As the Labour caucus gathers for its annual retreat in the Wairarapa, Toby Manhire asks what might be on the agenda.
Labour MPs are meeting today in Martinborough for their now traditional January dress-down gear-up for the political year. The Brackenridge resort, just off the road to Lake Ferry, has in recent years seen the launch of interesting ideas including The Year of Delivery and Clarke Gayford’s Cardigan. This year, in an act of great generosity towards small children and the metaphor community, there’s an inflatable slide onsite.
The event is of course a private affair, so we can only imagine what goes on the inflatable slide and elsewhere – trust exercises, beer pong, a spot of Boar on the Floor, who can say? But we can fairly guess at what might be on the agenda for the seminar room and the chats in the dappled light over a kombucha or two.
Jacinda Ardern has said she’ll name an election date in the early part of this year (we took a punt at when it might be here) but in effect the parties will be in campaign mode from the get-go. Pretty much everything will be viewed through an election lens. Three years is not very long.
The golden asset for Labour, very obviously, is the leader. For all that Simon Bridges improved over the course of 2019, as a political communicator he’s simply not in Ardern’s class. Tempting though it might be to repeat the National Party’s 2014 “Team Key” mantra – and one popular Labour MP is already on a #teamjacinda hashtag tip – it doesn’t seem Ardern’s style to so explicitly make it about her. That won’t stop the Labour campaign putting her front and centre at every messaging opportunity.
For campaign chair Megan Woods, senior MPs and strategists, the messaging challenge will be how to confidently and boldly cast forward after a “year of delivery” in which there was dramatically less delivery than had been hoped for. It’s nonsense, of course, to suggest that the Labour government hasn’t made progress across a range of policy goals – it absolutely has – but in some crucial areas it has fallen far short of its own ambitions. The most infamous example is the flagship Kiwibuild housing project. Put that bellyflop together with the complete abandonment of a new capital gains tax and the “transformational” stuff begins to look like a rod for Labour’s back.
Which leaves the following bind for Labour: an incumbent party of government needs to come up with fresh, bold ideas to inspire voters; but can they persuade voters that fresh, bold ideas are to be taken seriously while their opponents are heckling “year of delivery” constantly from the back of the room?
Advertising and tone
The spectre of misinformation, disinformation and the utterly rinsed term “fake news” will be hovering over New Zealand’s election as it does every election in the social media age, and Ardern has attempted to front foot this, by telling media at the start of today’s retreat: “New Zealanders deserve a factual campaign, one that is free from misinformation.”
That was swiftly followed by a stage-setting press statement this afternoon, in which Ardern announced she is “re-committing to a relentlessly positive election campaign in 2020 that will see the party voluntarily sign up to Facebook’s new advertising transparency rules and have its major election policy costings independently verified.”
She added : “I don’t want New Zealand to fall into the trap of the negative fake news style campaigns that have taken place overseas in recent years. I will deliver a positive, factual and robust campaign.”
As Henry Cooke has reported for Stuff, the Facebook Ad Library Tool allows anyone to see who a party has targeted with its advertising and its rough spend. The tool – which the Greens and ACT have already signed up to – does not, however, offer any arbitration of the content; Facebook has controversially refused to do anything about accuracy in political advertising.
Still, Labour’s move is in part designed to neutralise an expected digital attack strategy from National, one which is likely to draw inspiration from the unexpected success of Australia’s Liberal Party last year. National has already begun to make hay with digital advertising, some of which shows an elastic approach to the presentation of facts.
“Let’s Do This” captured the mood of the Ardern surge in 2017. But what about this year? Let’s Do This All Over Again? The obvious, if unoriginal sequel would be “Let’s Keep Doing This”. I’m not kidding: Ardern finished her election night speech with those words in 2017. She also finished her party conference speech with those words in 2018. And in 2019. Those words have had a good run; would Labour risk putting them on billboards in 2020?
My guess is they’ll go for something different, but equally short and nebulous. How about A Brighter Future?
Last year the finance minister, Grant Robertson, announced a plan to break the shackles of the Budget Responsibility Rules, and to take advantage of the very cheap money available to the government – a borrowing environment in which, most commentators agree, it would be crazy not to take full advantage and make some big strides on infrastructure. Robertson has pledged a massive $12 billion spend. That should deliver a stimulus to the economy while the global winds are troubling. And god knows, New Zealand needs money spent on its infrastructure.
Announcements will be paced to maximise their electoral yield, but timing is tricky: Robertson has said that there will be a number of “shovel-ready” projects that are green-lit early in 2020, most of them likely to involve road and rail. Expect to see plenty of high-viz sod-turning. Expect also to see a sprinkling of initiatives along the lines of last year’s announced $400 million for schools for fast-turnaround maintenance improvements. Plans are fine, but freshly painted infrastructure is the best kind of election infrastructure.
