Draw a chunky circle around next Wednesday.
Astrange breed of species is about to congregate across the bucolic pastures of Hawke’s Bay. Members of parliament. The fates have mischievously placed both Labour and National in wine country for their annual caucus retreats, clustered around the boards to plot out election year. Whiteboards. Chess boards. Cheese boards. The responsible thing would be to round off proceedings with a televised game: caucus vs caucus Pétanque.
The truth, however, is that the substantial entertainment will begin the week after. On Wednesday January 25, cabinet is expected to meet for the first time in 2023, after which the prime minister could emerge with as many as three major announcements. But wait. There’s more. Already the year’s first big official measure of the economy’s temperature will have been published in the form of the consumers price index.
Take a breath. Calm your racing pulse. Let’s deal with them one at at a time.
First among the announcements that might land next Wednesday is the election date – about which I conjecture at tedious length here. Jacinda Ardern has pledged to continue the recent tradition (est. John Key, 2011) of an early declaration. Last time she didn’t muck around, informing the governor general of the day immediately following the first cabinet meeting of 2020.
She told a media conference then, at the end of January: “I’ve always believed that announcing election dates early is fair. It improves the opportunities for New Zealanders to take part in the democratic process and gives a greater degree of certainty to the political landscape. When it comes to the campaign, I’ve set out Labour’s plan to give New Zealanders an election contest that is positive, factual and robust.” Expect much the same again.
Then there’s the purge of the policies. In the days before Christmas, Ardern left the public – and her own government, for that matter – in no doubt about the need to scrape some barnacles off the ship. In her end-of-year interview round, the prime minister emphasised, repeatedly, that ministers had been dispatched for the summer with an instruction to think hard about whether their policy objectives were essential, given the “need to trim back the amount of issues that we are progressing as a government”.
That prompted a welter of speculation about what might be for the chop. My guess is some work will get the guillotine (the media merger, for example) while other legislation (income insurance) gets not so much killed as kicked down the tarmac, becoming part of the manifesto for a promised third Labour term.
The third set-piece reveal on the cards is a ministerial reshuffle. This, too, has been signalled well in advance. The ambition will be achieving – and telegraphing a message of – rejuvenation and refreshed focus, this time in a major key. Three cabinet ministers (Poto Williams, David Clark, Aupito William Sio) have announced they’re retiring at the next election, in advance of which they could get shuffled out of the executive. Two or three others may have been weighing up their futures over the break.
Those in with a shot at promotion include Barbara Edmonds, Rachel Brooking, Camilla Belich, Arena Williams and Tangi Utikere. Deborah Russell and Kieran McAnulty can expect to become members of cabinet proper, with McAnulty odds-on to assume the local government mantle for which he is currently associate minister, in the hope of drawing a line under the ill feeling around Three Waters, and freeing Nanaia Mahuta of the foreign and local combo – a mix that looks frankly silly now that the pandemic border portcullises are fully lowered.
It must be tempting, too, to make changes in those weightiest of portfolios, health and education. Andrew Little has been the bulldozer to put big structural reforms in place, often at the expense of warm relations within the sector. The time could be right to propel Ayesha Verrall from associate to minister. For his part, Chris Hipkins has juggled numerous portfolios since 2017, a victim of his own competence, attention to detail and acute political antennae. However reluctant he might be to give up education, those antennae will detect how large law and order will loom into the election, and his police portfolio will be a priority. Jan Tinetti has earned glowing reviews as associate education minister and looks ready. A Labour prime minister could take some pride in announcing a former physician as minister of health and a former school principal as minister of education.
To make all three of the above announcements – election day, policy purge and reshuffle – next Wednesday would be a massive swing of the bat. Conventional wisdom suggests that you stagger such moments to maximise air-time and forestall the risk of one part overshadowing the others; hold back the policy refresh and ministerial reshuffle a week or two, slotting in before the trip to Waitangi or on the eve of parliament’s first sitting on Valentine’s Day. It’s not impossible, however, that we’re dealt three in one go; the argument being that the Labour government needs to hit the reset button in a big, bold fashion. (The prime minister’s office refused to indulge me, saying it was too early to say what would be announced when.)
Quite outside the prime minister’s purview, and locked in for next Wednesday, is the inflation numbers. Shortly before 11am, Stats NZ will publish consumers price index data from the last quarter of last year. In November, the Reserve Bank forecast the CPI would be up again, from 7.2% to 7.5%. Those decimal points will be pored over, however. In recent days, economists have suggested the CPI will instead subside a little, a view emboldened by this week’s news that the US annual inflation rate had fallen to 6.5% – the sixth consecutive monthly drop. On Monday, for example, BNZ economists picked a drop in CPI to 7.1%, “well south of the Reserve Bank expectations”.
Should that transpire, the government will hope that it confirms we have passed the peak of inflation, and that the Reserve Bank’s enthusiasm for another sharp rate hike is in turn tempered. Grant Robertson’s prayer: that the weather starts turning by springtime, that the mood is brighter by election-time.
Because the mood is not great now. This week’s NZIER quarterly survey of business opinion found a thudding 73% of businesses expect general economic conditions to get worse – the gloomiest result since 1974. The survey confirmed an anecdotal consensus: that businesses are bracing for recession. “Firms have become much more cautious and are now looking to reduce staff numbers and pare back on investment plans,” was NZIER’s summary. In this respect, the prophecy self-fulfills. Preparing for a recession is fostering a recession. Not so much weather forecasting as cloud seeding.
Which lands us at a key battleline for the election for all involved: What’s the plan? In a media release responding to the NZIER survey yesterday, National’s deputy leader and finance spokesperson Nicola Willis said: “It’s well past time for the government to present a real economic plan.” “The government needs to come back from holiday with a real economic plan,” she said. She further noted that “instead of presenting a plan, Labour has been distracted by failed pet-projects” and that “Kiwis deserve a government with an economic plan”.
Grant Robertson will burst out of the traps next week insisting Labour’s plan is sound and barnacle-free, and that National’s plan is made of policy-free dust. But at least, gazing out at the year ahead, there is broad agreement on the shitty economic prognosis – the chief difference being that Labour’s characterisation is mandatorily prefixed with “global”. But agreement, too, that the task is to set out a plan. A road map. To chart a course for choppy waters. Other metaphors are available. But whatever it is, to convince the voting public that it’s a plan of substance. That is true for both major parties, kicking off in earnest on January 25.