John Key said “Watch Jacinda…”


For eight years former Prime Minister John Key had the pollsters eating out of his hand. Nothing it seemed could shake their confidence in him. His easy going “have a beer with me/I’m a likable average Joe” type blokesy persona wooed voters from across the New Zealand political spectrum. National Party Members of Parliament thought they were unbeatable. For eight years, whilst the centre-left suffered crippling paralysis there was some justification to that feeling.

Across the floor from his Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett sat a young Labour Member of Parliament. She was 28 when she entered Parliament in the same year as Mr Key became Prime Minister and ran in the Auckland Central electorate against another young candidate standing for National (Nikki Kaye). Jacinda Ardern had been a researcher for Mr Key’s predecessor Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark and her successor as Leader of Labour, Phil Goff.

When Ms Ardern was handed the Social Welfare spokesperson role, her profile rose. She began attacking Ms Bennett, whose character and divisive policies had many of the left gnashing their teeth with frustration. As problematic as she was, Mr Key’s ability to shut down any Opposition success meant Ms Bennett’s reputation only suffered superficial damage. But it was a good training ground for one of Labour’s brightest and rising stars.

As Mr Key saw off one Leader of the Opposition after another – Phil Goff, David Shearer and David Cunliffe all fell before him – the National Party Members of Parliament might have been forgiven for thinking they were invincible. The wars in Labour’s caucus confirmed this. When Andrew Little took over in October 2014 he had an insurmountable job to do. First he had to stop the civil war inside Labour that had cost them the 2014 election. Then he had to set a direction and start getting some hits against National. One could have initially forgiven him for being hesitant – three of his predecessors had fallen in the civil war and he did not want to be a fourth.

As 2015 progressed for a time it looked like Mr Little was going to fall as well. But the ship steadied. The first decent policy releases in years came out with free tertiary education for undergrads. The fighting stopped. Ms Ardern picked up more spokesperson roles and continued to build her profile. But Mr Little still had a problem suffered by his predecessors: how to get rid of an immensely popular Prime Minister or at least make him and his party look concerned?

When National lost Prime Minister John Key last year, there was a distinct wobble in the party, but it soon seemed to largely recover. Even the election of a leader who has become known as Boring Bill does not seem to have distinctly bothered National or the public. But before Mr Key left office he issued a very pertinent warning to National Party Members of Parliament: Watch Jacinda.

In March 2017 Ms Ardern was the Labour candidate to fill the Mt Albert seat left vacant by the departure of Mr Shearer. She won the resulting by-election in a landslide. A few weeks later she was made Deputy Leader when Annette King resigned.

And yet still Labour struggled. The levels of alarm were once again starting to rise in Labour. 8 years after the election that saw National enter office, its ability to stare imperviously down on Labour was seemingly undiminished. The time to start quietly panicking wasn’t quite there, but it was getting close. After all this time and no clear movement against National, surely there must be something Labour could do to gain traction.

Then something happened in the polls: Ms Ardern overtook Mr Little, who like his predecessors had long since been overtaken by the unofficial Leader of the Opposition, N.Z. First leader the Right Honourable Winston Peters. Perhaps this was writing on the wall. Ms Ardern vanished again briefly from view.

Then starting last Friday a trifecta of polls showed Labour polling at dangerously low levels. More disturbingly still, Ms Ardern had overtaken him in the preferred leader polls again. Labour could not possibly survive an election on this polling. This could not be ignored. The potential answer to the woes afflicting Labour was in the leadership poll.

48 hours after Ms Ardern became Leader of the Labour Party/Leader of the Opposition, the message on the wall to the world and to National could not be louder or clearer: Pay attention.

The effect has been startling. Within 24 hour of her taking over the leadership, donors donated some $250,000 to Labour. Some big decisions have already been made. There is no doubt now that Mr Little is gone the billboards, the flyers, the party video advert are going to have to be redone with Ms Ardern and her deputy leader Kelvin Davis now fronting the party.

Have no doubt. The task facing Ms Ardern and Mr Davis is huge. They have 47 days to come up with an election winning campaign. Since Parliament will soon dissolve how much use a reshuffle of the portfolio’s is likely, I do not know. Soon they will have to start releasing bold policy that sets her Labour Party apart from that of Messrs Goff, Shearer, Cunliffe and Little – all four meant well, but their persona’s were never meant to win elections and their flaws in terms of being visible, potent Leaders of the Opposition were too large to ignore.

Whereas there have been winds of change blowing since Mr Key quit last year, now for the first time in 8.5 years they are distinctly coming from the Labour portion of the political spectrum. The suddenness of the change and the strength with which it has arrived has caught many off guard. If I had asked a National M.P. last year whether they thought Labour could win and they said yes, I would have had trouble suppressing a belly rumble of a laugh. Even last month I would have had trouble doing that and perhaps there is still time for Labour to make a fatal mistake, but if I asked that question today, I think I would be cautiously nodding in agreement.

Perhaps watching Jacinda is not such idea after all.

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