Among the big decisions: whether to go all in on Northport (New Zealand First just possibly might be interested in this one), and the Auckland light rail plans, as championed by transport minister and Kiwibuild over-promiser-in-chief Phil Twyford. As Todd Niall, doyen of Auckland commentary, warned the other day: “Process-entangled Light Rail risks becoming transport’s Mary Celeste – the 19th century sailing ship which set off from New York and was later found adrift in the Atlantic with its crew mysteriously vanished.”
Te Ao Māori
Jacinda Ardern has been reminded in recent days, repeatedly, of her exhortation in 2018 at Waitangi, that Māori should “hold her to account” for her commitment to improving the lot of tangata whenua. The furious criticisms – including personal criticisms – levelled by a mana-rich group over the control of Whānau Ora funds risk making February 5 a much less enjoyable day than the last two for the prime minister, although that is offset to some degree by the breakthrough at Ihumātao.
As it stands, Labour has a sweep of the Māori seats. As part of the Whānau Ora controversy seem to suggest, the Māori Party is determined to stop that happening in 2020. It’s likely to be a crucial battleground.
If they haven’t already, Ardern, Robertson and Carmel Sepuloni will be mapping out just what else they can adopt from the largely ignored Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommendations. That so little has changed should really have the Greens incandescent. Put it this way: if it had been a New Zealand First government deal, they’d be flipping out over the inaction to date.
Or put it another way: According to the Salvation Army, benefit levels have reduced in real terms by more than a fifth over the last 30 years. Shouldn’t a truly transformational government, committed to addressing poverty, reverse that?
On a range of other areas – including homelessness and mental health – Labour will be hoping to point to tangible progress aka delivery.
Economy and tax
Grant Robertson looks firmly on top of his portfolio, most indicators are solid, and even the business confidence levels are grudgingly getting over the sulk over a centre-left government. Still, Labour will need to decide whether a socially minded government, with a generational shift promised by a youth-adjacent prime minister, is happy to accept the status quo on tax.
Ardern has buried any hope of a capital gains tax deep under the sea floor. But what about a land tax? What about – in an age of grotesque inequality – an inheritance tax? A higher tax rate for the super-wealthy? Even the billionaires themselves (well, some of them) are asking for it.
Given the anguish Labour has experienced in recent elections over attacks on its tax policy, however, don’t hold your breath.
Waterways reforms still hang in the balance, but Labour’s campaign strategist will be wary of a flare up in the urban versus rural rhetoric leading into the election. Then there’s climate change. It’s the nuclear free issue of Ardern’s generation, and the Zero Carbon bill is a serious political achievement, even if it doesn’t go as far as some (say, the planet) might like. With the Australian fires looking like a tipping point in terms of the seriousness of the crisis, would Ardern risk doubling down on climate as a defining issue, or does she leave that for the Greens?
So many ticks on the dancefloor. Labour will need to work out how engaged it gets in the referendums on cannabis legalisation and assisted dying. It’s highly unlikely the party would campaign on either, but can Jacinda Ardern sustain, for example, being non-committal on the cannabis vote?
The history of MMP is the history of minor and support parties getting punished by voters after getting into or propping up governments. So Labour will be gearing up for the inevitable from the Greens and, especially, New Zealand First. Labour’s leadership will strive to dish out plenty of “wins” for both smaller parties in the next few months. And then do what they can to ensure that efforts to assert “brand” independence don’t blow the house down.
The choreography will change, too, depending on Simon Bridges’ big decision. If he does rule out working with New Zealand First, Peters’ party could struggle to hit the 5% threshold, which could in turn lead to a foot race between National-plus-ACT and Labour-plus-Greens. It could very well encourage Labour to throw a lifeline by repeating the Northland byelection trick of directing its voters to support the New Zealand First candidate, be that Peters or Shane Jones. A quiet cuppa in a Kaikohe cafe, perhaps.
I mean, obviously. As TV quiz champion turned Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall put it at the party conference in the city last year, all the achievements of government “disappear if a minister makes a poor decision, or an MP misspeaks or if a scandal emerges. So a year out from the election, I’ll give you three words. Discipline, discipline, discipline.”
If Labour’s MPs can do that, they’ll probably end up back on the Treasury benches at the end of this year. But political gravity rarely behaves, and if recent New Zealand elections are anything to go by, the biggest challenge for the incumbent leading party of government is yet even to peek over the horizon.