Despite her massive mandate, Ardern's agenda will be resolutely middle of the road

Tova O'Brien

Labour’s smart politics will come at the expense of its fundamental values, and be driven by its desire to stay in power

Jacinda Ardern won a resounding mandate in October, with the Labour party able to govern in its own right.
Jacinda Ardern won a resounding mandate in October, with the Labour party able to govern in its own right. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern won a resounding mandate in October, with the Labour party able to govern in its own right. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 14.02 EST

The prime minister of New Zealand has just begun a victory lap of the country, though Jacinda Ardern would prefer we think of it more as a “thank you” tour.

After a successful but gruelling six-week election campaign she is hitting the two-lane blacktop once again, deploying to the regions of New Zealand.

They are rural stops a Labour leader would not usually bother much with.

However, ours was not a usual election for a Labour leader.

The normally true-blue seats of the conservative National Party flipped en masse, drastically changing the makeup of the parliament and delivering Ardern a landslide victory.

The country delivered its emphatic endorsement of her response to Covid-19 in ticks at the ballot boxes.

Her gratitude to the usually conservative voters started immediately with her election night victory speech: “To those amongst you who may not have supported Labour before … I say thank you.

“I can promise you, we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander.”

And, by golly, does Ardern like the fit and feel of the mandate those New Zealanders delivered. Not only will the thank-you’s flow thick and fast until the next election in 2023, she will also reward her new converts with radical centrism.

There is every indication she will prioritise a policy agenda that does not upset the apple cart or challenge the status quo.

Gone is Ardern the former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Gone is Ardern the Labour leader who promised transformational leadership in 2017. Gone is the prospect of any significant reform that could be construed as “too left” by those converts.

Down the drain are the hopes of ideological Labour supporters too, who were still waiting for that “transformation”, although that will not matter. Most will still vote for her anyway and she is raiding the centre-right voters to make up the difference.

Laying out her government’s economic priorities in a speech to a business audience last week, Ardern held the room.

They laughed at her jokes, nodded at her plans for “jobs, jobs, jobs” and did not baulk or flinch once – unusual for a boardroom bunch with the Labour lot.

There was much promotion of the business-friendly loan and wage schemes of the government’s Covid-19 response, the trade agenda, and fast-tracking of infrastructure projects for the economic recovery.

In front of that audience, Ardern snuck in just one potential bum note: a tiny, tiny little nod to her government hustling to double workers’ sick leave from five to 10 days. Even that was caveated with promises about all the consultation they’ll do with business to get it across the line.

That employment policy should be bread and butter stuff for Labour, but it was almost as if she was too embarrassed to talk about it. It certainly didn’t warrant a mention in the press release which accompanied the written speech.

It was her second economic speech of the day. The first was delivered to Labour’s trade union crowd. You can bet there the emphasis was flipped, but who knows?

That speech was closed to media.

Another policy being pushed through before Christmas that she completely failed to mention was Labour’s planned tax changes.

That is a new income tax bracket for wealthier New Zealanders earning over $180,000 – just a smidgen more than current settings.

It really is about as conservative and cautious a tax policy as they come, especially from a leader who once championed a capital gains tax.

It was smart politics because Labour gets hammered on tax by the opposition but I refer you back to the dashed hopes of those Labour supporters.

Conversely, a policy not being pushed through by Christmas – or perhaps ever – is one to increase welfare payments.

The prime minister laughed off an open letter penned by a who’s who of charities, unions and social organisations calling for an urgent boost to benefits to help lift children out of poverty.

Despite ballooning living costs and rising unemployment post-Covid, income support is not a priority for this government.

In the last term, Ardern could blame Labour’s self-described “handbrake” coalition partner, the populist New Zealand First party, for stalling ideas or policies which did not have broad voter appeal.

Now Ardern is using her almost single-minded focus on Covid as the excuse not to progress policies which could spook the horses.

There are just two things the PM has staked her job on. She has pledged not to introduce a capital gains tax under her leadership, and she has said she would resign before introducing a wealth tax.

Again, smart politics but at the expense of Labour’s fundamental values.

And that about sums up Jacinda Ardern – the person and leader – and her policy priorities of 2020.

Like so many politicians, there is a willingness to compromise what you believe in to maintain that grip on power.

Nobody is going to begrudge her focus on the Covid response and recovery, but governments can walk and chew gum at the same time. Covid-19 should not be a scapegoat for political expediency.

Ardern has been delivered a once-in-a-generation mandate by voters, but her thank you roadshow will be delivered squarely from the middle of the road.

Tova O’Brien is political editor of Newshub