Jacinda Ardern is back from maternity leave – let the games beginby Bill Ralston
As the PM’s maternity leave and her National opposite’s tiki tour come to an end, Bill Ralston surveys the battleground.
Just like an absent parent, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sent us an occasional Facebook message to assure us that all was well and we were not forgotten. Surprisingly, everyone in the great New Zealand family seemed to behave themselves while she was away having her baby and a long cuppa.
It was an odd period of quiescence. National Party leader Simon Bridges was almost as invisible, taking himself on a tour of the country, meeting people and largely avoiding the media.
Town hall meetings are not a bad idea for a new party boss. The faithful and those who may be wavering get the opportunity to have their flesh pressed, see the leader close up, and get reassurance that he or she is a real person and not a character in a never-ending soap opera.
National appears to have spent the past 10 months since the formation of the Labour-led coalition sulking and only now, following its party conference, has it begun to even sound like a coherent Opposition.
The only damage the Government sustained in that period came from the occasional self-inflicted gunshot wound to its feet. Despite private polls that each of the main two parties claims a surge in its support, I suspect the backing for both remains largely frozen in time from the last election as people give the parties time to prove whether they have what it takes to govern.
An adage I learnt as a political studies student at the University of Auckland in the 1970s is that opposition parties don’t win elections, governments lose them. It seems to be true. In 1972, the long-lived National Government finally ran out of puff and Labour came to power. Three years later, after the death of charismatic leader Norman Kirk, it collapsed in confusion and dithering. In 1984, the country finally ran out of patience with Sir Robert Muldoon and reinstalled Labour.
Two terms and three Prime Ministers later, after six years of mayhem, Labour was turfed out again, to be followed by three terms of National, until Jenny Shipley took power and the pendulum swung back to Labour, under Helen Clark.
You know what happened then: three terms for Labour, then three for National. Despite the vagaries of MMP, a government has to be pretty bad to be chucked out after one or even two terms.
So far, the Labour-NZ First coalition Government, with the Greens in support, has not done anything dreadful enough to ensure a collapse in support. Ardern, no doubt helped by baby Neve, remains popular and a great salesperson for Labour. Grant Robertson is a Finance Minister in the tradition of those of the past 30 years: not too radical; a relatively steady hand on the wheel. David Parker has morphed into Steven Joyce, an all-knowing Mr Fixit for the Government. The rest of those in Cabinet, with a couple of limping exceptions, appear as competent as the National Cabinet they ousted.
For Bridges, the challenge is to keep rebuilding National as an effective Opposition and present an image of himself as likeable, competent and capable of leading a party that is fit to govern.
If he wishes to occupy the ninth floor of the Beehive in just over two years, he will also need the assistance of the present coalition. Its collapse into incompetence, bickering and indecision would give him the leg-up he needs. There’s no sign of that. Yet.
This article was first published in the August 11, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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