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Mike Williams: What 2018 has in store for Jacinda Ardern

PM Jacinda Ardern at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in late 2017. Photo/Getty Images

Following Richard Prebble’s guest spot last week, former Labour Party president Mike Williams looks at the challenges ahead in 2018.

For those with a political addiction, the year after a change of government has a special fascination, as the winning parties adjust to the new demands and the losers lick their wounds and plot vengeance.

Labour arrives in government with the most ambitious programme of reform since its much-maligned “Rogernomics” era, but this time its objectives around child poverty, housing and work probably meant that Jim Anderton could die with a smile on his face.

In her first term in government, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern finds herself in a similar position to Helen Clark (who led a minority government in coalition with the Alliance following the 1999 election): Labour has a coalition partner in Cabinet but is dependent on the Greens for a parliamentary majority. This will be an ongoing challenge to her managerial skills. Problems will come out of left field as they always do, but her adversaries should have worked out by now that there’s real substance where they saw only stardust.

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Ardern is no rookie. She went toe to toe with two of the country’s most seasoned politicians, won one over and defeated the other. The latter feat we now know was achieved with the morning sickness that struck early in her pregnancy.

But like Clark, she will need to build on Labour’s party vote in the next two years. This means winning over a slice of the voters who decided to support National in 2017, but Ardern’s sublime communication skills will assist with this endeavour.

Labour has valuable and influential veterans from the 1999-2008 Government, such as Damien O’Connor, David Parker, Trevor Mallard and Nanaia Mahuta, who will recall that 2000 was a trying year for the party, as a “winter of discontent” necessitated an ultimately successful campaign of engagement with the business community.

Ardern’s Government also has the benefit of having on tap such wise heads as Helen Clark, Dame Annette King and Sir Michael Cullen, as well as the reassuring presence of Heather Simpson in deep cover behind the scenes.

A priority for the governing parties should be a review of electoral law, which has become outdated as a result of the rapid growth of early voting. It is ridiculous to ban any advertising on the last day of voting when it is perfectly all right to have it displayed during the two weeks of voting before that date when almost half of electors are casting their votes. Australian election days see a flurry of activity, including vehicles with loudspeakers, without noticeable damage to the democratic process.

At the same time, the Electoral Commission’s recommendations for reducing the party-vote threshold for list seats from 5% to 4% and repealing the “coat-tailing” provisions of the Act that set up MMP should be introduced into Parliament by way of a bill. Such a review can and has been decisive in the past.

A close look at the Electoral Act in 2000 revealed that party votes were disallowed when a properly enrolled voter voted in the wrong electorate. This often happened when voters were unsure whether they were enrolled on the Maori roll or general roll. Rectifying this injustice meant an extra 20,000-plus valuable party votes for Labour in subsequent elections.

A review of voting eligibility is also overdue. Internationally, the right to vote always goes with citizenship, not mere permanent residence, as is the case in New Zealand. The current situation encourages right-leaning governments to admit floods of socially conservative migrants.

Cartoon/Steve Bolton

Core concerns

Ardern has wisely allowed her support parties space to prosper by allocating NZ First ministerial posts in regional development and the Greens responsibilities around their core environmental concerns.

The received wisdom is that minor parties will suffer when in cahoots with a big party, but examination of other countries suggests this is not a sustainable thesis. In Germany, the centrist Free Democratic Party and the local Green Party have flourished for years in government and in opposition, and many other proportional-representation parliaments have parties with similar histories.

NZ First, though three seats down on its 2014 tally, survived a badly misguided National Party assault and will seek to steal some of that party’s support in the regions. This is not improbable; it did just that in the 2002 election, and with the engaging and articulate Shane Jones running around with a billion regional dollars, there will be many opportunities for Winston Peters and his team to strut their stuff. Tracey Martin has made an excellent start and is also likely to emerge as a significant asset, with responsibilities for children and seniors.

The Greens had a hideous election, losing six seats, and although the damage was self-inflicted, leader James Shaw has earned beatification from supporters for keeping his nerve under extreme pressure and at last steering his party into a formal relationship with the Government.

Many of the governing parties’ policies address “green” issues, such as a renewed emphasis on forestry, so there will be room for a Green cachet to be attached to much of what the Government achieves.

Keep an eye on Green Party minister Julie Anne Genter. Her intellectual horsepower on transport matters could be crucial to the success of heavily laden Labour minister Phil Twyford in this potentially backbreaking portfolio.

Paths back to power

National, as Three’s then Newshub political editor Paddy Gower crisply put it, finds itself in a “dark space”, and it will be absorbing to watch it in 2018. Just as Labour did in 1978 and 1981, National got more votes than any other party (although this time it was a lot more) and it faces the same dilemma of whether to blood a new team or stick with those who came so close in 2017.

By now, it will have sunk in that, whatever the mathematics of the 2017 poll were, National lost the election and that there are two potential paths back to power.

One is to ditch Steven Joyce as the campaign supremo whose strategy spectacularly backfired and begin fostering a post-2020 relationship with NZ First. The other is all-out opposition in the hope that what they perceive to be a fragile administration will shatter and a 50%-plus result will come their way.

Unhappily for National, these approaches are mutually exclusive and a choice will have to be made given that its former support parties are either dead or on life support.

However it came about, Labour has managed that most challenging of political transitions, a generational change. Now we’ll see if National has the backbone to follow suit.

This is an updated version of an article first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.