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Can NZ Labour's 'Jacindamania' momentum hold or has it peaked?

7 September 2017 11:00 AM
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When Andrew Little stepped down as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in early August, his deputy Jacinda Ardern got an hour and a half's notice. Less than 12 hours later she was leader. One month later, after campaigning on housing affordability, water quality and inequality, she had lifted Labour's vote to above the ruling National Party's in a key poll for the first time in almost 12 years: a 19-point bump. She's been endorsed by even Jeremy Corbyn. But just over two weeks out from the election, the question is whether her surge can continue. Can "Jacindamania'', as it is called, sustain its momentum, and the increased media scrutiny that comes onto Ardern, leading New Zealand's oldest political party?

"The country has now had 18 years of very cautious, very incrementalist government and that was a reaction to some of the reform excesses of the '80s and early '90s. But for people under their mid-40s there's never been a sense of excitement in New Zealand politics and so people are just grasping at somebody who seems to to personify change," says prominent New Zealand political commentator Matthew Hooton.

New Zealand is growing at more than 3 per cent and the present government is running fiscal surpluses.

"New Zealand is currently in the middle of a phenomenon that reminds me most of the UK 20 years ago when Princess Diana died. There's almost nothing rational that the incumbent National Party can do to respond to that", Hooton says.

And in the midst of it all is Ardern, who at 37 looks very young. She is Labour machine politician with good instincts, and a warm persona. In an interview, she is engaging and open and unencumbered by suspicion of journalists. But after nine years in Parliament, she is also skilled at sticking to her talking points and couching issues in hard-to-pin-down generalities.

A One News-Colmar Brunton Poll on Wednesday night showed Labour ahead on 43 per cent, National on 39 per cent, NZ First on 9 per cent and the Greens on 5 per cent. Earlier in the week a rival poll by Newshub, a radio and TV network (previously TV3 and Mediaworks), Labour was still coming in second at 39.4 per cent to National's 43.3 per cent. The Greens scored 6.1 per cent and the populist NZ First Party at 6.6 per cent. Meanwhile the Maori Party is expected to win at least two of the dedicated Maori electorate seats. In both polls, Labour, the Greens and Maori Party could just about form government without the populist Winston Peters, although in the most likely scenario, National or Labour would need his support to govern. Since 1999, every Kiwi government has been a minority government with confidence and supply agreements with various minor parties.

"The stakes are high, she has made connections, got ahead in the preferred PM rating. People kind of know her and connect with her. But the stakes are still high for her as she's much less defined, and Bill English has been around forever, so that's a risk," says Stephen Mills, executive director of polling firm UMR New Zealand.

"I've had more political experience than our last prime minister," Ms Ardern told The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday.

If based on time in Parliament, that claim is certainly true. But claiming she has more "political experience" than former prime minister John Key, who spent only six years in Parliament before he was prime minister, stretches credulity.

Comparing a political staffer or even opposition backbencher in a country of 4.6 million to a senior executive at Merril Lynch in New York, London and Sydney seems a long bow to draw. Ms Ardern holds a bachelor's degree in communication studies from Waikato University. In her adult career, she has never held a non-political job. Her shadow ministries have not included what in Australia would be considered a big portfolio. Before becoming leader she was spokesperson for justice, children, small business and the arts.

In speaking to her it is clear that everything is seen through the prism of government. She says that when the market fails, government must act.

"Its about being willing to accept that there will absolutely be a role for that mechanism [the market] to play in solving some of our gnarly issues, but when it fails being willing to intervene".

Ardern, of course, learnt at the knee of the mistress: Helen Clark. Miss Clark was a formidable prime minister who led NZ for nine years, warning on election night 2008 when she lost to John key that the whole country could "go up in flames on the bonfire of right-wing politics".

"I am young though, I am. Undeniably. That makes me a young political leader on our usual expectations of politicians. I see that as an advantage, I feel I bring both political experience and a new approach", Ms Ardern says.

"There's a tiredness about the government. We haven't had a generational change in government in NZ since 1984 so it is probably time for one".


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