Back to reality: Ardern has a daunting list to check off

by Bevan Rapson / 12 February, 2019
jacinda ardern theresa may

UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomes Jacinda Ardern to Downing Street in January.

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Crunch time is approaching for the Ardern Government – and one minister in particular.

Jacinda Ardern didn’t have long to bask in the warm glow of another successful diplomatic jaunt to the northern hemisphere in January.

Helping to advance two hugely important trade deals – with the European Union and with the United Kingdom in advance of its exit from the EU – was a positive start to her year, with a soft-soaping BBC interview among the coverage helping burnish her credentials as a bright if minor star of international politics.

Top-level trade meetings are a high-stakes affair, and Ardern continues to earn plaudits for her surefootedness on the global stage, where her natural warmth and charm help ease a path through the formalities and media commitments alike.

But boarding the plane home, her attention must have switched rapidly to a bursting suitcase full of pressing issues on the domestic front.

At her first post-cabinet press conference of the year a few days later, she was back in the firing line, facing questions about the miserable failure of KiwiBuild to meet its first target of 1000 houses by July, and about the prickly prospect of a capital gains tax being recommended by the Tax Working Group. Her responses – described variously in a New Zealand Herald piece as exasperated, tetchy and impatient – suggested she may still have been recalibrating to local pressure systems after her sojourn in more rarefied and respectful European company.

In her opening remarks to Labour’s caucus retreat in the Wairarapa the following day, she was quick to acknowledge the irrelevance of international praise. And she indirectly summed up why the tough questions are only going to multiply as 2019 unfolds: the year for Labour would be “characterised by the word ‘delivery’”, she claimed, mentioning climate change, housing, mental health and the recommendations of the Tax Working Group as areas of particular importance.

With so many big issues in play, the risk of it instead being a year of failing to deliver goes without saying.

The way Ardern tells it, 2018 was a year of bedding in for a new government, setting up the “infrastructure” for change – whatever that means – and reinvesting through the Budget in health, education and housing.  

Alternatively, it can be seen as a year in which a party thrown unexpectedly into office in 2017 continued to reveal its unpreparedness, with ministers floundering (and in two cases falling), coalition relations often murky and a multitude of tricky decisions deferred.

If setting up the infrastructure for change means emptying all the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle into the middle of a table, then yes, “delivery” ahoy. But shouldn’t they have at least sorted out all the bits of sky by now?

That the government hasn’t so far paid a greater price for its limited progress can be attributed to one man: Jami-Lee Ross. Or perhaps two men, if you count Simon Bridges, and his failure to strike much of a chord with the voting public.

Although the unpredictable Ross has been the gift that keeps giving for National’s opponents, even into early this year, it’s hard to see the ongoing fallout of his bitter split from National continuing to provide the level of distraction from the government’s problems that the scandal gave in 2018.

Former Crown prosecutor Bridges, meanwhile, gets the opportunity to put the Government’s programme on trial, in Parliament and in the all-important court of public opinion, with a swag of contentious policy areas from which to pick his battles. 

Along with Ardern’s already daunting list of key challenges, you can add several others, including prison reform, the proposed revamping of school management, social welfare changes and responding to the recommendations of the Jim Bolger-led Fair Pay Working Group.

And wafting pungently over the whole programme? That’ll be the warm smell of a cannabis referendum in preparation.

All these worthy issues have the potential to blow up in the faces of ministers trying to meet reformers’ expectations while stirring suspicion and downright hostility elsewhere. Just plotting a route through coalition disagreements will, in several areas, be a minefield of its own.

And if anybody at the Martinborough retreat needed a reminder of how badly these things can come unstuck, hapless Housing Minister Phil Twyford was helpfully on hand to join Ardern in fronting for further questions over the embarrassment of KiwiBuild. Despite Twyford’s big talk, the flagship housing programme has barely crawled off the start line, with less than a third of the 1000 houses targeted for the first year likely to be built by the July deadline.

Read more: The KiwiBuild failure should galvanise urgent action on NZ's housing disaster

Further interim targets have been dropped, though Ardern blithely and repeatedly insisted the 10-year target of 100,000 homes hasn’t changed. “Those interim targets haven’t been a useful way to demonstrate our delivery programme,” she claimed in the brazen style of a mid-level corporate spin doctor, ignoring the obvious point they have instead done a cracking job of demonstrating how far short of expectations that programme has fallen.

Twyford, meanwhile, clung to the word “recalibration” as if it had magic powers to fend off the suffocating waves of scepticism his ministerial record is starting to generate. Pronounced so emphatically, and so often, it began to sound like “abracadabra”.

phil twyford

Housing Minister Phil Twyford –clinging to the word “recalibration” as if it has magic powers.

Judging by their performance at that retreat, both leader and minister – and their advisers, presumably – seemed to have decided they can ride this one out. Perhaps they believe that with the property market faltering in Auckland, the housing issue doesn’t loom in the public view as it did when the sleeping-in-cars stories broke under National’s watch.

For Twyford, the issue could be career-defining. Though Ardern had no option but to help him carry the can at Martinborough, the prospect of a cabinet reshuffle after the Budget is a reminder that if the current minister can’t quickly get some KiwiBuild runs on the board, she has the option of putting someone else on the case. 

Still, Twyford might take some comfort from the political longevity of former housing minister and (as longest continuously serving MP) Father of the House Nick Smith, who has been casting his ruddy glow about Parliament since arriving as a member of National’s so-called Brat Pack in 1990.

As minister when the issue took fire a few years back, Smith seemed similarly hapless, and was widely ridiculed, not least for the “magical bus tour” he took to show off government land in Auckland being freed up for housing; as it turned out, the first site visited wasn’t even owned by the government and Ngāti Whātua had dibs on the rest. His wheel-spinnings in the portfolio help show what a quagmire it can be – and how quick-fix solutions can come unstuck. 

Yet Smith’s embarrassments in housing have faded, becoming just another chapter in a long and incident-packed career he recently suggested is likely to continue beyond 2020. Far from fading away towards retirement, he was back out there in the January “silly season”, making a welcome call for a ban on foreign donations to political parties, and suggesting a four-year parliamentary term.

Those who recently have been mulling over the potential for a blue-green party to supposedly help return National to office might need to familiarise themselves with the 20-year history of the blue-green group within National, in which Smith has played a leading role. Last year, he posted a 3400-word (plus images) rundown of the party’s “bluegreen achievements” in office.

The “achievements” are arguable, but not his energy. Despite the many ups and downs Smith’s been through – being dumped as deputy leader in 2003 after taking stress leave and having to quit cabinet in 2012 after writing a reference for a close friend on ministerial letterhead stand out in the latter category – his enthusiasm seems irrepressible.

With the ambitious programme that’s been set in train, the Ardern Government needs to tap into some of that same relentlessness to stand any chance of producing meaningful results. Otherwise, like any deliveries, they could easily get lost in the mail.+

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.

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