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Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw at AUT. Photo: Toby Manhire
Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw at AUT. Photo: Toby Manhire

PoliticsSeptember 16, 2018

‘Not dysfunction junction’: what was Jacinda Ardern’s big speech really about?

Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw at AUT. Photo: Toby Manhire
Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw at AUT. Photo: Toby Manhire

The prime minister sought to rally the troops and assert unity among the three parties of government today, but there wasn’t much substance to get your teeth into, writes Toby Manhire

The question hanging in the air after Jacinda Ardern’s big speech this afternoon: what even was that? It had been trailed as “Next steps in Government’s Plan for NZ”. The folder handed out read simply “Our Plan”. The press release was headlined, “Priorities for a modern and fairer NZ”. The speech itself took the title “Our plan for a modern and prosperous New Zealand”. It was, said the prime minister, “a road map”. It was a “coalition blueprint”, it was “our blueprint for New Zealand”. It was “our cabinet mandated, coalition government work plan”.

It came with the imprimatur of substance, in the form of cabinet papers and infographics, but it was, well, what exactly? It was an enumeration of the “12 priority outcomes” agreed upon by the three parties of government and split into three baskets: “building a productive, sustainable and inclusive economy”, “improving the wellbeing of New Zealanders and their families”, and “ensuring new leadership by government”. I mean, sure, well done, but was that it? There was nothing discernibly new there. If it was a road map, it was a pretty vague and well-thumbed map. At best you might use that word returned to fashion by Anon of the White House, that it was a lodestar, a kind of navigational beacon for the ship of cabinet.

The speech, which took place just over a week shy of the first birthday of the Jacindamania election, therefore left itself open to the criticism not only that it was a bit bloody late to be producing something named, quite literally, “Our plan”, but also that said plan was simply serving up the same ambitions-values-visions-priorities salad from a new bowl.

If it felt rather hollow, it was a slick show. After a reel of clips documenting the government’s achievements (they liked it so much they played it twice), Winston Peters played warm-up act. The lectern was swept away and Jacinda Ardern walked the stage as if at a product launch, in front of two large screens detailing wins and goals, underlined in red, green and black, and happy people in stock photos. If the backdrop had been doused in truth serum it would have shown something else: headlines about Ardern’s government coming under a new kind of pressure, with images of a Clare Curran resigning, Meka Whaitiri under a cloud, a coalition partner apparently bent upon repeated public displays of disaffection, and a prime minister pulling out of television interviews over “diary issues”.

The Trump comparisons are facile, of course they are. But it is nevertheless true that the prime minister has withdrawn from interviews on programmes where interviewers would be asking a host of difficult questions on the same weekend that she appeared before an audience of adoring supporters, who proffered a bunch of preordained, softball questions at the end. And the deputy prime minister managed, as will surprise nobody, to attack the press twice within the first two minutes.

Ardern at AUT

The sense that Ardern is shying away from sustained interrogation is palpably pissing off local media, a sense exacerbated by a parade of fawning profiles in foreign media, some of which seem anachronistic at best and at worst from a parallel universe. Maybe that matters less than it did once – today’s event will have reached thousands among the Labour base without the need for filtration from television news or website hot-takers – but if left to fester it could turn into a real problem. Will the prime minister front up for Newshub Nation or Q+A before she sets off for New York and the General Assembly, or wait till she has the Manhattan backdrop and the welcome distraction of questions about whatever appalling thing the US president has just done?

Ardern did not, it’s important to note, attempt to dodge media questions today. It might not present anything like the challenge of a sustained sit-down interview, but the PM did appear for a stand-up following the speech. And that delivered the most valuable image of the day for the government: leaders of the three parties of government standing hip to hip to hip – a remarkably rare sight over the last year.

But that question again: what, after all, was it? It was a reboot, a reset, an attempted rebuke of the idea that the three parties aren’t getting on: this was, Peters assured media, “not dysfunction junction”. It was an attempt to recapture and reignite some of the energy of the campaign, an effort to put some fresh air in tyres that had started to feel kind of flat. It was a rally. But that’s all it was.

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