardern delivered her address, the Ministry of Health announced in an emailed press statement that there were 206 new community cases of Covid-19. That’s not what relentlessly positive was supposed to mean.

Ardern did run through a list of her government’s achievements. She made the case for the embattled Three Waters reform plans. She defended her record on climate change, saying: “When we look back on this COP, and, in fact, as we look back on our nuclear-free moment, I want to know that we did everything we could.” There’s at least one person who clearly doesn’t think we’ve done all we could: James Shaw, the climate minister, currently carrying the New Zealand flag in Glasgow.

There was also a commitment to keep working on Ardern’s driving political purpose: eradicating child poverty. The policy pledge at the centre of the speech was an increase in the Family Tax credit, “so that 346,000 families will be better off by an average of $20 a week”. As Ardern herself admitted in the speech, an adjustment for inflation would have seen that go up next year anyway. It amounted to “tweaks”, which showed “the government is out of touch”, came the immediate response from the Child Poverty Action Group. “We’re deeply disappointed.”

As for the conference itself, the only decision of any apparent note was a change in the rules that in effect restores to caucus the power to appoint a new party leader. Those epic roadshows of the last decade, with their appeal to three electoral colleges, are unlikely to be seen again under the new rule, which gives caucus a week to appoint a new boss if they can get two-thirds backing. It’s a universal truth of political parties: when their elected representatives are a bunch of losers, they demand that democracy be devolved to the membership; when the MPs are winners, well, they seem like the sort of people who can work it out between them.

Even if level two rules in Wellington had not made an in-person conference impractical, Ardern would not have been seeking anything resembling a rally. The anti-vax protest crowd are now set upon drowning out just about any public event, despite the small and ever-shrinking size of their minority being manifest in a country where nine out of 10 of those eligible have had at least one dose. And with Auckland in week whatever-it-is of lockdown, quite obviously it is no time to celebrate anything except people who get vaccinated or grow massive, record-beating potatoes.

Ardern made a point of acknowledging the sacrifices Aucklanders in particular had made. There was at the same time an attempt to remind anyone watching that despite a miserable few months, the overall Aotearoa response to Covid-19 was vastly preferable to that in most of the world. She did that by returning to a staple of Ardern conference speeches: the mail bag.

She described a letter from an intensive care doctor. “They simply wrote, ‘during this pandemic, you have all saved more lives than I will in my entire career,’” she said. “I never saw that letter as directed at me. I saw that letter directed at us. Because none of what we have done was ever achieved by one, but by many. An entire team of five million.”

The sense of shared purpose encapsulated in the “team of five million” shorthand is not what it was, however. The exquisite, hermetic (and, yes, sometimes smug) simplicity of a successful elimination approach is gone. In its place is a convoluted, expedited transition period, a hodge-podge of levels, steps, traffic lights, targets, and fever dreams of Christmas road rage at the Auckland border. And Ardern chose not to read, of course, any more recent missives from ICU doctors in New Zealand who wanted to point out just how strained hospital resources continue to be and how constantly, sleeplessly concerned they are about their wards being overwhelmed.

Ardern today faces the same pressures leaders around the world have for so long. There are entreaties to keep restrictions tight to protect the health system and the most vulnerable, especially while vaccination rates among tangata whenua remain relatively low. And there are demands to move more quickly to ease restrictions, in the interests of businesses, livelihoods and wellbeing.

Those tensions are the essence of the decisions Ardern will announce this afternoon, when she addresses the nation yet again from the stage of the Beehive theatrette. In normal times, a leader’s conference speech has a better chance of attracting eyeballs than a post-cabinet press conference deep into Monday afternoon. Not today. If recent viewer counts are a guide, Ardern’s appearance at 4pm will get twice as many views on her Facebook page as her Saturday speech managed; add in the video coverage from just about every media outlet and it will tower above yesterday’s quiet event. As a test of Ardern’s leadership, both in decision making and communicating the basis for the decision, that’s the livestream that matters. The conference speech was competent, forgettable, underwhelming; it was a long way from the kind of extravaganza Labour might have imagined at this time last year, fresh from a historic election triumph; today, it was no more or less than intended.

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