The Town Hall campaign launch underlined the startling turnaround for the party under Jacinda Ardern, and the palpable power of momentum, writes Toby Manhire.
The understatement of the day came from Jacinda Ardern herself. “I can only say that when we booked the Town Hall for this event we did not expect this,” she said, early in her Labour Party Campaign Launch speech. The central Auckland venue had been chosen during a different era in the party’s history: last month.
They would not have expected, when Andrew Little was leading the party, to have a queue snaking down to the Civic. They would not have expected the crowd to fill the Town Hall, spilling over into the Concert Chamber and Q Theatre. They would not have expected members to start singing, “Everybody, let’s do this.” Not expected Labour MPs to be soaking up the rapture with dazzled and gormless grins. Not expected the post-event media stand-up to be surrounded by a sea of red T-shirts in Aotea Square. Not expected a Beatlmaniaesque mob around Ardern and the last Labour leader to properly excite a crowd, Helen Clark.
Ardern’s peroration began, “It’s been three weeks now since I was asked to take this job…” It wasn’t, I don’t think, meant to get a laugh, but it did – a laugh of astonishment. In the space of only two Scaramuccis, to steal the unit of measurement of the day, she had transformed the fortunes of the Labour Party. You will find no better illustration of the power of political momentum than the mood in the Town Hall today. It may even have exorcised any demons still lingering in the Town Hall from the last time it hosted a high-profile pre-election event, 2014’s Moment of Truth.
It could hardly have been a starker contrast with the beleaguered Greens’ campaign relaunch last week. There, election candidates outnumbered media. There was no mention of Greens at the Town Hall, either, unless you count the Lorde song that played in the leadup. While you wouldn’t expect them to be name-checked in a launch speech – there is nothing in the Memorandum of Understanding that requires that – the boldest moment of Ardern’s speech reached deep into their home territory.
Climate change “is the challenge that defines my generation”, said Ardern, as stylised red hearts floated around on the projection behind her. She went further, with the line most likely to fill the 6pm bulletins. “This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment, and I am determined that we will tackle it head on.”
It was an unmistakeable pitch for the green vote, and the Green vote, too.
(Had she been reading Helen Clark’s old speeches? The former leader, at the party conference in 2007, said: “Just as New Zealand has led the world by being nuclear free and supporting peaceful conflict resolution, so we now lead on the journey towards being a truly sustainable and carbon neutral nation. We are the first nation to see the light.”)
There was a message, too, for the regions, and implicitly to Labour old-timers who might have defected to New Zealand First. “A government that I lead will be an active partner in our regions… figuring out ways to support the growth of decent, well paid jobs.” The only mention of “Auckland” was as part of the remark, “I have spent longer living in small town New Zealand than I have spent in Auckland.” It was a veritable Tour of New Zealand, with shout-outs for Northland, Hamilton, Murupara, Te Aroha, Piako, Whanganui (twice), Gisborne, Dunedin, Hastings, Canterbury, Kaikoura and Matamata.
There was no mention of the National Party, either – save a suggestion in passing from the event MC, Michele A’Court, that they might hold their own launch event in a private motel. Part of being relentlessly positive appears to be eschewing any need to waste time attacking opponents.
Ardern laid out her defining priority as leader: reducing child poverty. “Under Labour,” she said, “we will change the Public Finance Act so that every budget, you don’t just hear about surpluses and deficits, you will hear about how many kids we have lifted out of poverty.”
That was about it in terms of substantive new pledges. This was a pre-PREFU launch. While Ardern surveyed her party’s other policy priorities – housing, health and education, with perhaps the biggest ovation for the line “education is a public good, and that’s why it should be free” – any newly announced spending will clearly have to wait until after Wednesday’s Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update from Treasury.
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At the speech’s end, the Labour candidates piled on to the stage. There was something particularly poignant about Ardern’s embrace of Andrew Little. There is no reason to think he is anything other than thrilled for what has happened since he fell on his sword, and Ardern singled him out for praise in her speech, but – well, god only knows how it must feel for him.
They all piled off the stage to a Tim Finn song. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it was chosen less for its pedestrian tempo and more for the lyrics. “When they said it couldn’t be done / We had no idea that it couldn’t be done / And we needed to find a like-minded someone / Who had no idea that it couldn’t be done.”
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