Some ministers are already displaying the election-losing arrogance that it took National’s Cabinet three terms to achieve. The PM’s parental leave is a risk – but also an opportunity, writes Danyl Mclauchlan.
For nigh on three decades there’s been a soothing, tide-like regularity to New Zealand politics. Every nine years we elect a new government with a popular and likeable leader. They promise an era of openness and transparency. The administration lasts for three terms, during which all the goodwill and good intentions drain away like raindrops down the tinted window of a ministerial limo and after nine years someone new and likable is voted in to replace them.
I’d like this trend to continue because I like this new government and its prime minister, and most of what they’re doing. But it’s getting harder to see it winning re-election in two years let alone lasting three terms. It feels frighteningly anarchic and unstrategic (and I wrote that sentence before the deputy, soon to be acting, prime minister Winston Peters publicly humiliated the justice minister by withdrawing support for his sentencing reform and announced that he was suing – among others – his own attorney general, Social Development CEO and state services commissioner for alleged privacy breaches).
Politics is unpredictable and MMP elections are especially hard to call because marginal differences around the threshold can lead to vastly divergent outcomes. If New Zealand First and the Greens both get 4.9% you’ve got a very different parliament than one in which they both make it back on 5%. But based on current polling there’s a very realistic scenario in which both support parties get wiped out; National wins a larger majority than Labour and forms a government with ACT, and patiently unwinds everything this government has and will accomplish. It’s a scenario that feels a little more probable every day.
This is an ambitious government. In just nine months they’ve loudly signalled intentions to transform the housing market, the carbon economy, the education system, the health system, the tax system and the welfare system. But it’s also a very constrained government. Unlike her predecessors – who had options when building support for legislation, and/or single seat client parties who would vote the way they were told – Ardern’s government needs to negotiate support from both confidence and supply partners for every bill that passes, a process even more fraught and problematic than it sounds because one of those partners is New Zealand First.
Few members of Ardern’s caucus have any Cabinet experience; most ministers from the Clark administration were purged during the bitter factional warfare that marked Labour’s time in opposition. Nor did many of the current ministers distinguish themselves as effective opposition MPs. Far from winning power by presenting a competent alternative government they’ve lucked into it by a sequence of random, dumb accidents: Key’s resignation; Turei’s speech; Little’s resignation; Jacindamania; Winston’s choice.
There’s an old political adage that you only need four or five strong, competent ministers to run the country; it’s not clear Ardern has that many to work with. And yet despite, or perhaps because of this, some ministers are already displaying the election-losing arrogance that it took National’s cabinet three terms – and three election victories – to build up to.
While operating under these limitations the government also has to contend with a popular, united and well resourced opposition party and, for the next six weeks, the absence of Ardern. Her leadership, just about the only thing keeping the ship of state afloat, will be replaced by Peters, a divisive, vastly experienced and sometimes brilliant but often erratic and self-destructive figure who is just as likely to scuttle the ship in a fit of pique as to steer it away from the rocks.
Most of these are problems without solutions. What the government can control is the scale of its ambition and the political management around what it delivers. Given the way things are going does it still seem like a good idea to review and reform virtually every aspect of the state simultaneously, or would it make more sense to focus the government’s limited attention and resources on a few key areas such as, say, the housing crisis, a vital piece of work with a faltering minister under pressure from one of the opposition’s most formidable antagonists?
I like this government, but I feel like it spends a lot of time making sure that people like me – educated urban liberals who are very unlikely to vote National – like it and not enough time appealing to the soft National voters who people like me don’t really like, but without whom a second term is increasingly unlikely, like it or not.
The direction of the government for the six weeks in which Ardern is on parental leave and Winston Peters runs the country will probably be, like so much of parenthood itself, impossible to plan, predict or comprehend. But there’s an opportunity after that, when Ardern returns. An opportunity for a reset: a return to sanity, a chance to let the soothing tides of New Zealand politics begin, and cease, then again begin. To calm the fuck down, basically, start thinking and acting strategically and be a government that will do important things well for nine years instead of everything badly for three. I’d like that.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.