Politics

Ardern’s rise confirms three runners for PM. Will it be Bill, Winston or Jacinda?

Against a new challenger, Bill English will need to lift his game, while Winston Peters as PM becomes a real proposition, writes former National Party cabinet minister Wayne Mapp.

The dramatic elevation of Jacinda Ardern to the leadership of the Labour Party instantly raises the question of whether she is ready to be prime minister in just seven weeks. While she undoubtedly has great political skills, it is a big step up to being PM, even compared to being a senior minister.

There has been no occasion in living memory where someone who has only been leader of the opposition for a matter of days, and without any ministerial experience, has become prime minister. The closest analogy in New Zealand is David Lange, but he at least had the benefit of 18 months as leader of the opposition. And as for the comparison with Bob Hawke, not many would suggest that Jacinda has had prior world experience that is the equivalent to that of the former Australian prime minister.

Of course in a democracy, especially one based on MMP, all sorts of scenarios are possible. If, as is likely, Labour has an upsurge in its polling, then Jacinda could yet be installed on the ninth floor after September 23.

However, any centre-left government would still almost certainly be made up of three parties: Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens. Neither the Greens nor New Zealand First will be conceding any ground to Labour.

In particular Winston Peters will claim that he is the most experienced leader, and that he has the substantial ministerial experience.

His claim to be prime minister, at least for the first 18 months, in such a government has been immeasurably strengthened by the selection of Jacinda Ardern as leader of the Labour Party. If he took the role for the first 18 months it would give her time to grow into the role.

Of course New Zealand First has to poll well enough for such a claim to be credible. Finishing with 15% or more of the vote would provide that heft.

There is another factor that makes such a proposition plausible. The new deputy leader is Kelvin Davis. He has long links with Winston Peters and especially with Shane Jones. One can imagine Jones forthrightly arguing for such a solution. It could also open Jones’s own potential pathway to becoming prime minister. If the precedent has been set by Winston Peters as leader of New Zealand First, why wouldn’t it also apply when Shane Jones ultimately becomes the head of the party?

The next seven weeks will put the blow torch on the role of prime minister. There are now clearly three candidates for the role. Bill English, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters.

Bill English will rest his case on his success in the role to date. Because whether Andrew Little was boring or angry – take your pick – Bill’s southern conservatism, his no-drama style, stood him in good stead. That is less likely to work against Ardern, particularly among urban women voters. History shows that it is very difficult to remake one’s image. But it might be time for English to show in a more transparent way his deep intellectual capability, and his understanding of bicultural and multicultural New Zealand.

Some dramatic new policy, especially on housing for first homeowners, would do no harm. Perhaps something like a government guarantee that new homeowners would not face interest rates above 5% for five years would galvanise attention.

Jacinda Ardern will be hoping for a Macron moment in New Zealand, where the idea of being new and exciting is given a chance. Her first press conference as leader and her regular spots on Radio Live show she has both depth and charm. But the question will be asked, what has she achieved?

Winston Peters will simply argue the voters have no other reasonable alternative. That only he has the necessary experience and gravitas to be the next PM.

The leader debates are suddenly compulsory viewing. They may be the most compelling television of the year as the choice of prime minister again becomes uppermost in voters minds.


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