Jacinda Ardern may have just offered a clue.
Like an Air New Zealand jet eyeing up the big trip from New York to Auckland, the Labour government knows that you sometimes have to take drastic and unusual measures to make it home. When the fuel is limited and the headwinds are unfriendly, it’s time to start offloading luggage.
Jacinda Ardern acknowledged as much in an interview this week with Jo Moir of Newsroom. Asked about the opportunities afforded by the summer break, the prime minister said: “To just pause, stand back and say, in the next 12 months what are the things we really need to prioritise, and by prioritising does it mean there are things that you then just say we don’t have the capacity within government to pursue those issues, and they’re just not the most important things for us.”
What then are those less important things that lose out in that trade-off? What baggage might get left on the tarmac?
The three waters reforms have become a pain in just about every part of the government body. An embarrassing volte-face on entrenchment has exposed, at minimum, a lack of attention to detail. Ardern’s efforts to wear it as a team mistake, rather than that of any individual, has at times this week looked at risk of snapping as her MPs played pass the buck.
But whatever the shortcomings of the legislation, and the woeful communication of its importance from the start, it springs from a principled and important effort to deal with a crumby water infrastructure. And it’s now become inextricably bound to this government’s programme. To throw it out now would send the plane into a spiral.
What else? Some concessions have been made on the plan to bring agriculture into the emissions trading scheme. It will remain unpopular but to scrap the project would be to surrender on the issue the prime minister has described as generation-defining.
The government has signalled that the wider He Puapua co-governance project, which stems from commitments under the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people, to which New Zealand signed up 12 years ago, will be put on the back burner until after the election.
It’s easy to imagine the income insurance scheme being similarly punted. Paradoxically, with unemployment projected to rear back into the foreground in 2023, the arguments will become easier to make. But is there the appetite after the fair pay agreement legislation for another scrap with New Zealand’s business lobby? Both Grant Robertson and Michael Wood feel strongly about it, but they equally have their pragmatic streaks.
And then there’s the media merger – the scooping up of RNZ and TVNZ within ANZPM – which is not the afternoon hours of a large bank but Aotearoa New Zealand Public Media. Speaking on those reforms in the interview with Newsroom – that same interview in which she’d talked about sacrificing those things which are “not the most important” – Ardern said: “We’ve still got work to do on the merger, it’s not completed. It is not, however, number one on the government agenda.”
Now, it could be I’m getting a bit Pepe Silvia in joining dots, but if I were Willie Jackson reading that, fresh from a dressing down (by Ardern’s standard) over a full-grimace interview on the merger for which I’d had to apologise, it would all look very real.
The truth is that neither Jackson, nor Kris Faafoi, his ministerial predecessor who set the merger in motion, nor Ardern herself, has managed to compellingly explain in clear, pithy and crisp terms why ANZPM is necessary. What might have felt necessary, even urgent, when the ball got rolling in early 2020, with the future of so many media outlets looking so precarious, doesn’t so much today.
For all its warts, there is a strong rationale for the change, and it centres on a media world less about radio stations or TV channels but a digital mode, and equipping that to reach neglected audiences the existing set-up has failed to serve. That can quickly start sounding esoteric, but the repeated call for “future-proofing” sounds all too waffly, or something you do to your deck.
National, for its part, seized on the issue. It was being pressed to provide examples of the profligate spending it was promising to cut. Its own research (born out in polling published this week) showed people didn’t want RNZ and TVNZ meddled with. They are, after all, the country’s most trusted news brands. Across the last three months or so, the merger has accordingly been the top of the chopping board list for Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis.
To abandon the merger would, no doubt about it, be an embarrassment for Labour. It would play as a giant U-turn, even as an admission that it does not expect to be re-elected. But the temptation will be to take the L, knowing it at least spikes one of National’s rhetorical guns. As National itself showed the other day, scrapping a tax cut under the cover of a storm, sometimes you have to drown your darlings.
The line would go something like: we have heard the expressions of disquiet, we are looking to save every penny we can, and we accept the time is not right to pursue this reform. Then, looking as earnest as possible, they’d say: given the critical importance of editorial independence and certainty for public audiences, and in light of the confirmation today that National would unwind the whole initiative, that they’d hit control-Z irrespective of how successful it might be proving, well, it is difficult to proceed when the opposition is doing everything to undermine this work.
There is nothing to suggest any such decision has been taken – Jackson and the government as a whole continue to insist that the reforms are going ahead. The official answer to the question in the headline is, as of this moment, absolutely, unequivocally, no. But in light of Ardern’s comments about priorities and the election year payload, it looks vulnerable. And given the risk of sunk costs – both in money and the energy of all those involved – if it is to be killed, per the Scottish play, better to do it quickly.